It's a River, Not a Lake... | about | cover | contents | back | next |

Where We're Headed

Possible Futures

Computing hardware is moving in two, apparently divergent, directions: on the one hand is the rich computing environment, sometimes known as the workstation, exampled by the Sun and NeXT computers. On the other hand is the trend to minimalism and specialization, first by portable computers and later by graphing and programmable calculators and Personal Data Assistants (PDAs).

The lure of the rich environment is clear: the power to do everything from word processing to editing video and virtual reality, all in one machine. The rich environment provides a large, high-resolution color screen, a rich application and application-development environment, access to a network filled with resources for doing sophisticated work in a variety of disciplines, ability to connect multimedia peripherals, and the computing horsepower to bring it all together. Current, top-of-the-line personal computers provide the needed power: in the Intel world, the 486- and Pentium-based computers and in the Mac world, the 68040 computers.

The lure of special purpose devices is also clear: lower cost and increased portability make it possible for more people to use more technology more often. The PDA's and similar calculator-size devices are special-purpose, note-taking, personal-organizer computers, with small screens only a couple of inches square. These devices will provide uplink capabilities to larger systems via direct-connect and infrared connections to networks. Graphing, programmable calculators now provide personal, transportable, hand-held capability at a cost not more than the cost of comparable software on computers, without the cost of the computer.

Where do we prepare to invest? Does this divergence represent a fork in the stream, or just a widening of the main channel? In any case the divergence of this character does make it more difficult to identify the mainstream.

The link between these two diverging developments is the network. Both the rich environment and the minimalist environment assume access to a network, at least some of the time. For example, the logical development of the portable computer is the docking computer, where a portion of the base computer is portable, but at the base site one regains access to the network and a larger color monitor. The logical development of the graphing calculator is an upload/download link, not only to similar calculators, but also to base computers, so that programs and graphs can be shared and printed.

Greg Jackson, Director of Educational Studies and Special Projects at MIT, explains that academic computing has progressed through several stages. (Windows on Athena, Volume Two, MIT, 1991) For each stage below, italics are used to indicate how the Maricopa District fits into Jackson's schema.

  • Central. Large computers provide batch processing to a limited number of users. For MCCCD this period was pre-1980, on UNIVAC computers.

  • Local.Large and medium-sized computers provide remote time-shared access to a broader array of users. For MCCCD this period was 1980-present, using the Intel and VAX computers. Administrative computing has remained at this stage, where users are dependent upon the VAX for major applications, while academic computing moved rapidly to the next stage.

  • Personal. Freestanding, personal computers are used for diverse office and instructional applications. Everyone, just about, is a user. For MCCCD this period took off in 1984, after several years of experimental use, and continues to the present. This is the characteristic stage of academic computing now for MCCCD: not all student microcomputers are networked, though most faculty computers are.

  • Distributed. Powerful workstations are connected by high-speed networks to resources across the country. For MCCCD this period has just begun. While network access to faculty and student microcomputers has been increasing since 1986, use of file servers and the Internet is just now building momentum.

    Jackson describes a more ambitious fourth stage (Distributed) than we are experiencing in MCCCD. We have many personal computers (not quite the 'powerful workstation' he means) connected by moderate-speed networks, providing a limited set of network services. In Jackson's terms, we are, at our best, at a 'post-personal' and 'distributed', but not 'powerfully distributed' stage of academic computing.

    Jackson sees that the imminent next stage of academic computing is Integrated. At this stage common applications are used across diverse computing platforms. The X-windows project by MIT is an early embodiment of this stage of computing.

    The sixth stage, described by Jackson, is Linked--where a high-bandwidth interconnection will carry different kinds of information across the network to each workstation. The successful transmission, recently, of a video clip across the Internet is a portent of this stage of academic computing.

    The network will be a definite part of our future, even if we're not sure exactly what will be connected to it. In fact, the computer we'll use for academic computing in the future is the network. The network is an emerging technology, a new tool for teaching and learning.

    Our future, however, is not sufficiently described by the tools we'll be using. Our future is, really, what we'll be doing with those tools. Marshall McLuhan has said that the content of any medium is another medium. (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McGraw Hill, 1964) For example, the content of film is a novel or play or opera and the content of print is speech. We've experienced something quite similar in academic computing. Early tutorial software looked like books and was described, negatively, as 'page-turning' software.

    The first things we can think to do with a new medium are the old things we did. And the appeal of computing was to be able to do those old things faster or better: a faster way to comment on student papers, a better way to graph functions. While it was a necessary stage to progress through, we're only beginning to move out of that restricted mode of thinking. Having become competent with the new technology, we're getting ready to challenge the conventions and restrictions that our former tools have placed on our teaching and learning. We're just ready to rethink what it was that we really intended to accomplish anyway--and look with fresh eyes to see how we use the capabilities and advantages of the network to fulfill our mission.

    In the 1986 Master Plan for Instructional Computing, stages of infusion were described:

    Graphs above indicate the infusion stage for 1986 and a prediction for 1991. The three graphs that follow indicate the infusion stages for 1986, 1993 and a prediction for 1998.

    The figures for 1993 and 1998 reflect an expanded definition of computing, now called technology, which includes a variety of technologies from graphing calculators and desktop computers to multimedia workstations.

    The next five to ten years will see a substantial increase in the reassessment of curriculum. The mathematics departments, for example, are already in this reassessment, as they have embarked on a three to six year project of curriculum reevaluation and restructuring starting the 1992-93 year.

    The District Curriculum Committee has called for the review and revision of all curriculum areas, setting an October 1994 deadline. Before that October deadline and during the next five to ten years, more disciplines will challenge the current assumptions of their instructional format, including basic assumptions about time and place and duration and mode of instruction, as well as assumptions about appropriate content. And this reassessment will be, to at least some degree, prompted by the capabilities of technology to do more than imitate the old instructional forms.

    The next five years may also see a change in the ways we measure the infusion of technology. We are, for example, just beginning to think about measuring the extent to which students are adapting technologies for their own learning. In this way we have begun to shift the focus from faculty usage to student usage.

    It's a River, Not a Lake: Possible Futures
    © January 1994 Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
    Maricopa Community Colleges

    The Internet Connection at MCLI is Alan Levine --}
    Comments to