September 1998 // Letters to the Editor
Brave New World: A Reply to Glenn Ralston
by Ed Neal
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Ed Neal "Brave New World: A Reply to Glenn Ralston" The Technology Source, September 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Glenn Ralston's response to my article about Schutte's 1997 study comparing virtual and classroom instruction (Neal, 1998; Ralston, 1998) is based largely on the argument that it doesn't matter what Schutte did or did not discover, technology is coming on fast and we'd better get on the bandwagon or we'll be left behind. Although Ralston agrees that mistakes were made in the era of instructional television, he seems to believe that things will be different this time. Proponents of educational technology respond to criticisms by pointing towards a hypothetical horizon and telling us how much better things will be in the future. Professors, however, are trained to be skeptical of such claims and (troublesome souls that they are) to ask for proof. This division is clearer today in higher education than ever before. The technologist's job is to find new ways to utilize technology. The teacher's job is to select the approaches, methods, and technologies that will help students achieve desired learning outcomes. These two perspectives can be beneficial and complementary; the potential for conflict arises when teachers lose the right to make pedagogical choices that may not include technology.

Ralston says that we have learned from the mistakes made in the 1960s with instructional television, "especially over the past ten years of computer-centered media development." Here, of course, he is referring to technological development. Contemporary methods to pressure faculty into using technology in the classroom, though, are identical to those used to bolster instructional television use in the 1960s. Administrators, eager to be au courant, sometimes adopt technology initiatives without fully understanding their impact on teaching and learning. Vendors, hoping to corner the educational market, provide cut-rate products and services. Once again, however, pedagogy and teachers are not the drivers. Perhaps because of this, there is a lack of controlled studies that could compare the effectiveness of teaching with and without technology.

Ralston predicts that within 20 years a PC may be more powerful than today's computers ("one million times" so) without a significant price difference. If he is correct, how can any college administrator anticipate these changes accurately enough to gauge the kinds of investments educational institutions should be making? Several years ago, on the advice of technical experts, my institution invested hundreds of thousands of dollars installing a broadband network. Of course, we then had to spend hundreds of thousands more, ripping out the broadband cable and installing fiber optic wires—even before the campus had been completely connected to the old system. Over the next 20 years, how many PCs will we have had to buy and discard? How many times will we have to re-wire our campuses to keep up? How many technicians will we need to keep our systems running? I am also skeptical that we will have fewer problems with our technical systems in the future than we have today. Technical people always promise that technology will be "better, faster, cheaper," but these are the same folks who gave us the Year 2000 problem!

Ralston asserts that the World Wide Web today provides "media configurations" that are "powerful, highly interactive, individually controlled for self-pacing, ideally suited for independent learning, and ultimately empowering to the user." But most sites recommended to me as instructional models simply don't fit his glowing description, and many of them are simply trash. His enthusiasm for the material available "for free" begs the question of what students need to know before they can use those resources effectively. In other words, Johnny needs to learn to use the computer between his ears before he can use the Internet to learn anything.

Ralston doesn't get around to the substantive issue of Schutte's (1997) research until his last few paragraphs, and then he misses my point. Ralston labels my criticism of Schutte's study unfair because the performance of students in the virtual class was better than that of the traditional group. This argument ignores the requirements of controlled, empirical research. I didn't "malign" the idea that the virtual class had more opportunity to collaborate. I merely pointed out that Schutte would need to provide the same opportunities to his experimental and control groups if he wanted to prove anything.

Ralston concludes with the accusation that my definition of "classroom" is old-fashioned. The fact is, in higher education we still teach in classrooms that have walls, doors, tables, and chairs, and we do a pretty good job. No one has demonstrated to my satisfaction that a virtual classroom is superior to (or even as good as) a real classroom, which is why we should be cautious, proceed slowly, and invest wisely.

Ralston asserts that the argument is over: "Technology has already swept over us. It is no longer a technological argument, but rather a cultural change." It is true that technology has changed the way we do business, transfer data, and file information, but to say that we've experienced a "cultural change" is to ignore the ordinary lives of most Americans for whom technology only provides alternative means of entertainment. Nor have we repealed the principles of cognitive psychology that govern how we learn. His statement reminds me of those bad science-fiction movies where the aliens broadcast the warning "We have conquered your planet—put down your weapons—resistance is useless." Well, it seems to me we need to ask a few well-thought-out questions—and have them answered with some controlled and verifiable data—before we just "give up" and enter this brave new world.


Neal, E. (1998, June). Does using technology in instruction enhance learning? Or, the artless state of comparative research. Technology Source. Retrieved August 27, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Ralston, G. (1998, July). The ten-year mindset. Retrieved August 27, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Schutte, J. (1997). Virtual teaching in higher education: The new intellectual superhighway or just another traffic jam? Retrieved July 26, 1998, from the World Wide Web:

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