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Difficulty learning about technology slows high-tech teaching
STANFORD -- Last week, a professor of food research browsed records of the British government without leaving his office, a humanities student explored World Health Organization statistics in her introductory computer course, and a staff member attended an off-campus class where the materials displayed on the classroom screen were taken directly from the World Wide Web, which meant the students could access them later from their own workstations if they wished to follow up.
The web of international information resources now developing on the Internet could turn out to be the beginning of a promised computer educational revolution, says Jon Dick, a computer training specialist at the Center for Teaching and Learning. "It certainly is a fascination being embraced right now by members of the university community."
Dick predicts it won't be long before some faculty will post their own "home pages" on the web, which will allow them to form discussion groups over the network with students and faculty with similar interests elsewhere.
But Dick won't predict a revolution in education is around the corner. He remembers too well his last prediction as part of a team of specialists installing the first microcomputer lab on campus a decade ago.
"We would speculate then about what computing would be like 10 years ahead, and one of the things we said is that none of us would be in the same business because there would be no need for us. The reality turned out to be that all of us are still in the industry, and we are needed more than ever because computers haven't become easier to use; they've become harder [to use]."
The technology revolution in education, he and others on campus say, may have been delayed so far by the fact that educating people about the technology is the first chore, and that hasn't proved to be an easy task.
For every faculty member who has used computer technology to develop new ways of teaching, there are several just learning the basics of using electronic mail, said Dick, who last year worked for the law school teaching faculty exactly that.
In addition, there are many more who, once they have taken the on- ramp to the information superighway, discover it is more like an escalator - progressing so rapidly that users need time and each other's assistance to stay on track.
"I used to understand the centers of computing on campus and I don't now," said B. Curtis Eaves, a professor of operations research and a faculty senator.
The confusion could be for one of two reasons, Eaves said. Either networking has spread computing so far and wide at Stanford that he can't keep track of the growing resources or the organizations that run computing have gone through so many reorganizations and name changes that he doesn't know who is doing what.
"It's been like IBM changing their name to Pepsi Cola and then to Coca-Cola. The customers have a hard time keeping up."
Eaves conceded, however, that he had yet to read the latest edition of About Computing at Stanford, the booklet produced each fall for faculty and students on academic computing resources. It contains 35 pages of description of various campus resources as well as an index and campus map. It cannot, however, actually show someone how to get started on the World Wide Web or how to avoid bottlenecks when too many professors assign too much computer-intensive homework at the same time. The latter problem particularly bothers Eaves because he says he only hears about it from students when the situation becomes impossible for them.
The booklet also does not deal in any detail with the administrative side of computing on campus, which many academic departments find daunting, according to a recent report to the Faculty Senate.
"Right now there are lots of fragments of information all over the place," said Boyd Paulson, a civil engineering professor who chairs the Faculty Senate's Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems. "But if you want to have one book you can open to learn how to use everything, you won't find it."
"Here we are sitting in the middle of the Silicon Valley and there are pockets of real knowledge all over campus, but dissemination throughout the faculty lags," said Carl Gotsch, the professor of food research who explored British government files on the World Wide Web last week.
Part of the reason for that, he said, is that few people are "tech junkies" like himself. Gotsch defines a "tech junkie" as someone who daily pursues more information about information technology "regardless of the outcome. For most people, the whole task of learning technology is driven off a sense of knowing it will help with other agendas."
That may explain why in a survey of 750 faculty last year, the Commission on Undergraduate Education found that most of those surveyed said they did not use technological aids in their courses. "The vast majority do not exploit existing campus resources and technology," the commission reported, and "little systematic work has been done to evaluate the effectiveness of teaching technology." When asked why they did not use technological aids more, the most common response was lack of time to acquire the necessary skills.
"The problem is to effect real change in a noncoercive manner without relying solely on suggestions or exhortations," the commission report said. It suggested incentives and publicity for individuals who successfully use technology, as well as a high priority for outfitting classrooms and linked information technology facilities, such as video file servers that would allow faculty or students to select videotaped lectures to watch from various locations.
Faculty use of technology
Gotsch, Dick and others say people in general, but perhaps especially faculty, are reluctant to learn technological skills in group settings.
It's not just that they don't want to display their ignorance, Dick said, but "you are expected to go to four hours of training for 30 minutes of knowledge. This is a huge problem with technology. The class is always customized to the slowest learner."
To partly get around that, the Center for Teaching and Learning hired Dick this year to provide individual instruction for new tenure-track faculty members. His job is to help them select equipment or resolve problems hooking up their existing equipment to Stanford's systems. If they want it, he shows them how to use electronic mail, local area networks and campus databases such as Folio or international ones such as the World Wide Web. He makes sure they know who provides technical support to their department, and he makes them aware of instructional technology such as computerized classrooms available on campus.
For knowledge of the most useful programs in their disciplines, however, faculty generally must turn to their colleagues, the way they turn to them for knowledge about the best textbooks, said John Etchemendy, senior associate dean of humanities and sciences and a developer of courseware in the past. Knowledge about how to apply technology to a discipline, he said, is highly specialized.
Some departments have lagged behind others in buying computer equipment and providing funds for the technical support it requires, Gotsch said, so there is little help for some faculty among their closest colleagues. One issue that has been discussed by the Committee on Libraries that he chairs, he said, is "the last 100-foot problem."
"Part of what has happened is that university policy is to bring the technology up to the door of the building and then it's up to the department to bring it the last 100 feet to the desktop. I think this will be addressed by all the relevant committees. So far, we are finding it goes well beyond technology. The much more difficult problem is how to maintain support because technology changes so rapidly," Gotsch said.
The 100-foot problem is not solely concentrated in the humanities or in small social science departments, but those are areas where Gotsch and other "tech junkies" would like to see it solved because they see new potential for educational improvements there.
"Number-crunching" departments are the most likely to be already sophisticated about the educational potential of computers, Gotsch said, "but the humanities have the most potential right now because they deal in images. The new technology emerging allows you to do so many interesting things with images." An example is the new collection of 18th-century art available to students in art Professor Michael Marrinan's art history class. Marrinan scanned the images in color and placed them on a Stanford file server so that students can study them after class from their residence or a computer lab.
Still, Gotsch said, it would be difficult for the university to change its policies and offer central support to departments that have not invested in technology when others have "taxed themselves" to provide technology support.
Students are ahead
One potential source of change may be the student body, which appears to be much more sophisticated than the average faculty member about basic computer use.
A survey last spring of 3,000 students conducted by Gotsch with Dennis Kinsey, a doctoral student in communication, found that 67 percent of undergraduates and 71 percent of graduate students own computers.
Undergraduate men report using computers an average of 11 hours a week and undergraduate women average 8.6 hours. At the graduate level, students average 18.5 hours of computer use a week.
Alison Post, a student member of the Committee on Libraries, said she is currently exploring interest among students and faculty for matching their interests on undergraduate research projects that involve computers.
So far, she said, she is finding students are enthusiastic about the idea of helping a faculty member explore potential software that might apply to the faculty member's teaching and research.
"I had a computer fear factor for a long time, and it really takes someone being there showing you how to do it to get excited. The students could be called upon when the faculty member wants it."
From the students' point of view, she said, "they get close contact with a faculty member. Seeing how the faculty member goes about research would be especially good for people who are looking at going into graduate study."
Another issue of concern to Paulson's Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems, however, is potential inequitable access to computers among undergraduates.
The student survey also found that owners of computers tend to use them more than those who don't own one, and computer owners are less likely to be on financial aid.
"Nearly 83 percent of the undergraduate students owning computers come from the 46 percent [of undergraduates] who do not receive financial aid, and they use their computers more," Paulson reported to the Faculty Senate on Oct. 27. The difference in usage does not show up among graduate students, he said, probably because they have better access to department resources.
One issue Paulson's committee will consider is whether the university should go the route of some others, requiring students to own computers and making computer purchase part of the financial aid package for those who can't afford it.
"The main issue is whether computers have become essential to education. Are they more like books than stereos?" he said.
"If they are important, are we doing an adequate job of providing students with what they need, and third, if there are still more needs [than individually owned computers], what are the best ways of going about providing them?"
The survey at Stanford, as well as information from other institutions, indicates that student ownership of computers does not relieve the pressure for campus computer labs, Gotsch said. In fact, the data may indicate that computer ownership increases the demand for more powerful campus facilities with technical consultants and other students from which to learn.
Like many other universities, Stanford finds itself with an increasing student demand for computing, Paulson said, some of which may be more recreational than educational, "and the question is, at what rate can the university put $6,000 into every lap?"
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