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Commission to explore more use of technology for education

STANFORD -- Although focused primarily on education for the next century, President Gerhard Casper's new Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning plans to start introducing pilot projects this year.

The commission, announced by Casper in his state-of-the-university message last spring, began work in October by organizing into six working groups. Casper told the members he considered their task "more important than virtually any other new initiative Stanford will undertake within the next few years." He and the 23 members of the commission agreed they will identify key issues and recommend pilot projects or other "actions with potentially broad application" that could begin this academic year.

"The goal is to enhance the quality of a Stanford education while maintaining the highest standards of admission and certification," Casper and the commission members said in the groups' mission statement. (See text of mission statement and list of commission members on page XX.)

The statement also said that technology may be used by Stanford to increase faculty productivity; to help attract, retain and engage the brightest students; and to improve the university's finances, either by increasing income or reducing expenses, or both.

The working groups will explore:

Equipment and the people to support it in the shorter term is also the focus of several Faculty Senate committees and administrative organizations. The senate's Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems, for example, undertook last spring a survey of students on their computer use and ownership, and is considering whether current student access to computers is sufficient and equitable.

Committee chairman Boyd Paulson, professor of civil engineering, told the Faculty Senate recently that the committees also would like to look into the adequacy of faculty and staff access and use of information technology. Meanwhile, subcommittees of his committee are working with administrators to provide academic advice about the overhaul of 22 administrative computing systems and on plans for a new network architecture that will move Stanford away from central mainframe-based computing - such as Forsythe Hall's IBM machines that are tapped into by workers around campus - to linked networks of interacting computers, a technology generally referred to as distributed computing or client/server architecture.

The new commission's relationship to other committees and organizations involved with information technology and teaching is intentionally ambiguous, according to John Etchemendy, who chairs the new commission. That's because "I fully expect some of the actions of the commission will be to ask for [actions] and make suggestions to these other committees. A lot of policy issues will come up," he said.

"An important thing about the commission is that we are not aiming toward a final report at the end of the summer. I expect our actions to be spread out over the year," said Etchemendy, a professor of philosophy who developed educational software in the past and currently is senior associate dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

"Technology is going to radically change the nature of education in the 21st century," he said, "and if we don't anticipate that change, we are going to find ourselves left out of significant parts of the game."

While technology has not radically changed education yet, Etchemendy said many commission members believe that it will lead to dramatic changes in the way people learn and teach.

"Imagine trying to teach geometry before the blackboard or art history before the slide projector. It basically couldn't be done, and computer technology will, I predict, change many disciplines [also] as it gets integrated into the educational system."

The report of the Commission on Undergraduate Education also pointed out that technology will change teaching and learning. "There are so many means by which students can become educated that our current reliance on standard lectures - a pedagogy based solely upon transmission of knowledge - should be questioned," the report said. "When alternative teaching and learning practices are effectively used, students improve their skills, learn more and acquire a deeper understanding of the material."

One thing the technology commission will explore, Etchemendy said, is using technology to provide "Stanford-level courses to very bright high school students. We are toying with the idea of early admission but not early residential admission."

Such early admission would be good for the university in at least two ways, he said. "It provides the best hope of increasing the number of students who earn a degree in three years [after high school] , and it will also be a way of attracting the very best students."

From the students' perspective, beginning Stanford coursework before arriving on campus also could lead to more effective use of Stanford's curriculum later on. Patrick Suppes, professor emeritus of philosophy and education who serves on the commission, envisions students taking interactive language and mathematics courses earlier so they could take more advanced work in their undergraduate years.

There is some concern among commission members that the university be cautious in setting admissions criteria for nontraditional students. At the commission's first meeting, members said they expect an ongoing debate about the proper balance between their efforts on teaching innovations for regular Stanford students versus seeking new markets, said Pat Devaney, the staff coordinator to the commission.

Competition from other educational institutions is a factor in the deliberations, Etchemendy said, and some committee members will be traveling to other campuses to collect information. He noted that Phoenix University now exists in no particular place but offers master's degrees in business administration to large numbers of students scattered throughout the country.

"They are still using very primitive techniques," he said, and "there is no guarantee that the information infrastructure will develop in the right way, as television has demonstrated."

Nevertheless, if educational techniques improve, he said, "the Mike Spences of the world" - deans of residential business schools such as Stanford's headed by Spence - "may have to pay more attention" to new methods of delivery.

For example, Etchemendy said, if high-speed interactive networks reach homes, "people could be able to turn on a course taught by the top names in the field from around the country."

The Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning seeks input from the general community, Etchemendy said. Suggestions may be sent to him or Pat Devaney for direction to the appropriate working groups.



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