So who are George Connick and Nicholas Negroponte?

Advocates of the use of high-tech hardware and software as the only necessities to transform education everywhere. Connick was the founding president of the University of Maine System’s Educational Network of Maine. It was envisioned in the 1990′s as the System’s electronic campus and cost the taxpayers of Maine untold millions of dollars. Writing in 1994 about the glorious future then awaiting Maine’s distance learners and their teachers, Connick cited “a major study” in The American Journal of Distance Education that revealed “no essential difference in the quality of learning between distance education and more traditional approaches.” Yet Connick’s enterprise, which focused on interactive television (ITV) spread among over 100 different locations throughout the fairly rural state, was outdated from the outset. This hardly mattered to the powers that be that approved this huge investment. They were seduced by Connick’s vision.

When I myself taught a history of technology course through Connick’s system as a way of getting into his enterprise, I quickly recognized that the students in my campus classroom had a far better learning environment than those at the “remote” sites. True, the latter students did not have to travel far from either home or work for classes and, if they could not make classes, had easy access to videotapes of each class. Whereas, however, they could see me on their television monitors, I never saw them but only heard their voices. And they needed to dial the campus technical assistant when they wished to ask or answer a question or to contribute to class discussion.

Not surprisingly, most of the class discussion was carried on with the students physically before me. Their intellectual and facial responses gave me an immediate indication of how I was faring as a teacher. I tried to provide those students at the “remote” sites equal time, but I knew–if they did not–that they had been shortchanged intellectually.

To be sure, in the years since the utilization of videoconferencing and of skype ¬†and of various computer advances have vastly changed this situation. I have myself team taught an online course at UMaine called “Pop Tech” for a decade now, I don’t see the students, but I do read and react to their individual posts and to the posts in turn of other students. In this respect ITV was a product of its time that must be appreciated for what it tried to do.

The deeper point, however, and one that persists through today, is that blind faith in high-tech hardware and software to replace traditional teacher-student formats that characterizes so much educational advocacy today–from Senator-elect Angus King to many university administrators across America and beyond and, not least, to the manufacturers of the tools and machines involved. Yet it is unlikely that, once sworn in, Angus King would not wish to be physically in Washington and in the Senate rather than, save for required in-person votes, be back home in Brunswick and communicating in precisely the way he’d like ever more students and teachers to do. I am unaware as well as of any UME System Trustee meeting that was conducted by distance communication rather than in person.

The most telling point, though, brings us back to Connick, long retired from the UME System. When asked in a 1995 Portland newspaper interview whether he would have wanted “degree by TV” for his own children, he revealingly replied that “I would have advised them that the campus experience is wonderful and I would recommend that.” He added that “it offers more–especially culturally and socially–than an “electronic campus could.” Who could disagree?

Probably not Negronponte, about whom more next time.

I welcome any and all responses. Thanks for reading this.