August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Commentary // 4COM2

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Taking Advantage of New Technology for Education

Extension educators must be challenged to effectively use new technology in ways that both take advantage of the unique characteristics of new technology and also create new approaches to fulfilling a person's desire to learn. Rather than selecting new technology based on what it can help us accomplish, we must select it based upon what it will help others--the learners-- accomplish. The needs of the learner are the key to the effective use of new technologies that support learning.

S. Joseph Levine
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Michigan State University Extension
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan
Internet address:

It all started to make sense as I was driving away from the travel agency. Usually I dealt with the agency by telephone--we would discuss the needed arrangements, they would offer options, I'd make a decision, they'd send the ticket to me at home. I was always so very pleased with how courteous they were and how they gave my telephone call their undivided attention. And, it worked really smoothly. However, this time I needed the ticket quickly so I decided to go directly to the office to pick it up. It was in a residential neighborhood in the agency owner's house!

At first it caught me off guard. I had never expected to find the travel agency in a local neighborhood. I had always assumed that it was located downtown. Then it hit me--here was a person who had created a business that was clearly consistent with the new technology that surrounds us. And, because of this new technology, he didn't have to rent an expensive downtown store location. In the living room there were three desks with all of the usual travel materials piled high on them. There were telephones, a FAX machine, computers, printers, and modems. In addition I spotted a dog, a cat, two couches, a short walk to the kitchen and the agent's newly born baby--contently sleeping in a bassinet. It was this atmosphere of a home that I now realized came through so pleasantly on the telephone.

The travel agency business had been created as a home industry. The business was able to link to the world electronically and offer services in a manner that allowed the owner to live more of the life that he desired. He had taken advantage of new technology.

Darn it! He had thought of it first--why wasn't I a bit quicker on this one! But wait a minute, surely there are other initiatives that can be built on taking advantage of new technology.

Then I remembered the music CDs I had recently bought via the Internet on my computer. Yes, via the Internet! I typed in the electronic address of a company in California and was able to scan their catalog of over 100,000 different CDs. I could look up CDs by composer, artist, publisher, even a few words from the title. The price was posted next to the listing along with different symbols that would tell me if there was an available critical review of the recording (hitting a key would bring the review immediately to my screen). In addition there was a "score" for the CD based upon the ratings that previous buyers had given it.

But here was the key to the whole operation. They had no CDs! That's right--no store, no warehouse, no stockroom--only a computer-based catalog they created by collecting all of the available CD catalogs from around the world. They brought together all of the listings from the different catalogs, picked out the lowest listed price for each CD and the corresponding supplier, organized it into an easily accessible data base, and then sat back and waited for the orders to electronically arrive at their address. As they received orders they would organize them by supplier and every day or two they would send out their own electronic orders to the different suppliers. Their progress in fulfilling my order would be periodically posted electronically to my account and I could easily get an update via the Internet. And, twelve days later I was enjoying the music from my new CDs. Clearly this was another business that had been built by appropriately taking advantage of the new technology.

These two examples give meaning to the whole idea of taking advantage of new technology. It wasn't just a matter of having a bunch of the latest gadgets to play with. It was the creation of a scheme or a plan that could uniquely take advantage of new technology, exploit a strength of the technology, and achieve an end that was not previously in reach.

As educators we must be challenged to similarly take advantage of new technology. Not just to play with gadgets, but to create new approaches to fulfilling a person's desire to learn. We have to become so familiar with new technology that we can move beyond its glitter and begin to creatively exploit the uses of the technology to better facilitate learning. And, we must do this in ways that are highly valued by the learner. Taking advantage of new technology can't be merely a matter of saving money, or saving space, or saving time. It has to be a matter of improving the learning potential of people. The creation of instructional messages that can leap tall buildings in a single bound, find their way to the most remote learners, and do it all in full color, makes no difference if the learners don't feel that their life will somehow be improved through the reception and application of the message that is being sent.

We must be challenged to keep the learner first and foremost in our mind as we go about identifying new technology to assist the process. Clearly the two businesses that are described have taken advantage of new technology to better serve the needs of people (and, of course, to also serve their own needs) and that's why they're a success. However, if my needs weren't being fulfilled in some extra way, I probably wouldn't be using these businesses! As Extension educators are pulled more and more to use new technology to offer learning opportunities we must work extra hard to keep the learner clearly in view--not just fulfilling our own needs to do things less costly or less time consuming. We must exploit new technology to make learning better for people.

P.S. By the way, when was the last time you tried to replace the needle on your record player? That's right, music shops don't even know what a record player is. I checked the Yellow Pages in the phone book and sure enough--there was an 800 number to call. The company was in Maryland. They place ads in hundreds of Yellow Pages and they'd have the new needle to me in three days! Another great use of new technology to fulfill one of my needs.