July 1997 // Commentary
Technology Provides New Responses to Old Problems
by James Garner Ptaszynski
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: James Garner Ptaszynski "Technology Provides New Responses to Old Problems" The Technology Source, July 1997. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I was recently in Boston doing a series of presentations on Technology at the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) New Learning Technologies Workshop. As is my custom when I am out of town, I picked up a copy of the local paper in order to see what issues were on the minds of the locals. In this case I selected The Boston Globe and the first issue that caught my eye was a front-page article titled, "State Colleges Cut More Majors."

The article describes how the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education has decided to eliminate 15 low-enrollment (i.e., programs that graduated fewer than five students a year) majors, master's programs, or associate's degree offerings next year. In addition, a panel of the board will be recommending the elimination of 14 additional programs. The programs to be cut range from a mater's degree in history at Bridgewater State College to an associate's degree in industrial technology at Greenfield Community College. But the article goes on to say that the greatest impact will likely be the elimination of some staples of the liberal arts curriculum, including the last remaining majors in physics and French at the nine state colleges (those majors will still be offered at the University of Massachusetts).

Proponents argue that the consolidation is designed to promote a more rational use of resources across the college system by allowing reallocation of faculty and funds to other majors. Every year, about 12,000 students receive their bachelor's degrees in all subjects from the state colleges and the University of Massachusetts. According to Stanley Koplik, Chancellor of public Higher Education, "When an entire public system produces an average of 40 physics graduates a year, you have to face squarely the question, should campuses be all things to all people?"

According to James Carlin, chairman of the Higher Education board, "This will enable the campuses to focus more on programs that they do well. In the intermediate and long run, there will be savings to the taxpayer."

But there are others that are concerned that the economic savings will be small while the loss to students great. Ted Marchese, vice president of the American Association for Higher Education is quoted as saying, "The issue that arises is not just whether there's a full range of pretty central liberal arts offerings, but what impact this has on student opportunities. For a lot of students, the one state college near their home may be their only shot."

David Twiss, who heads both the All-College Committee and the faculty union at Worcester State College (which will lose French and physics majors) says, "The students we serve are entitled to a physics major and foreign language majors. It is a very poor idea and there doesn't appear to be a dollar savings."

On the surface their appears to be two legitimate but conflicting responsibilities encountered by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education: providing broad educational access for students and upholding its fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers of the state of Massachusetts.

A slight digression. As I travel around the country, one of the biggest problems I see with the appropriate adoption of technology in Higher Education is our limited vision of its use. Many people, quite understandably, tend only to think of using technology within the present teaching paradigms and thereby limiting its full potential contribution.

A case in point. When I was in a panel discussion at the aforementioned AACSB workshop, a colleague talked about how the use of technology will always be limited due to the fact that one of the important things taught in business schools is "face-to-face relationship skills" and how technology does not foster them. I nodded in agreement until I started to relate his statement to my own experiences at Microsoft. Indeed, we still have many face-to-face meetings where interpersonal or relationship skills are important. But, more frequently, we work with "virtual teams" that rarely, if ever, meet face-to-face. Instead they communicate primarily through conference calls and rich electronic messaging systems (i.e., Microsoft Exchange). The teams may have members from across our corporate campus or from around the globe and it makes no difference. Neither do time zones or the availability of conference rooms.

I considered the new range of "relationship skills" required to be successful in an environment where face-to-face was no longer a required part of the equation. Given the increasing number of virtual teams spawned by Microsoft and other high tech/high communication organizations I wondered aloud to my business school colleagues how many of their schools were preparing their graduates for such an environment. Not one of the 200 participants raised their hands. They had been trapped in their thinking of what constituted a relationship and how technology could help to foster one.

Now back to Massachusetts. The problem in the article was discussed within the traditional residential college paradigm - classes taught with an instructor, students and a traditional classroom vs. no classes offered. Nowhere in the article was technology mentioned as an alternative to this bipolar situation. Can technology help to bridge the divide between those that are trying to achieve "rational use of resources" with those that want to preserve "student opportunities?" Perhaps.

Consider the elimination of the French major at several of the state colleges. Students would probably be able to take advantage of reciprocal agreements between the state colleges but, given limitations of time and distance, this would not be a good option for most students.

Enter technology enhanced distributed learning. Using technology to attack this problem could take many forms but let us just focus on two. First, synchronous Internet-based program delivery (e.g., Microsoft NetMeeting or NetShow) could be used to allow a student at a remote location to participate in a live class on another campus. The only additional requirements on the remote student would be a healthy Internet connection and a current PC. If the student also wished to be seen by the class, a camera and PC board would also be required. Such a configuration would allow the student to actively participate in the class with minimal infrastructure requirements.

Another example of using technology to augment the "distant learners" experience might be the addition of rich electronic messaging. In this issue of the Technology Source, Andre Grandjean-Levy, Senior Lecturer at Cornell University, describes his use of electronic mail (Caught in the Net: Technology and Teaching Language Courses) to augment the teaching of French. His article points out some of the benefits that electronic communication offers which is not found in traditional classroom activities including the authentic exchange of "real time" information between students in France and at Cornell.

I think that the difficult choices facing the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education will be faced by a growing number of colleges and universities as they try to meet the needs of their constituents while being limited by economic reality. Technology is no panacea to Higher Education's problems but, if we can think creatively, it just might help us to open up a few more options.

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