A new dimension for global human intellectual
activity has been created especially in this last decade of the
20th century. It has resulted from rapid advances in Information
Technology (IT) and the recent convergence of this field with
those of telecommunications and digital media.
These changes have resulted in the paradoxical
"twin cities" of a global village in our physical world
that operationally and functionally is dependent on a virtual
realm known as Cyberspace or C-space.
While the real world is shrinking in
terms of distance and time that has traditionally separated different
nations and societies in different parts of the world, the digital
realm is increasing rapidly in terms of size, usage, content and
International business, as well as commercial
and entertainment organizations have begun to establish and consolidate
their presence in this virtual universe. Educators too need to
consider the colonization of a portion of this digital realm for
education - islands of learning to which students of all ages
can visit, to learn from, and to understand with greater insight,
the workings of our natural world on spaceship Earth.
Cyberspace is the information infrastructure
that is rapidly being established technologically and globally
as governments and companies race to become providers of information
and services on the information superhighway.
To understand this ever-growing which
will impact almost all aspects of our daily lives, it is useful
to develop a concrete and tangible understanding of this essentially
virtual phenomenon. One way to do this is to reflect on Cyberspace
as C-space, both in terms of what is sounds like, namely sea-space
or as a sea-scape, as well as in terms of a number of phrases
that begin with the letter C, such as Crisis, Change and Continuity.
Rapid advances in the field of computers
and information technology in the last three decades have resulted
in providing a common basis for the convergence of this field
with those of Telecommunication and Commerce. From the viewpoint
of educators, there is a similar convergence of the first two
with that of Content, including multimedia entertainment and educational
Given its increasingly pervasive role
in our daily on-going 24-hour global transactions, C-space clearly
is the Vital Frontier for exploration by multinational organizations,
governments, public and private enterprises, and intrepid individuals
of all ages. For educators, the present is a crucial time for
them to come to grips with the workings and nature of this intangible
universe of information transactions.
All the more because of its ephemeral
nature, it is critically essential for them to establish Virtual
Enterprises for Education that will impact learners of all ages
so that these individuals will have a place of reference for knowledge
and wisdom in the shelf-space of the human mind and memory.
Certainly there are many factors to be considered with the convergence of three major fields. This discourse will revolve around three of the most important themes with the central focus on education. These are the themes of change, communication and commitment.
As we move into the 21st century, we
are encountering global changes in the way we work, play, live
and learn, and teach and think, that are a reflection of the Information
Age that we have entered. These changes are increasing, and they
are profoundly affecting the way business and commerce are being
carried out throughout the world. These changes will spread to
involve education at all levels from pre-kindergarten, through
K-12 and tertiary education, to career-related and corporate-organized
In effect, life-long learning will become more and more established and be here to stay as long as changes in technology affect society so rapidly. A useful principle here is that we are entering a dimension where change is a constant, and the only constant is change.
The second theme involves that of Communication.
This refers to two aspects of communication, one technological
and adoptive in nature, and the other social and adaptive in nature.
Both have been referred to by their respective proponents with
the same term, 'Networking".
The first aspect is seen in such rapidly
growing fields as telecommunications, satellite broadcasting,
cable television, cellular phones, faxes and mobile computing,
The second has arisen partly because
of the groundwork laid by the developments of the former and is
hence still in the relatively early stages of growth, as evidenced
by the growing trends of telecommuting, videoconferencing and
the use of groupware.
The third theme is one of Commitment,
with respect to determining how one goes about becoming personally
involved with the transitional changes from an Industrial to an
Information Society. Given that the changes may be in numerous
directions with different outcomes, a working principle could
be that one of the best ways to predict the future is to invent
The world of C-space has certain special
infrastructural features that affect the way it is being developed
and constructed, and with time, its growth and maintenance. These
can then be summarised conveniently as tenets in order to give
a measure of predictability to its functionality.
Internet Tenet #1
The digital realm of cyberspace has
physical, functional and virtual dimensions of reality.
Its physical existence is very much
a necessity for a world that bases its communications networks
on the transmission of digital media where content in the initial
analogue form is converted to digital binary digits, or bits.
These are the electronic equivalents or representations in terms of 0's and 1's. This provides an enormous capacity for transformation of different media modalities as voice, sound, text, graphics, animation, videos and films can all be represented as bits and bytes. The necessary Information Infrastructure (or Infostructure) has a physical and technological basis grounded in Sand.
Human society has evolved from its initial
nomadic pattern of living, through agricultural and industrial
forms, to its present state as an emerging Information Society.
In a way, the Agricultural Era with its farming, hunting and food-gathering
style of living reflected the Age of the Soil. The Industrial
Period with its machinery and factories can likewise be considered
as an Age of Steel (or Bronze or Iron).
The present Information Age can hence
be seen as the Age of Sand (or Silicon). The electronic instruments
that we use are based on Silicon while the fibre optics conduit
between networked machines are made from glass which is derived
The virtual dimension arises from the
social connotations that frequent travelers on this communications
highway establish, as forms of acceptable norms. The world wide
web thus becomes highly segmented in places, as some of these
travelers, or surfers of the net, construct their own codes of
acceptable behaviour when communicating with one other.
These develop into social boundaries
for a particular group, and is evident in what are known as 'newsgroups'
on the web. This development can be seen in what is termed 'Netiquette'
or social etiquette on the Internet, and the occasional reported
cases of 'flaming' when a user or users cause some flagrant breach
of the norms of a particular segment.
The functional dimension is related
to the amount of electronic traffic or data exchanges that flow
through this information highway, which leads us to the following
Internet Tenet #2
The size of the digital realm is inversely proportional to the size of the physical realm which it supports. As the physical world shrinks into a global village, the C-space grows ever larger and more complex. This is a technological functionality to compensate for the removal of the space-time barriers between users in different parts of the globe called Earth.
With the rapid changes in information
technology and the concomitant convergence of computers with telecommunications
and commerce, our world has been rapidly interlinked, and we consequently
describe it as a global village.
The barriers of time and distance that
separated nations and societies have shrunk. This decrease in
the differences in time and distance between people in various
parts of the globe can only exist because it is supported by this
digital infrastructure in much the same way that the infrastructure
for electrical cabling, air conduits and water piping within a
building has to exist in order to support the human activity that
occurs within it.
Internet Tenet #3
Increase in size of the digital realm
occurs exponentially. The ease with which people can publish electronic
material on the web, coupled with the increasing number of people
obtaining access to sites on the web, will drive the creation
and production of more and better digital content that is available
to users of the information highway.
In the world of book publishing, the sequence begins initially with the author as supplier of material in the form of text, photographs and illustrations gathered and organized meaningfully as a prototype for a book. The next producer in this value chain is a publisher, who manufactures multiple copies of the finished book. These books are sent to book distributors, who pass on the products to numerous book retailers, who are then able to sell them in their book shops to their ultimate customers, the readers of the book in question.
This value chain is quite different
in the world of C-space, where the authors and readers are the
users of the information highway, and the sequence of manufacture-distribution-delivery
is essentially a single IT process that is integral to the movement
of electronic information in a network. The multimedia computer
that a net surfer uses to travel through C-space has the capability
not only to deliver but also to create multimedia content as well.
Thus the net user can be both an author as well as a reader in
this information intensive realm.
Internet Tenet #4
The digital nature of the contents allows
for easy transformation from one medium to another, for example,
from text to speech, and sound to vision. This has two implications,
each with negative and positive connotations.
Implication 1 is that with transformation,
the validity or truth or correlation with the original source
of what is visualized or heard will be difficult to assess.
Implication 2 is that the ability for
transformation will give rise to the possibility of new ways of
understanding and new perspectives of "visualizing"
data and information.
Implication 1 initially will give rise to more of a negative bias, as people begin to doubt what they see or hear or receive as information, perhaps from painful experience of accepting at face value in their usual manner that they are used to in everyday life, outside of the digital realm. Seeing is no longer believing, certainly not without a pause or time for second opinions.
Implication 2 has much more positive
potential, in that different people may learn in the various modalities
that they are most accustomed to, such as in a visual or auditory
or kinesthetic mode. An example from the medical field involves
the learning of the differences in heart sounds that can occur
with different defects of the heart valves.
Furthermore, the combination of two
or more modalities can be brought about to increase the rate of
understanding, by providing multiple perspectives of a subject.
Again, using the example of heart sounds, visualizing the sound
waves of a heart murmur while simultaneously listening to the
actual sounds, increase the rate of acquisition of the skill by
this method of coordinated multiple sensory input.
Internet Tenet #5
New skills will have to be learnt and
taught, in order to cope with the onslaught of available information.
What is initially perceived to be information overload, with its
accompanying side effect of information anxiety, will be superseded
by ready acceptance of this state of overload as being a natural
state of dealing with information in the digital realm.
The anxiety will be removed not only
by new ways of coping with the organization of information, but
also by a new perspective of information as an essential characteristic
of an information age. This will occur as people begin to immerse
themselves in the new work processes vital for an information
Internet Tenet #6
New paradigms will have to be sought
and created, to provide human beings with a solid grasp of what
is essentially a virtual world that exists in the "shelf-space"
of the human mind and memory.
These new ways of putting into tangible
form, an understanding of a virtual world that is ephemeral in
terms of location, time and organizational structure are essential
for anyone who has to work on a daily basis through this infrastructure.
Essentially, one person's mental and
psychological framework or view of this realm will substantially
differ from another person's construct or organizational structure
of acquired knowledge.
Learning in a networked World
With rapid dissemination of information,
a common global world view for framing this digital realm, will
be shared by more and more people, who will then begin to have
a similar shared understanding of cyberspace. This can be brought
about by commonality in digital interface design, and by processes
of commercial digital interactions.
For knowledge to be deeply ingrained,
most people require a spiral process of learning, which involves
repetition in parts, review in general and a pacing of information
acquisition, which differs from person to person.
The teacher and the learner should each
be able to alter and to adapt any program to their own requirements.
New ways of assessment and curricula will then be required for
this new educational generation that will be so comfortable with
travel through c-space.
One needs to consider the practical
constraints in developing and designing innovative and effective
new material for teaching and learning, as our students move towards
working and living in an information society.
The pedagogical or conceptual level
involves the integration of the various disciplines and topics
that combine within a field, to produce a meaningful holistic
understandable view of the subject matter.
This integration can range from an intrasubject
perspective, to that of an interdisciplinary study. Thus, in
the study of the liver, one can not only look at its structure
(anatomy) but also correlate that with its function (physiology),
its development (embryology), its ultrastructure (histology) and
at the intracellular level, the interactions within the cell (biochemistry
and molecular biology).
We can study it at the macro level through
clinical studies of liver function, diagnostic instrumentation,
surgical techniques in the treatment of congenital abnormalities,
and even in the field of public health education, with the statistics
of liver disease and associated risk factors.
The subject matter being covered, can
encompass the range from the basic sciences to the clinical disciplines,
and can be linked in a hypertext way to deal with topics in Gross
Anatomy and Applied Anatomy to Surgery and Orthopaedics.
The user may encounter material in Embryology
that can be just as useful in the other disciplines of Pediatrics,
Obstetrics and Gynecology, and the hypertext links created in
such a courseware, can be designed to allow the user the freedom
to jump to those topics for further information and applications,
such as simulations and practicals.
The Knowledge Hierarchy
In considering the learning process
from an IT point of view, knowledge has to be built up from bits
of information at the level of details, to the conceptual level
for understanding and long-term memory to result.
In this process, the bottom line is
whether the important basic concepts, and not just details, have
been communicated in the teaching-learning activity.
With regard to this, visualization plays
a very vital role in establishing the relationships and linkages
between facts that underpin the concepts. For visually-oriented
students, understanding a topic in two-dimensional and three-dimensional
terms is key to their mastery of the subject.
Another important factor is the capability
to incorporate multidimensional levels of learning into the courseware
to allow the freedom for students to take individual learning
paths. The user can traverse a learning module through different
routes. Hence, a presentation that is designed for orthopaedic
surgeons will allow for medical students to take their own pathways
of learning through a corresponding module.
Principles of interaction
There are a number of principles of
interaction that are applicable to learning of this nature with
digital multimedia, such as Discovery Learning, Individual Pacing,
Annotation, Repetition, Intuitivity, Levels of Knowledge, Flexibility
of Use and Multimodal Presentation.
One of the main aims of the research
projects was to provide interactive learning environments for
the individual users to explore a subject to the breadth and depth
that they were capable or in need of, and in the process to acquire
or arrive at an understanding of the concepts of the subject matter.
People have varying rates of learning,
and the same student goes through different sections of a topic
at differing rates. Hence, the provision of an environment where
the rate of learning is user-paced is another method of learning
A student will annotate at various points
in a book as an adjunct to internalizing the material. Computer
peripherals, such as printers, can be included in the computer
network to facilitate the printing of selected portions of a program.
Print outs also have the advantage that
the user receives the needed information in a tangible form, which
can be referred to at anytime, away from the computerized learning
environment. This extends the period of integrating new ideas
Alternatively, the educational courseware
can allow the individual user to customize the learning program.
In these instances, users can annotate on the screen, what they
would have written in a textbook. This allows them to start the
courseware at the point where they stopped in the previous session.
The review of the various parts of a
program are within the control of the user, and a section may
be repeated as often as necessary for a complete understanding
of the topic. This is of special significance in a learning module
where sound plays a critical role, as with language and pronunciation.
In medical education, the identification
of the various heart sounds (for both normal and abnormal heart
sounds) heard over the different regions of the heart, can be
greatly enhanced by courseware that allows one to click at selected
areas on a diagram of the heart. The heart sounds usually heard
at that region can then be played repeatedly until the user learns
to identify them.
The user interface design of courseware
is an important element in the ease of use of the learning programs.
They can now be adapted to incorporate intuitive features, which
make the transition to learning on a computer less rigid and artificial.
Hence, the screen can have the picture
of a book in the background so that one appears to be reading
a book, instead of staring at a screen. Searching the database
would appear like turning pages of text.
Diagrams can have clean uncluttered
appearances, with pointers and key indices appearing on-screen,
only when the appropriate regions of the diagrams are clicked
on. Viewing an organ of the human body can be done by clicking
on the appropriate region of the atlas, instead of having to search
through an indexed list of words.
The courseware is modular, with multiple
levels of difficulty or specialized knowledge. Passwords may be
incorporated, so that users are guided within a defined corridor
or pathway of learning.
Alternatively, it may be designed to
be entirely free-form, or with artificial intelligence techniques
and heuristics to guide the user intelligently through the program.
Here, questions may be set selectively at various portions of
the program, to gauge the understanding of the user . One can
then cover the entire depth and breadth of the available material,
if one's responses are appropriate.
There should be multiple points of entry
into (and exit from) a learning module. The teacher and the learner
should be able to alter and adapt a program, according to their
own needs. New ways of assessment and curricula will then be
required for this new educational generation.
The recall of knowledge and memorized
information depends in part on the extent of linkages formed between
related topics. The process of linkage formation can be likened
to that of learning to tie a knot.
In doing so, one must deal with three-dimensional
relationships in terms of which end of the rope goes in front,
and four-dimensional relationships with reference to what has
be done first before something else.
Finally, testing to determine if a knot
slips or whether it holds has an equivalence with checking the
validity of relationships between ideas, facts, concepts and constructs.
The presentation of the material to
be learnt can be adapted for different types of learners in terms
of their previous exposure to the courseware.
Thus, a first-time user may well prefer
to use a presentation in the guided tour mode. More experienced
users, on returning to review the material, may have a preference
for browsing, fact collection, experimentation and simulation,
or simply archiving.
There has to be allowance for different
modes of output that produce a variety of multimedia formats for
removable content whether as printouts of text or as videotapes
and audio cassettes.
Learning in a Digital Realm
There are implications for use of the
understanding of these features of the virtual world of C-space,
that can be appropriately used to improve, the quality of life
and of education in the real world.
New skills will have to be acquired and mastered to provide for
an innate facility to move swiftly and meaningfully, through this
information universe. The following is a suggested listing.
ï Authoring, and the creation of interactive multimedia courseware.
ï Basic IT skills, with widely available programs such as
those that involve word processing, spreadsheets, drawing and
ï Communicativity, in terms of the special ability to communicate
with others, whether in real time or in time-shift mode, which
overcome the barrier of distances.
ï Desktop publishing, desktop videoconferencing and desktop
ï Electronic Worknetting, involving the collaboration of
a team of people, working on a common project, with updates in
real time that are being made feasible by groupware.
Thuse have reference to three major
concepts or facets of C-space, namely those of Virtuality, Connectedness
Newer forms of visualization, construct
formation and rapid learning can be created, that will fit in
with and enhance, present day modes of teaching and learning.
In this last quarter of the twentieth
century, the different nations and societies of the world have
been brought closer together by electronically-based information
links, such as those by the entertainment and public media establishments.
This is reflected in the ever increasing numbers of people simultaneously
being able to observe on television world events in real time,
like Operation Desert Storm, the World Cup and the Olympic Games.
Witness too the increasing popularity
of superstars in the world of basketball, soccer, tennis and golf,
along with the ready recognition and acceptability of the products
of the accompanying corporate sponsors, whether it be soft drinks
or athletic footwear, by people in all the major land masses of
The digitalization of data has expanded
the capability of human societies to not only collect and store
information, but also to control the dissemination, distribution
and delivery of that information, as knowledge with varying degrees
of resemblance to the actual events captured in the data. One
significant example is the ability to time-shift.
A simple everyday example occurring
with greater frequency is the use of the VCR (videocassette recorder)
to free viewers from having to adapt their daily life schedules
caused by the programming idiosyncrasies of television stations.
Not only can they view the recorded
telecasts at times of their own choosing, but many also save time
by fast-forwarding through the commercial breaks. The introduction
of video-on-demand in future societies, will provide a greater
segment of the population with this ability to time-shift to suit
their own activities, with potentially positive as well negative
effects, on social interaction.
The art of learning, like every art,
necessitates the presence of a teacher who can be a facilitator,
like a guide on the side, to make it easier for one to acquire
either knowledge, skills or changes in attitude, which by one's
own resources or without help, one may fail to achieve successfully,
either because of lack of know-how, discouragement or unavailability
of training and resources for practice.
The knowledge should just not be data
or information. The skills have to be integrated with one's existing
practiced or polished set of skills. The improvement in attitude
should be a steadfast one and should form a psychological bedrock,
and not just be an assortment of mental models.
Simplicity is the essence. The paths
to learning should be simple, especially amidst the clutter, chaos
and confusion that can result from information overload and information
anxiety. The same learning can encourage the proficient as well
as launch the beginner. There is a simplicity to be found in the
unity of learners of all ages using the common path in the learning
Learning, like life itself, with its
various facets of work, relationships, accidents and planned events,
should reveal the wonder of the Transcendent Intelligence in the
processes existing throughout the world and the universe.
The teacher's main task is to get out
of the way and to reveal the beauty of this infinite intelligence
underlying our daily life and evolutionary existence on this planet.
Dr. Frank C. T. Voon
Faculty of Medicine,
National University of Singapore,
tel: (65) 7722 066
(65) 7723 208
fax: (65) 778 7643