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Just another tool?

A technology primer is at the bottom of this page.

On february 1, 1960, with Dwight Eisenhower in the White House and Chubby Checker’s #1 hit record “The Twist” filling the airwaves, a sizable crowd gathered on campus to watch a piece of history in the making — the arrival of the University of Vermont’s first computer.

“It came in a large truck which backed up to the main entrance of the Waterman Building,” recalls Heath Riggs, a mathematics professor emeritus who helped convince then-President John Fey that a $40,000 computer would be an asset to UVM. About the size of an SUV, it took several men to maneuver the unwieldy hardware into its new home, Riggs relates. Once in place, the IBM 1620 went to work solving a trigonometric equation that math department professors had designed as a demonstration for the curious onlookers. With lights blinking, the state-of-the-art machine solved the problem in just under five minutes. “It worked perfectly,” Professor Riggs remembers with satisfaction.

To be fair, the old 1620 probably performed the calculations in no more than fifteen seconds, but feeding the paper-tape input, running the program twice, as the software required, and processing the output chewed up the remaining time. Still, it was a far cry from the multi-gigahertz processing speeds, wireless laptops, and “smart classrooms” found on campus today.

Technologically speaking, there’s no denying we live in a different world from forty, twenty, even ten years ago. Despite the recent dot-com meltdown, the development of the Internet and ubiquitous access to personal computers have changed things from Wall Street to Main Street. And while the ramifications of the current technological tumult may not be entirely clear — or equally valued — most educators agree that the foundations of the proverbial “ivory tower” are feeling the quake as well.

“It’s not just a technological change, but a seismic shift in education,” says Howard Davis, UVM’s director of instructional technology. “Not only in what we teach,” he explains, “but in how we teach it.”
One need go no further than Davis’s Digital Multi-Media Development Lab (DMDL), constructed as part of the Old Mill/Lafayette Building renovations, for a glimpse at what the future of teaching might hold. Besides five tele-classrooms that support cutting-edge presentation tools — including the ability to conduct distance-learning through dedicated, high-speed phone lines — professors draw on the DMDL to learn how to deliver online classes or enhance campus-based courses using the Internet.

For some, though, turning to technology to advance higher education may seem a little like peeking into Pandora’s box: it’s bound to be a powerful display, but likely to unleash as many problems as solutions. Though clearly not the root of all evil, the questions that arise do strike at the core of the university’s mission, the role of faculty, and the type and quality of education students receive, say faculty members and administrators.

“Students come to campus with a different mindset than they did twenty or thirty years ago,” notes Shirley Gedeon, professor of economics and co-director of UVM’s Center for Teaching and Learning (see page 32). “I have one of them in my home who would no more reach for an encyclopedia than he would reach for a slide rule,” the popular professor and former Fulbright scholar says of her own son. “Everything that he believes is worth knowing is on the Net, so that’s where his research begins.”

Beyond using computers to access information, the post-PlayStation II Generation — as one faculty wag likes to call them — may be developing slightly different circuitry than than those of us born of the book culture. “Watch how a five-year-old who has access to a home computer sits and learns a game … they just learn differently from you and me,” observes Senior Vice Provost Rebecca Martin. “What are we going to do to hold their attention when they get here?” she asks, noting that that time is at hand. “We’re going to have to rethink the way we teach, and that to me is the real key.”

helping teachers help students
A professor who has never been known to have difficulty capturing students’ attention is Lauck Parke of UVM’s School of Business Administration. Parke, a specialist in organizational leadership, regularly assigns readings by Machiavelli, dons a leather motorcycle jacket, and runs clips of Hollywood flicks like “High Noon” just to make a point. A thirty-year teaching veteran and fan of the new technologies, Parke’s also given some consideration to the changing role of teachers.

“The lure of technology is not as the ‘gee whiz’ gizmo, but that you can accomplish things as a teacher,” says Parke, ticking off PowerPoint presentations, Web-based class discussions, and the posting of lecture notes on a class homepage as a few of his favorite new tricks. “It’s a tool, albeit a powerful tool, that I had thought about and wished I could use to reach students and now can.”

Posting lecture notes, as a small but growing number of UVM faculty have begun to do, carries the potential to dramatically alter the educational world as we know it. For starters, students could decide not to show up (but they usually do). And professors, especially those who post lectures in advance, need to dream up something new to do during class time (and they always do). But, one might ask, doesn’t this rub the varnish off the job of waxing eloquent on the key concepts in one’s chosen field?

“That’s the Luddite threat, that technology’s diminishing me as a faculty member,” says Parke. “Well, you can see it as a threat and fight the industrial revolution or you can see it as a positive and say, ‘Think of the free time!’” “I don’t see it as a degradation,” he continues, “because now I have more time to provide what I say is the real value added. And the real value added is asking students, ‘What part of this course do you personally not understand?’”

The more exciting question, Parke and others suggest, is, “How can technology help teachers help students?” In other words, can technology help create a community of learners? Can it help make learning more relevant? And most importantly, can it foster the discussion, critical thinking, and the creation of new ideas that are the underpinnings of the university ideal?

Click on to Shirley Gedeon’s newly minted Comparative Economic Systems Website and you’ll get a sense of some of the answers. On the homepage, you’ll find: links to the course syllabus; a calendar of critical dates — “that’s my nagging” she jokes; links to other relevant sites, like the Internet Modern History Sourcebook; a “discussion board” where students post responses to readings and other reflections; class e-mail for better communication among the group; “gripes” for anonymous complaints; and, a “course tools” device where students and teacher can share a screen to work through problems.

In action, the course is taught as a “hybrid,” meaning Gedeon and her charges tackle the learning modules in person. “In a sense we’re not creating something new,” she concedes. Professors always provided paper syllabi, held office hours for questions, and nagged about due dates, for instance. “But,” Gedeon adds, “the discussion board is the difference. Students can leave the classroom and still communicate with each other and feel that they want to — out of your control or even earshot. And that’s the point at which they take ownership.”

And “ownership,” in the lexicon of teachers, means good things — like more relevant learning and the existence of community. “When we cover elasticity of demand in micro-economics, it’s a real sleeper,” Gedeon divulges with a smile. “Students have to memorize percentage change in quantity over percentage change in demand. But now I ask them to go find some examples on the Web and post it to our Website. Instead of my one example on the board, we now have fifty examples from students. The principle is out there, and it’s not something so obscure.”

technology gets the gold star
Orchestrating participation — like gathering input from each and every student — seems to be one of the minor miracles of the new technology. “In a ‘Great Leaders’ class I taught, I had an older, non-traditional student who was very quiet, yet obviously engaged in the class,” says Parke. “Then she made some thoughtful posts to the discussion board, and one of the other students said, essentially, ‘Hey, she has a hold of something that is really important.’ That affirmation allowed her to open up in class,” adds Parke enthusiastically. “I have to give the technology the gold star on that one.”

Just as there’s no back row for students in an online setting, there’s little chance that the current technological revolution will ignore UVM, suggests Vice Provost Martin, the university’s lead administrator for Learning and Information Technology. Consequently, she notes, the university has identified “harnessing the power of technology to advance learning and discovery” as one of five hallmarks in its current Strategic Action Plan.

To achieve this goal, the university has earmarked signigicant funding for classroom technology upgrades. Thus far, a few of the highlights include installation of two major multimedia lecture halls, three specialized computer classrooms, and thirty state-of-the-art computer presentation rooms in fifteen campus locations. “Beyond infrastructure, we’re also making good headway into integrating technology into a wide array of courses and in extending a hand to faculty ready to run with the new tools,” says Martin.

extending the reach of the university
If there are pragmatic reasons for faculty to use technology, the same can be said for students, especially working adults located at a distance from campus. According to recent studies, these “non-traditional” students now outnumber the 18-24-year-old demographic at institutions of higher learning. The pace of technological acceleration — and its effect on workers’ knowledge and skills — is believed to be the single most significant factor feeding this trend.

“Knowledge is the currency of the workplace,” says Tim Scovill, senior associate dean of UVM Continuing Education. “People have found that they can beat the path back to higher education and find solutions.”
As a land-grant institution with the mission of serving the state, the university now uses distance learning technology to deliver more than sixty credit courses per year to students around Vermont. Students like Bev Partington, a mother of four and a registered nurse who earned a bachelor of science degree largely from her home in Vergennes. “I did most of my work late at night on my computer after my children went to bed,” writes Partington via e-mail.

The recently developed “Cyber Summer” has grabbed the imagination of more traditional residential students too. Having completed its second year, Cyber Summer included more than twenty online offerings — ranging from Pre-Calculus to the Bible as Literature — and enrolled nearly four hundred students, a heady jump from the sixty-five in its pilot year.

While distance learning technology has the ability to extend the reach of the university, some educators understandably question the quality and implications of too much electronically mediated interaction, cautioning against UVM getting lost in educational cyber-space.

“Universities have to meet the world and not just be off by themselves,” says English Professor Huck Gutman, acknowledging a market for online learning while arguing that personal contact is an essential element to a healthy life on campus or otherwise. “As a parent sending his kid off to college, I’m real interested in the teacher-student ratios, and I notice that the colleges like to say how often students have contact with professors,” Gutman offers. “If students aren’t having that interaction, even if they have lots of online contact, I’m not sure parents are going to want to pay the tuitions that they pay.”

as cool as cool can be
Parental preferences aside, perhaps student expectations ought to be factored into the math of how far UVM should dive into technology-enriched classrooms like Room 205 Votey. Christened “The Mathematics and Statistics Active Learning Classroom,” but better known as “The Cool Room” because of its cool tools, the high-tech classroom came online the day before school began last September. Built with funds from a National Science Foundation grant authored by math faculty colleagues Jim Burgmeier, David Dummit, and Larry Kost, and UVM’s Technology Venture Fund — a $1 million reserve created by an anonymous donor to advance innovative technology on campus — the $200,000 “smart classroom” boasts thirty computer stations laid out in six island clusters specifically designed to promote the teaching of mathematics.

“It’s a very different room because we have a very different philosophy on how computers and technology should work in a math class and the room’s designed to accomplish that thinking,” says Associate Mathematics Chair Burgmeier. The underlying philosophy, explains Burgmeier, is that technology should be seamlessly incorporated into courses, just as it is in the everyday life of mathematicians. It’s a philosophy his students seem to appreciate.

“It’s exactly why I came here,” says Angie Barbateiu, a first-year mathematics major from New Jersey. “I was looking for a truly rigorous math program that attracts talent from other countries and that has a room like this where I can actively use the computer and illustrate for myself what is being taught in class,” she says, noting that she began her UVM career as a Continuing Education student and hopes to finish with a doctorate.

And as for the future of technology in education, Burgmeier and his colleagues suggest it’s always instructive to take a look at the past.

“What did they do with radio when they first invented radio?” the fifty-something professor asks. “They put vaudeville on radio. What did they do with television when they first invented television? They put radio on television. Well, here we are at the very edge of all this technology and what are we doing? We’re putting regular lectures on computers,” he says, shaking his head before continuing.

“Somebody is going to come along, like they did with radio and television, and change it completely. And it won’t be me because I’m too old and too set in my ways and I don’t have time. But it will be one of my students, and they’ll come along and take this stuff and make it into something that will be just as cool as cool can be. And they’ll say, ‘Burgmeier just put the lectures right on the computer. Man, that was weird and very shortsighted.’ And that,” he concludes, “will be great.” VQ

An Educational Technology Primer
Bulletin Boards A place in cyber-space – accessed through a class homepage – where students and teachers can “post” written responses to readings and other class discussion topics. Unlike popular Web “chat rooms,” bulletin boards can only be viewed by enrolled students and the professor and are “asynchronous” – meaning postings can be made at any time of the day.

Class Homepage The portal to a class Website, a class homepage typically offers links to the course syllabus, the bulletin board, e-mail connections to other students or the professor, and links to other relevant Websites.

Cyber-Summer A program developed by the Division of Continuing Education in partnership with UVM departments to deliver online courses during the summer session. Designed to provide access to campus through the click of a mouse, students earn UVM credit while working around jobs and other summer activities in their home communities.

Hybrid Class A course that mixes online and in-person learning. Hybrid classes have a course Website and include online activities such as required bulletin board postings or homework submitted via e-mail. The purpose of hybrids is to free-up class time and extend learning opportunities.

WebCT A Web-based software program used by professors to develop online courses and hybrid components.

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