Provost's Corner: Technology: Transforming the Teaching and Learning Process?

German Day

The Luddites, a group of British working class men who were active between 1811-1816, are best remembered for their riotous behavior and destruction of textile machinery. We get the word sabotage from their French cousins, because French workers also tried to wreck power looms by throwing their wooden shoes (sabots) into the delicate moving parts. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, workers were afraid not only of losing jobs to new technologies, but also that entirely new forms of work were being imposed on them. Today, reasonable people also wonder if new educational technologies in the university mean the loss of what is valued, the loss of control over the very definition and meaning of teaching and learning. Is the use of new technologies detrimental to the relationships between faculty, staff, and students?

At the University, we want technology to enhance, not complicate, the teaching and learning process. The Target 2000 committee, composed of faculty and staff, has shaped our answer to this challenge. In response to requests from the academic community, the University began systematically to get adequate, networked computers on to the desks of all faculty and staff. We will come close to achieving that goal this academic year, though our connection to the Internet and our ability to use the campus e-mail system is sometimes hampered by dated technologies, a frayed infrastructure, and lack of sufficient technical and support staff. This situation will improve with new initiatives at the level of the CSU system, We have also built, in response to requests from the faculty, new discipline-based computer laboratories across the campus. With the help of a competitive $500,000 grant from the CSU system, we opened a 24-hour a day student computing laboratory in Meriam Library. In addition, funds from the system and internal reallocations have allowed us to improve classroom technology, upgrade student laboratories, provide access to the library using the Internet, and begin the expansion of network connections to selected dormitories. We are well on our way to achieving our goal of making this campus a technologically friendly place for our students.

Some of the reasons for providing our students with university-wide and discipline based computing laboratories and new technologies are obvious. Increasingly, students come to us from high schools and community colleges where technology has played an active role in their education; they expect to find a similar commitment to technology in a comprehensive university. Students trained in the use of discipline-specific technologies are also, quite frankly, more employable. Job growth in California and across the nation has been and will continue to be in knowledge-based industries. Students must leave here with an ability to use state-of-the art technology and must be able to use educational resources available electronically for the remainder of their working careers. A commitment to technology can distinguish the institution and assure stable enrollments. Though these technologies are often expensive, we have been fortunate to receive significant donations of hardware and software from major corporations, providing students with an appropriate learning environment and faculty with the latest and most sophisticated equipment. None of these resources would have come to the University without an institution-wide commitment to the appropriate and intelligent use of new technologies.

It is one thing to say we have a commitment to creating a state-of-the art, technology-enhanced learning environment. It is quite another to argue that every teacher should embrace the use of technology in his or her teaching. Faculty must decide after reflection what it is they want their students to learn and then determine whether or not learning can be facilitated with the use of one or more technologies. Virtually every program that has been created on campus, every technology purchased, has been done at the behest of faculty and staff trying to find the best means to do their jobs and serve their students.

We do know that technology can facilitate and augment faculty and student interaction. For example, some of our faculty use e-mail for extended office hours, allowing students to ask questions outside of the classroom. Other faculty use new technologies to allow students to engage in collaborative writing exercises, to critique one another's work, and to create communities that extend beyond the classroom. I recently sent to all faculty and staff a copy of Projects to Enhance Quality and Productivity in Learning and Teaching 1996-1997, which reports on the experiments some of our colleagues have conducted to discover which technologies, under which circumstances, can lead to greater learning. The major conclusions of that document include the fact that, if technology is to be used, it must be accompanied by the same forms of personal interaction that allow for student success in other circumstances, e.g., engaged, well-organized instructors, regular attendance, and a high level of motivation. Technology, then, is one way to create the kind of innovative, high quality,and student-centered learning environments that are essential to student success.

It is very important that academic departments and programs consider the outcomes they value. For example, we need to define what it means for our students to be information literate. One definition of information literacy is that it involves the ability to use an appropriate technology (such as the Internet), and then to assess and evaluate critically the information one secures. Without critical evaluation, we lose control of the nature of learning and our ability to shape the learning environment. A problem with "all of that information out there" is that students often treat it as thought it were all of equal importance and of equal validity.

While many scholars mourn what they see as the rise of a postmodernist society, characterized by a fragmentation of knowledge, an ahistorical approach to the world, and a belief that we are autonomous Hobbesian individuals, with no sense of purpose or commitment to one another, we can use digitalized knowledge not to reinforce such tendencies nor to erode the basis of learning and knowledge that distinguish universities, but to create the kind of university we value.

Scott G. McNall, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

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