An EDUCAUSE publication
Observations from the Educom Medal Award winners
by Wendy Rickard
A cartoon appeared in a recent issue of the Utne Reader that depicts three weighted sacks sitting on the bottom of a polluted river.
According to the caption, in those sacks are marketing people. A dialogue balloon appears over each one with the comments "I could sell this," and "It could work," and "Numbers, I need numbers." Sound familiar?
For years, higher education has been caught between its attraction to the dazzling promises of technology-infused education and the fear that beneath it all is a weighted sack that sucks away resources without demonstrating measurable results. Volumes have been written about the dramatic changes education will embrace -- or will be forced to embrace -- and out of the dialogue a completely new, market-oriented lexicon has emerged. In the course of one meeting you may find yourself discussing reengineered learning environments, virtual universities, holistic instructional environments, and technology-enabled interactive learningware. Although many believe that all forms of technology -- from PCs to multimedia software, to networked communications and the World Wide Web -- are driving education toward a new Renaissance, there still exists a good deal of skepticism from an industry uncomfortable with -- even suspicious of -- any trend that characterizes education and its products and services as a marketplace.
In the past, faculty proved resistant to advanced technology-based education. Today, though there is still resistance, the nature of that resistance has changed. The fact is, not only do many faculty members appear willing to pursue new forms of technology in their courses, but many more are engaging in the actual development process. So how can their current skepticism be characterized?
In 1994 Educom -- now EDUCAUSE -- launched the Educom Medal Awards Program for the purpose of demonstrating that information technology can help improve undergraduate education. Though not limited to the work of faculty members -- the criteria suggest that anyone can be awarded the medal -- a vast majority of the recipients are or were faculty members during the time they were working with technology geared toward improving the teaching and learning process.
In 1998, five individuals representing five academic disciplines were awarded the Educom Medal for outstanding contributions made to improving undergraduate education through information technology. I recently corresponded with several of the winners about the value of technology to the educational process and about their concerns about institutional priorities, their insights into the level of institutional support necessary for positive change to occur, and their thoughts about a technology infrastructure that would enhance the teaching and learning process.
In a recent interview with Educom Review, William Graves -- president of the COLLEGIS Research Institute, founder of the Institute for Academic Technology, and member of the EDUCAUSE board of directors -- was asked whether faculty members were once again becoming resistant to technology and change. Where once, he said, faculty resistance could be characterized by "plain old fear -- This is a fad; it may go away; I'd like to retire before I have to confront it," today the resistance can be characterized by a lack of faith that institutions are supporting faculty in their efforts to transform learning through information technology. "I find a lot of faculty members who say, Yes, I take this seriously. I can see the value of using this with my students, and I'd really like to do so. However, I'm not ready to commit, because I don't think my institution will support me." What Graves believes is that institutions "are not removing the barriers to the fair consideration of this type of work in advancing" the careers of faculty.
Even though there is a growing level of support among colleges and universities for faculty efforts to use technology for teaching and learning, that support tends to take the form of technology assistance, such as help setting up Web pages, obtaining and learning computer systems, training, and other forms of support. But do those efforts demonstrate true institutional support for faculty members interested in improving the quality of education through information technology? Many think not. Educom Medal award winner Paul Velleman of Cornell University thinks faculty members are right to believe their institutions are not behind their efforts. "A school that lacks a policy on intellectual property but invests in state-of-the-art laboratories and modern, electronically wired lecture halls while believing that staff support for building pedagogical tools on computers is an investment that must be paid back or it entitles the school to own the work is not being supportive," he says. "What's worse," he adds, "is that our faculty peers are not behind this work. The barriers that keep such work from advancing careers are not generally institutional. Promotion in academe depends upon the evaluation of one's work by one's peers. If the other members of the faculty think that someone who develops information technology-based teaching materials is just a programmer, or that the work is just teaching and not research, or worse, that someone might be making money from royalties on sales, then they will judge that work to be undeserving of promotion or of tenure. Unfortunately, this attitude cannot be changed by administrative fiat."
Others think the nature of resistance by both institutions and faculty members has more to do with the breakneck speed at which technology is changing than with the technology itself. Award winner Diana Eck of Harvard University says her institution still has very few classrooms well equipped for multimedia CD-ROM technology. "I think resistance results, in part, because the technology is changing so fast that institutions fear it will be outdated by the time it is installed," she says.
Award winner Richard Larson of the State University of New York at Stony Brook believes institutions are, in fact, investing too heavily in technology without proof that those investments will be returned in the form of improved educational quality and productivity. "I think there is insufficient skepticism at all levels about information technology and its role in teaching," says Larson. "Everybody can see the value of e-mail but the inferences that are being drawn to information technology generally go way beyond this."
Velleman is described by the American Statistical Association -- which nominated him for the Educom Medal -- as the one who set the standard for technology-based statistics education. He himself believes the key to using technology in education "is to find ways to teach better than we could without the technology." What Velleman discovered in his own work was that it was possible to "use technology to break a subject into single concepts, motivate, teach, and reinforce each concept, and then help the student tie them back together." The results are gratifying for the man who designed and authored ActivStats, a popular multimedia learning environment that uses video, narrated exposition, interactive visualization, simulation, hands-on application, hypertext, and Internet resources. "Students in statistics are often intimidated by the terminology and equations," says Velleman. "We have found that students who work with ActivStats absorb the material better, retain it better, and enjoy the course more."
Eck experienced similar results with her work directing Harvard's Pluralism Project, a student-based research project that explores and documents the changing religious landscape of the United States following the 1965 Immigration Act. "Our work enables learners of all ages to explore the religious traditions that many public school teachers are hesitant to teach," she says. Teaching religion, which she points out is both constitutional and important, is a tricky subject in the United States, and the CD-ROM she developed gives both teachers and learners more freedom. "A teacher does not have to be the authoritative voice, because there are other voices present to describe what it means to be a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew," she says.
Larson expresses concern that the so-called evidence that technology can actually help improve educational quality is really just the tendency of technology to make course material more engaging. However, he believes that the intense effort on the part of faculty developers may not justify the results. "Although technology does help us deliver a more intense and engaging course," he says, "the amount of effort on the part of the teaching staff to deliver that course is also greater." Larson worries that "even if there is marginal improvement in student learning, it may simply be the outcome of increased enthusiasm on the part of students and faculty at doing the same old thing differently." Whereas many instructors believe information technology can indeed help improve the quality of teaching and learning, Velleman expresses concern that too many of the advances now taking place in technology and education relate more to improving administrative systems. "The challenges of using IT in education are not primarily administrative; they are pedagogical," says Velleman. "The challenges are in the presentation itself, and few are even trying to answer those challenges creatively."
Worse, Velleman fears that without appropriate recognition of the work done by faculty to develop technology-based learning tools, careers will be compromised. "Information technology can improve teaching and learning," he says, "but my advice to my academic peers is that they should put their efforts elsewhere until their faculty peers and administration commit fully to supporting, recognizing, and rewarding innovative work in this area. Many creative people have ruined their academic careers by devoting significant efforts to creative work using IT in education. I don't believe that situation has changed very much in the past 20 years."
Projects such as the Instructional Management Systems (IMS), which was born out of EDUCAUSE's National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, purport to aid in the improvement of teaching and learning by providing a set of technical specifications to manage the instructional process. The IMS project intends to facilitate online activities such as locating and using educational content, tracking learner progress, reporting learner performance, and exchanging student records between administrative systems. The descriptive materials that reside at the IMS Web site state that the "specifications will increase the range of distributed learning opportunities and they will promote the creativity and productivity of both teachers and learners in this new environment."
Award winner David Fulker of the Unidata Program Center at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research believes the IMS is offering a valuable opportunity to the educational community by providing an infrastructure through which educational innovation can thrive. "Although I personally have (too) little knowledge of the IMS, the initiative is addressing issues that I think are important, including a new economic model for materials development," he says. "IMS standards also appear to be valuable, and those classifying educational materials may well be used in our own work."
a Velleman disagrees that the IMS is offering a valuable service to the educational community, and he may well be voicing the concern of many faculty members who believe the development of innovative technology-based teaching and learning is taking a backseat to what he sees as aggressive efforts toward using technology to improve administrative systems. "The IMS seems to be about administrative issues," he says. "Not once is a new or innovative idea about using IT to teach better introduced -- indeed, the word 'teaching' appears only once in the entire report." Although he agrees that the IMS frees authors from having to develop certain educational modules, he fears that it constrains how technology is used in teaching by assuming that content can reside in containers that fit within the administrative model. "I end up feeling the administrative structure is the master and the pedagogy is almost an afterthought," he says.
The benefits of IT-infused education -- as described by those who appear to be most active in developing and applying those tools -- typically do not relate to educational quality in its purest sense (improved learning or increased academic productivity). Rather, the benefits may be viewed more as positive side effects. Larson believes the technology-based exploratory tools he developed -- Syntactica and Semantica -- offer opportunities for students to work together cooperatively, which was otherwise impossible in a lecture format. "Assignment of exercises that are worked in a lab of networked computers not only furnishes students with a natural reason for gathering outside class; it also provides additional avenues for helping and communicating with each other," he says.
Fulker does not work directly with students -- Unidata uses technology to help universities acquire and use atmospheric and related data for education and research -- but he believes his program serves as a model for the ways information technology empowers a community to transform itself. "Our experience indicates that community members utilize technology to identify common needs, to access common resources, and to advance the state of those common resources -- all without limiting the choices available to individuals," he says. Much work remains, he adds, in part because "the present, textbook-oriented economic model for producing high-quality educational materials is inconsistent with Web-oriented education trends."
Fulker also is attracted to what he sees as one outcome of the technology revolution -- that is, the ability to transfer some of the power of information from publishers to individuals. "This trend is consistent with and supportive of an improved model in which learners help create, rather than merely ingest, the knowledge and understanding they need or desire," he says. "I believe our education systems -- through technological enhancements -- will become more closely matched to the most effective learning modalities of all students, exploiting the natural curiosity with which our species is so abundantly imbued."
Even though Educom Medal winners share recognition by their peers that their work in technology has measurably improved the undergraduate learning experience, many of the winners also share broad skepticism about the real long-term benefits technology offers higher education. And yet some measure of optimism, however guarded, is evident. "It is my belief that a significant, technology-based educational transformation already has occurred in meteorology," says Fulker. "Admittedly, this change does not yet reflect many of the pedagogical shifts that are needed, but I am very optimistic that the trends are in the right direction."
"I think that IT has great potential to improve teaching and learning," says Velleman, "but only if and when the necessary investments are made to ensure that the technology actually enhances education rather than its simply being used to deliver the same old course or to substitute for face-to-face teaching." Even Larson, who states up front that he is "not a wholesale advocate of the use of information technology in education," admits that preliminary, anecdotal evidence of the results of his work has been positive, especially in the areas of engagement, student collaboration, and student participation.
What we learn is that there are as many ways to define the benefits and drawbacks of technology-based education as there are individuals willing to apply those tools -- and that number is growing every year. What advice would award winners give their peers about how information technology can be used to improve the educational process? Larson believes faculty "should be as clear as possible about what they want students to learn and how they want students to learn it. Then and only then can one properly think about the contribution information technology might make to this process and how it might help to deliver the course more effectively -- or not."