January/February 2003 // Vision
The Technology Revolution:
An Interview with Frank Newman
by James L. Morrison and Frank Newman
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: James L. Morrison and Frank Newman "The Technology Revolution:
An Interview with Frank Newman" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

For the past decade, American colleges and universities have provided increasingly sophisticated personal computers and Web networks for faculty and student use. The popular press and trade journals have featured discussions about how this technology will transform education, but we have yet to see changes on a mass scale in our approach to teaching and learning. I spoke with Frank Newman, former president of the Education Commission of the States and current director of The Futures Project at Brown University, after his presentation at the 2002 American Council on Education's annual conference in San Francisco to explore what we might see in the future, and what it will take for technology to truly begin to transform education.

James L. Morrison [JM]: Frank, many observers point to this year as a watershed moment in the use of information technology tools to enhance education. Please give us your perspective.

Frank Newman [FN]: I agree that we are at a watershed moment. Even as technology continues to advance in its capabilities (e.g., easier to use software or easier video streaming), we have witnessed the dot-com collapse and its counterpart within higher education?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùin which many companies that expected to make huge amounts of money by providing technology for teaching have backed off, gone out of business, or shut down operations.

A number of for-profit subsidiaries of traditional nonprofit universities, such as Virtual Temple or NYU online, have shut down. The three high-profile companies that proposed to sell an information and communications technology (ICT) version of complete courses?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄùCardean University, Fathom, and Global Education Network?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùeach have reorganized, seeking a workable business plan. However, it is important to see that at the same time, many online arms of traditional universities, such as the University of Maryland, or for-profit universities, such as the University of Phoenix, keep right on expanding.

It would be easy to misinterpret this time as a period during which technology has become less significant. At The Futures Project, however, we consider this a period of realism more than a period of backing off. Most of the efforts that individuals or companies have abandoned were not conceived well enough in the first place; they did not have an adequate plan or a realistic base for what they were trying to accomplish. What we see happening across the country now, not just in the virtual world but in classroom use of technology as well, is a steadily growing use designed to alter the pedagogy of higher education in stimulating and exciting ways. We see these efforts advancing?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùstruggling, perhaps?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùbut steadily advancing nonetheless.

JM: Could you describe some of these efforts and how they use technology to effect change?

FN: For the most promising projects right now, technology has become a vehicle for finally revisiting aspects of pedagogy that everyone knows we could improve if we simply applied what we already know. We know, for example, that one of the least effective methods we can use in many academic settings is the lecture format, but many professors continue to lecture in most or all of their classes. Some alternatives would be to engage students in discussion, to ask them to participate in certain learning activities as part of the educational process, to use simulations, and, finally, to have the students teach each other. This combination would represent a positive advance in pedagogy and consequently in learning. Technology can make the implementation of these ideas much easier.

There are two ways that the application of technology leads to better pedagogy. The first is that well-designed modules, such as those produced by Biology Labs On-Line, allow large groups of students to try out ideas, to experiment, to actually "do" rather than only "listen," without creating a huge workload for the faculty. As a result, professors move toward better modes of teaching because the personal cost of doing so is low. The second is that those teaching a virtual or online course have found that they cannot simply move their passive lecture to the Internet and keep student interest (students report they are often bored by lectures in classrooms as well, but it is harder to get up and leave). As new and more effective approaches are created in an effort to reach out to online students, these new techniques are migrating to traditional classrooms. One simple example is the improvement in communication in traditional classes through the growth of online faculty-student interchanges, which first appeared on a regular basis in online classrooms.

Few teachers or institutions will be successful in truly transforming learning, though, unless they completely restructure their presentation and delivery of the educational experience. If they simply add technology to their current approach, not much will happen. If they restructure in a way that considers technology an important and central vehicle in enhancing pedagogy, then real, tangible changes can occur. Our estimate is that, over the next 5-6 years, we will see a significant change in which technology will begin to penetrate seriously into the daily pedagogy of all kinds of learning situations.

JM: Though many efforts to improve pedagogy through technology are underway, we still do not see the kind of mass change that many have predicted. Could you comment on why we have yet to see any substantial changes?

FN: I think there are at least a couple of reasons. First, the development of adequate infrastructure has been slow, and, even now, the infrastructure at many universities makes change difficult to implement. If you attempt something a little more advanced than most current efforts, you often expose the flaws in the system. For example, most universities and colleges already have the Internet structure and the software to allow class discussions online. Yet at most institutions it is not yet easy to use, nor is it available to all students on and off campus. Most faculty members do not wish to be in a situation where, halfway though the course, they cannot make the technology that they have chosen work. As instructors put these systems to test, though, universities are working through most of these difficulties. We are getting better and better across the country.

The second aspect that slows this process is the difficulty of developing effective software. In spite of this difficulty, we have seen remarkable advances in specialized software programs to enhance learning. For example, many students find abstract learning difficult and do much better when they can visualize. To address this need, there are now visually enhanced software models for such subjects as mathematical functions, geology, and the laws of physics. Some subjects require repeated practice. New modules provide for medical students remarkably realistic simulations of surgery, down to a sensation that is strikingly similar to the sensation felt by the surgeon during the actual procedure. Other modules?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùavailable now in a wide range of subjects?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùallow students to return as many times as they like to material that they did not understand in class, such as one of the many "mastering chemistry" modules offered by vendors (e.g., Falcon or MyChemClass.net). Some help students who want to probe further in depth, such as Columbia's elegant King Lear module or the Tufts Perseus Project. Some provide tutoring for subjects such as math and science, including the widely used Practical Algebra Tutor or the MIT CyberTutor for technical and scientific problems.

These programs are not available on a broad basis, but they are at least beginning to appear, and they are beginning to appear across the entire range of academic disciplines. The software is also becoming better, faster, easier to use, cheaper, and, most importantly, more reliable. Faculty members are not willing to put all or part of their course at the mercy of a piece of software unless they feel that it is very reliable. It needs to be like a blackboard, which works every time as long as you have a piece of chalk.

JM: Have any other factors prevented or delayed substantial change?

FN: Another factor holding back this process is faculty recalcitrance. There is a much deeper issue behind this recalcitrance that we have not even begun to address?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe fact that most incentive systems for faculty to use technology are all wrong. For instance, suppose you teach geology, and I have this marvelous module, and I can demonstrate that, if you use this module, your students will learn more and show more enthusiasm for the material. But it still is not in your interest to use the module. Why? Because what is in the faculty member's interest right now is finding the easiest way to teach, not the most effective, and the easiest way to teach does not involve using technology. There are no rewards even if students learn more and show more excitement about your class than other classes that do not use technology. Obviously, we need to think more about the issue of faculty incentives for teaching and particularly for teaching with technology. Skilled restructuring of courses often takes a departmental effort, even a multi-departmental effort. Universities and colleges are not good at this.

Finally, it is unclear whether a market will emerge for courses or for modules so that they become easily available. I am skeptical about the possibility of a market for entire courses. On the other hand, I think specific modules will be much more likely to inspire a market. As a faculty member, am I going to go say, "Oh, I'm using the Jones course here," or am I more likely to say, "I'm going to use the Jones module here and the Smith module over here?" Even if the module becomes the most important part of the course, I would still consider it my course.

So, I would argue that we are going to see a much more mixed system of course delivery, not simply offering courses either in the classroom or online. What continues to emerge steadily throughout higher education is a trend toward providing an online component in on-campus, traditional courses. Such hybrid courses will clearly play a large role in the years to come.

JM: These are exciting prospects, Frank. What will be required to organize and distribute visually enhanced instructional modules on a national level? What about rights management and royalties? Will all of this be open source, as MIT has started to promote?

FN: We have made little progress in creating channels of distribution for these modules. Creating effective and easy-to-use modules requires people with specialized skills?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùa faculty member for content and overall propose, a graphic designer, a technology expert, a producer, as well as a marketing team. The cost of creating such a team and the desirability of keeping it together as it gains experience makes it likely that this will become a commercial activity, not a cottage industry of interested faculty as it is now.

My bet is that a new form of textbook publisher will emerge?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùbasically a publisher of course modules. In terms of royalties and distribution, the scenario will probably resemble the print publishing industry: The faculty member will provide the ideas and get royalties, whereas the module publisher will provide the production, the distribution, and the control of intellectual property rights.

There is a great deal of discussion about how faculty want to own the intellectual rights to all this, but is this realistic? Suppose we decided to create a module on a given subject?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe movement of the tectonic plates or the construction of the California missions by Father Junipero Serra?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand we began looking for consultants. We would be mobbed by interested faculty. There will surely be some open source exchange, but my bet is that the large bulk of module creation will be traditional for-profit publishing.

JM: Can we use technology to improve aspects of education besides pedagogy?

FN: Yes. For instance, we have not talked about assessment. One thing that technology allows us to do very well is to conduct more sophisticated but less expensive assessment. This is becoming a larger issue, as there is more and more pressure to measure learning?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùnot how many hours of math the student has taken, but whether the student can successfully apply mathematical knowledge to real problems. The movement toward measuring learner outcomes is going to move much faster because of the pressures from state governments. Unlike the case of elementary and secondary education, where states mandated specific standards and assessments, states have so far indicated a preference for colleges and universities to create assessments themselves. These institutions would be wise to accept this responsibility because, if the response is inadequate, the states are likely to move toward mandated assessments.

While the academy has often argued that learning assessment at the collegiate level is difficult if not impossible, several dozen institutions have been doing it well for years; some?¢‚Ǩ‚ÄùAlverno College and the University of Phoenix?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùhave been measuring outcomes for decades. Recently technology has made this task even easier. For example, the Intelligent Essay Assessor effectively assesses composition, while other programs measure student proficiency in critical thinking skills or in the application of mathematics to practical problems. Current calls for learner outcomes in Florida and Washington, and the concomitant availability of assessment software, should facilitate the spread of technology-enhanced assessment across the United States.

I would also offer one last point that I think will help drive this revolution. Many people ask how we can encourage the use of technology among older faculty members, but this is not the real issue. The most important concern for educators today is the 12-year-old who, in about 6 years, is going to enter a college or university. If you spend any time with 12-year-olds, you will discover that they spend a lot of time with technology, but they use it in a different way than we do. In a recent communication, John Seely Brown said that people keep talking about students being technologically literate but that, to 12-year-olds, technology literacy is not the main concern. What matters to them is that technology is how you talk to people, how you meet people, and how you deal with people. They play computer games that feature fabulous simulation. They learn intuitively. We, on the other hand, are text-based learners. If we want someone to learn a concept, then we ask him or her to read the following 270 pages and be prepared for a discussion of the text during the next class. That is not how today's 12-year-olds learn; in fact, it is not how they do anything. They plunge right in, and they are very successful when they do so.

As these veteran users of technology enter our institutions, we are likely to see growing use of software modules that help transform learning?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùboth in the traditional classroom and online. Students, increasingly used to constant electronic communication, are already changing how and how frequently they communicate with faculty and each other. The Internet makes student research faster and more sophisticated, challenging the faculty role as the source of information.

What should institutions do to prepare themselves for these changes? First and foremost, there needs to be a campus conversation about the impact, the promise, and the risks of technology. Second, each campus needs a faculty support group that can provide the diverse skills and knowledge to allow faculty to move into ever more comprehensive uses of technology. Finally, institutional budgets need careful restructuring?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwith the recognition that investment in technology is not a one-time cost.

We have a revolution coming toward us, and we need to think about how we are going to respond. It will continue to be a bumpy road in the immediate future, but there is no turning back. The shift toward greater use of technology is not only inexorable, it offers higher education the possibility of great gains in our most critical task?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùlearning. We cannot simply accept that change is coming and "tack on" the use of computers and the Internet to our current way of doing things. We need to rethink how we teach from the ground up. Our bet is that this will be an extraordinarily positive period for learning.

JM: Thank you, Frank, for your thoughts on the coming revolution and for your leadership in this area.

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