Information Technology in Teaching and Learning
Of all of the issues facing higher education at the end of the twentieth century, none is more intriguing and more puzzling than the role of information technology in teaching, learning, and research. Some observers believe that the advent of ever faster and more powerful means of transmitting information signals the end of universities as we have known them in the outgoing millennium. Even those who are more sanguine about the prospects for universities as institutions in a physical space acknowledge that new technology will have profound effects on their fabric. Some of those effects already are being seen, others we can only speculate about.
Originally, the university was mostly a teaching space. Early in its history, it became, and continues to be, a space for intellectual interaction of faculty with students, students with one another, and faculty members with one another. The physical aspects of the university reflect these basic functions. Campuses consist of libraries and museums where information is stored, classrooms and lecture halls for communicating and sharing ideas, and residences to enable students to come from long distances to participate in the life of the institution. The campus is the physical manifestation of the principal functions of university life, all of which are based heavily on the idea that the resources necessary for teaching, learning, and research must be assembled in a single place to which people come for extended periods of time.
Those who argue that the traditional university is rapidly becoming outmoded do so because all these traditional functions are potentially changed by new information technology. The storehouse of information actually and potentially available on the Internet vastly exceeds the resources of any conceivable physical library. The phrase "World Wide Web" is surely one of the most appropriate metaphors ever coined, because it is literally true that a large percentage of the world's information is now connected in an infinite and expanding web that is both more accessible and more researchable than any collection of books. The library will have a place in the university of the future, but it is no longer the exclusive repository of stored information and knowledge.
Just as the role of libraries has and will change, so will the function of the traditional classroom. Technology, again, will increasingly change the way we communicate with one another, including the communication of complex thought and instruction. Videotapes of lectures given by prominent faculty members from great universities have been available for some time by mail order. One can enroll in courses and even whole degree programs via computer-based communication or through a combination of media. Many of these courses are accessible at the convenience of the student, anytime, anyplace. The traditional classroom and traditional class schedule, it is argued, may no longer be the locus of instruction even within the traditional university. Many campuses, including Stanford, are now experimenting with asynchronous instruction, providing access to electronic courses whenever the student desires.
Finally, if information and instruction have both become unbound from the physical campus, is there any reason to have residential colleges and universities? "Virtual universities" are experiments designed to test the traditional notions of time and space as they apply to education. There is no place to come to, much less live in, on a virtual campus. The university has been reduced to an abstract concept, loosely describing a set of electronic educational services. A recent Doonesbury comic captures the disorienting aspect of the virtual university. In it, a university president gazes out of the window of his study in his bathrobe, contemplating the commencement address he is about to give. In the next frame, we see him at his computer typing his remarks. In the final frame, a student, in cap and gown, sits in a room with his parents in front of a computer screen and remarks about what a lovely speech they had just read!.
Is this really the future that Stanford and other research-intensive universities face? Probably not. Reports of the demise of universities have been greatly exaggerated in the past and surely will be again in the future. The full range of services provided by a university includes much more than simply storing and transmitting information and knowledge. Universities also create new knowledge, and that creation requires intense collaboration that is unlikely to be fully replaced by electronic communication. For one, wet labs are not about to be replaced by virtual labs any time soon. And the campus setting provides not only a place to communicate about scholarship, but also a place in which intellectual discourse and social integration is practiced to a degree unmatched by any other institution in contemporary society.
However much we may need universities in the future--and I believe we will--we must continuously review the quality of our teaching programs, especially in light of new technological opportunities and challenges. We have an obligation to incorporate the best that new technology has to offer, to revise and improve upon the best of our traditional teaching methods, and to redefine and maintain standards of quality in instruction. To these ends, in October 1994, I appointed the Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning (CTTL), under the chairmanship of Professor John Etchemendy. The charge to the commission drew attention to the need to take charge of our own future.
Stanford's ability to retain its position as a preeminent institution of higher education in the 21st century will depend to a significant extent on how the University employs technology in teaching and learning. Technology offers the potential to enhance Stanford's academic leadership position and reputation world-wide. Appropriate use of information resources can increase faculty productivity; help retain, and engage the brightest students; enrich students' learning experiences and faculty teaching methods. Technology may enhance income opportunities for the university and potentially reduce costs of delivering education. It can allow Stanford to become a truly world-wide institution of learning, reaching out to new types of students and embracing the concept of life-long learning through new models of continuing education. Technology also offers the potential to forge new partnerships with industry, the government, and other educational institutions that will foster research and scholarship as well as teaching.
Thus, the mission of the President's Commission on Technology is to recommend policies, set future directions, identify obstacles and ways of removing them, and initiate pilot projects that offer the potential to enrich Stanford's teaching and learning through technology. The goal is to enhance the quality of a Stanford education while maintaining the highest standards of admission and certification. The challenge facing the commission is to identify key issues and initiate those actions which offer potentially broad application, rather than develop only a set of recommendations and predictions for the future.
The commission has directly involved more than fifty faculty and staff members during the past three years and has consulted with countless individuals both within and outside of the university. As my charge asked, CTTL has refrained from issuing reports suggesting that "someone ought to do something about this." Rather, it has taken an active role in promoting projects and debating policy issues that arise as we adopt new practices.
CTTL fairly quickly settled on three main areas of concentration: (1) the technological infrastructure of the campus; (2) opportunities to export educational services and products through new technology; and (3) opportunities to make new uses of technology in campus-based instruction.
Stanford has a strong technological infrastructure, as would be expected at an institution that played such a formative role in the development of the computer industry. Links to the central computer network are nearly ubiquitous among campus offices and the residence halls; on campus there are approximately twenty-five thousand desktop computers connected to the Internet--more than thirty-five thousand connections when one counts such devices as printers and network servers. All this does not even mention the mainframe computing plant housed at Forsythe Hall. We do not lack for raw computing power.
The CTTL has concentrated on parts of the infrastructure that require improvement if we are to stay at the forefront. One early project was to develop standards for classrooms so that it will be simple to carry a computer into a class, project images from it during the course of a lecture, call up instructional software and computerized demonstrations, and even to communicate electronically with other classrooms on other campuses. Several model, multipurpose classrooms exist on campus already. In addition, a number of highly specialized classrooms have been prepared for instruction in subjects such as foreign languages. In all, however, fewer than one-quarter of all classrooms now have significant electronic capability. We have developed a plan to double that number by roughly the year 2000. We have assured that new classrooms being built--such as those in the Science and Engineering Teaching Center--reflect the state of the art. And we have developed a multiyear plan to invest more than $8 million in upgrading the campus network and existing academic buildings.
Investments in technology alone, of course, do nothing to enhance teaching and learning. Indeed, there is a growing concern in some parts of the educational enterprise--particularly at the primary and secondary levels--about whether investments in technology add value at all if they are not accompanied by investments in the curriculum, teacher training, and support services. In other words, technology does little or no good unless there are thoughtful plans about how best to use it. With this in mind, we have begun to increase our investments in the human side to exploit technology to its best effect. One example of this is the creation of new "Information Resource Specialists" in several academic departments. Knowledgeable in both the latest in technology and the subject matter of the department in which they work, they assist the faculty in the planning and implementation of new programs, in the development and testing of software, and in training both faculty and students in the use of computers and software.
CTTL's work has resulted in two new organizations, both of which are in the process of being established. The Educational Ventures Office (EVO) will assist Stanford faculty in developing new educational services and products that may have market potential outside of Stanford. We envision many kinds of products, ranging from instructional software to full-scale courses captured electronically and made available to individuals and institutions. An example might be a series of lectures by a prominent Stanford faculty member that could be used as an "electronic textbook" on other college campuses.
The EVO will evaluate the market potential for new ideas, assist in developing business plans, and attempt to secure venture capital for large new projects. The focus of the office clearly will be to produce a profit from such ventures, to be shared by the university, the faculty member, and his or her department. It will operate very much like the Office of Technology Licensing, which will remain focused on inventions and the products of research.
In establishing the EVO we quickly encountered policy issues generated by the new technological world in which we find ourselves. By long-standing tradition, faculty members own the rights to their written work, including such products as textbooks. By more recent tradition and policy, the university retains an interest in inventions and devices created substantially with university resources or federal government funding. Software and technological products lie in a gray area somewhere between. Is a series of lectures captured on CD-ROM more like a textbook or more like an invention? If a course normally taught by a faculty member at Stanford is filmed off campus, is it still a Stanford course? Does Stanford have the right to replicate and broadcast courses taught by its faculty on campus? What will constitute fair use of copyrighted material if it is part of a class demonstration that is itself copyrighted and sold? These are all questions to which there are few answers at the moment, but which, I assume and hope, will begin to be resolved in the coming years (if not by deliberate sorting out, then by practice).
The second new organization, the Stanford Learning Lab, will focus on importing new technologies into the Stanford curriculum. Headed by Professor Larry Leifer, the Learning Lab is a new kind of organization for Stanford. Its purpose is to explore the connections among theories of learning, the opportunities presented by new technology, and the actual practice of teaching. As with all good research, a heavy emphasis will be put on close observation and the assessment of results. The point will not be merely to introduce technology into Stanford classes, but to transform those classes through a combination of new technology and new teaching practices designed to maximize the effect of the technology.
Professor Leifer's research has for many years focused on how groups of professionals can be made to work more effectively on joint projects. This background makes him well suited to understand how groups of students and their teachers can work together more effectively. The Learning Lab's early focus will be primarily on large undergraduate lecture courses in fields such as the new Introduction to the Humanities sequence and Human Biology. These courses form the backbone of instruction in the first and second years for most students, yet they are in many ways the least like the kind of course Stanford prides itself in. Technology may allow us to find ways to increase the interaction among students and faculty and to reduce our dependence on large lectures for this kind of instruction.
These new organizations and initiatives arise against a background of innovation that is characteristic of all parts of Stanford. Finding new uses for technology is not the exclusive concern of the CTTL. Other substantial projects are under way, some undertaken with the aid and encouragement of CTTL, others more or less independent.
Among the most noteworthy of the new initiatives is the HighWire Press, an Internet-based publisher of academic journals organized by University Librarian Michael Keller. Peer-reviewed academic journals are the lifeblood of most disciplines. They provide the forum through which experts speak to one another, and through their editorial review processes they set standards of academic quality. The business of academic journals has some peculiar aspects. Faculty members contribute their articles, free of charge, to the journals. The publishers, many of which are commercial, then sell the journals back to faculty and their institutions at prices that have steadily escalated in double-digit percentages over the past decade. Until recently, there has been little choice but to pay these prices, often many thousands of dollars for a single one-year subscription.
On-line publishing is still in its infancy, but the HighWire Press has a larger collection of journals produced electronically than any other entity in the country, including most of the major journals in the biological sciences. The articles are produced far more rapidly than if they were printed and are available more cheaply. The goal of the HighWire Press is to facilitate academic interchange by cutting the cost and improving efficiency.
Another very visible experiment conducted during the past two years has been the inauguration of the Stanford Channel. Offered over the local cable television cooperative, the channel has been used to test our ability to capture programs and prepare them for broadcast. In addition to videotaping and airing campus lectures and events, six full Continuing Studies courses have been delivered by television. A full review of the Stanford Channel will be undertaken in the next year, in part to determine whether there are realistic opportunities for broader distribution. The Stanford Channel complements and builds upon twenty-seven years of experience in televised instruction in the School of Engineering. The Stanford Instructional Television Network, which uses point-to-point technology to deliver engineering courses to firms throughout the region, is expanding its mission to include a broader range of professional education services. Work is under way to develop a series of courses given by Earth Sciences faculty to be delivered to petroleum engineers and other professionals working at great distance from the Stanford campus.
Dozens of other technology projects are currently under way across all parts of the university. A partial list includes.
Altogether, CTTL is monitoring more than fifty experiments. Professor John Etchemendy has headed it most ably in addition to his obligations as cognizant dean for the Humanities within H&S. He and the members of the commission have proven that committees can actually achieve change if they forgo writing reports.
Among my motives for raising questions about, and pushing, information technology issues has been my concern that universities are unduly complacent about the pace of change. No university in the world, not even the best, will be exempted from reviewing--in a searching and comprehensive manner, department by department--the impact of information technology on its teaching programs.
Due to the personnel-intensive traditional modes of teaching, universities, in the past, have not participated in the productivity gains in the economy that, ironically, can be traced to the very discoveries ultimately attributable to universities. We must continuously examine how we will use the new technologies, what investments in infrastructure and software development are called for, and how new videoconferencing technology can lead to increased interaction among universities for improvements and savings in programs.
The history of the last one thousand years of institutions of higher learning has seen waxing, but also a lot of waning. Unless we make the case for our work in its entirety and pursue it rigorously and efficiently, the world may develop new approaches that it will consider adequate substitutes, even though we may not think of them as, and they in fact may not be, adequate.