Risk-takers sought for new education program (9/97)

Stanford News


CONTACT: Elaine Ray, News Service (650) 723-7162

Risk-takers sought for new education program

In a dark room on a warm summer afternoon in Meyer Library, eight students gaze at computer screens and experiment with sound and video on the Web. Although they look no different from other students on the Farm, in many ways, they are pioneers ­ the inaugural class of the School of Education's Learning, Design and Technology (LDT) program.

The LDT program, launched this summer, is intended to equip students with the skills they need to use the latest technology in educational settings. They are trailblazers being trained for jobs they will have to create.

"I don't think we're going to find a single help wanted advertisement for a learning, design and technology professional," said Decker Walker, one of the program's core faculty members. Walker said the students in the program are chosen for their "cognitive flexibility" and their risk-taking personalities.

Shawna BuShell fits that profile. A former telephone operator and marketing manager for Pacific Bell, BuShell, now 35, retired from that job at age 27 after 10 years there. She earned a bachelor's degree from the College of Notre Dame and later a teaching credential from California State University-Hayward. Before coming to Stanford in June, BuShell worked for several years as a project specialist at the Flood Elementary School in Menlo Park. While there, she developed a knack for technology and helped students, teachers and parents become comfortable with computers. BuShell also taught a computer class at the Opportunities Industrialization Center West in Menlo Park. Like most of her classmates, BuShell heard about the LDT program by word of mouth, since the school did not formally advertise it. She thought it would provide her with the credential to back up her experience.

"I really like being the beginning of this program. I'm absolutely thrilled," said BuShell, who hopes to teach in Zimbabwe after she earns her master's degree.

Even though the program is in the School of Education, BuShell is the only student with experience in a traditional classroom setting. Her colleagues come from a variety of backgrounds, including computer firms and software support companies. Only one is straight out of college. These students will have the same diversity of options when they complete the program. They can apply what they learn here in the classroom to museums and libraries, corporate training environments, community organizations and nontraditional settings such as home schooling and distance learning.

"If we from the beginning said we are only creating people who are going to go into schools, we'd be contradicting one of our basic ideas: that people need to understand a range of situations," Walker said. "We wanted people who wanted to understand schools working alongside, elbow to elbow with people who wanted to understand learning and teaching in manufacturing and side by side with others who were doing it in museums, so that they would begin to see concretely how something that works in one situation isn't necessarily the best in another situation," he added.

The program is founded on the principle that learning is optimal when it is taught in the context in which it will be used. Students become familiar with theories about teaching and learning and apply those ideas to a wide range of situations in which computers can be a tool. They also deepen their knowledge about a particular content area. For instance, those interested in corporate training might take their electives in the business school.

"A lot of programs focus on the design and on the technology, but not a lot focus on the learning and the pedagogy," said Michael Kamil, director of the program. "If they want to be an expert in how to do distance education or how to teach math, they will become highly capable in that discipline," he said.

According to Walker, doctoral programs at Vanderbilt and Northwestern universities come closest to the Stanford approach. However, on the master's level, the LDT program has no peer.

"I'm not familiar with any program that takes this particular approach to teaching and learning ­ this social construction of knowledge ­ and, at the master's level, prepares people to use that way of thinking and that way of approaching problems to help design better programs," Walker said.

During the summer, LDT students' course load included classes in technology, and design and learning development, as well as other classes in the School of Education. In the coming months they will branch out taking courses in computer science and in other departments, and participating in a 9-month internship.

Walker says that the program is not designed to groom professional producers of computer media. Instead he envisions graduates of the LDT program designing these products and working in teams that include other professionals. "We're just giving them the really basic and the really essential ideas about images, sound, video on the Web and the really basic skills for using them, just enough that they can sketch out a prototype and communicate with programmers and professional computer artists and people like that."

The faculty's commitment to flexibility extends beyond the choice of students. Kamil and Walker insist that they are willing to make adjustments to the program as often as is necessary. Unlike the educational approach that chooses one curriculum and sticks to it, Walker said, he and his colleagues have set a general vision for the program that can be adapted to meet students' needs. If a student happens upon an elective that would be useful to all students, the faculty might make it a course requirement. If a required course isn't useful, it can be dropped.

"We expect this to be continually evolving, not just through next year or next quarter or even the rest of this quarter," Walker said during summer term. "One of our basic principles is that the best learning situation is one that is optimally matched to the people and the tasks that you have in hand. We're prepared to throw out all our plans on a moment's notice if it's clear that there's a better opportunity here for people to learn," he said. SR


By Elaine Ray