for higher education
by Richard Lovegrove
Students, parents, and education experts are calling on higher education to find new and more effective ways to teach. As one of the nation's top research universities, Virginia Tech has long been on the leading edge of learning technology, and that technology centers around computers and other sophisticated equipment. Today, scholars can communicate by computer across campus, or they can call on information and experts from around the world. In class, students are discovering new ways to approach problems, are more excited about their courses, and are learning more and absorbing it faster. Music professors who used to plink out a tune on a piano while trying to teach, and science teachers who tried to explain a difficult concept using two-dimensional photos, call on the computer to enliven their lectures. English and humanities professors report that students write about 50 percent more than students who do not use the computer as extensively. Calculus professors who teach by computer are able to move students quickly past long, laborious hand calculations and into more advanced concepts. The following vignettes briefly highlight just a handful of the many ways Virginia Tech is putting technology to work to improve teaching and learning.
Scoping out the university
At Virginia Tech, students don't just learn technology, they live it. A number of University Honors Program students--under the direction of the Admissions Office--are working in the Multimedia Lab to create a CD-ROM package which will allow prospective students to explore Virginia Tech from their homes or schools via computer. The students put together a prototype featuring the University Honors Program, and then added their own view of other areas of the university and campus life. Eventually, the package will be on the Internet through World Wide Web client server system.
Even some students who whiz through complicated calculus problems struggle when asked to explain the process or to apply it to real-world situations. A national calculus reform movement has been wrestling with this problem, and now a computer software system called Mathematica is helping to bring the new thinking to Virginia Tech. Thanks to the Instructional Development Initiative--a universitywide program that introduces teachers to educational technology--students are trying the new methods and professors are creating their own courseware. As a result, students visualize abstract concepts better and spend more time learning how and why calculus applies to their careers.
Art for the real world
Look at a magazine ad, a poster announcing an event, or even this magazine. Chances are the design and artwork were done on a computer. If the piece has a photo, it probably was scanned into a computer and perhaps manipulated or changed there. That's because art is no longer something that's done with just pencils, markers, paints, or clay--it's moved onto computers. Graduates looking for jobs in such fields as graphic design or advertising are expected to know their way around a computer and such programs as Photoshop, Freehand, and Pagemaker. Virginia Tech art department students learn those necessary skills in the Graphic Design Laboratory. Others, such as sculptors, are using technology to put together three-dimensional models of a piece before they start to work with the real materials.
Lab electrifies the classroom
At Virginia Tech, faculty members can bring their courseware ideas to electronic life in one of the most versatile multimedia labs in the country. Some labs have more expertise in a narrow field, but few, if any, have the vast array of technologies for cross-platform digital video development, CD-ROM mastering, and multimedia software design and testing found here at the Virginia Tech Multimedia Lab. This allows faculty members to use the technology that is best suited for their individual projects. Of course, students also benefit, not only from the courseware developed there, but also by using the lab for their own projects. In addition, Gordon Miller, director of the lab, has produced an interactive multimedia presentation that won a Silver Medal in New Media Magazine's 1994 Invision Awards.
Instructional technology has made paper and pencil practically passe' in the music department. In music theory and harmony, students send their compositions electronically; professors call them up on their computers, play them, and grade them. "State-of-the-music" technology also increases students' opportunities for performance and composing. No longer do they have to find a full band or orchestra to practice a piece. They simply dial up the right instruments or music in the Musical Instrument Digital Interface lab and jam away.
It's grown on them
There's excitement in the plant biology lab. Students are working together, helping each other solve problems, and tossing around their opinions. But these students aren't huddled around a plant or a microscope focused on stained cells. Instead, they're engrossed in their computers, which are linked to television screens. Until recently, plant biology had been a lecture course; cost and space constraints made it impossible to set up a lab. Students lost interest. So professors and researchers harnessed technology to provide information in a way that would be impossible in a traditional setting. Now, students can use their computers to look at global climate zones and see how they are created, or they can build millions of years of genetics into a tree. The result: students are grasping concepts more quickly, they feel more rewarded because they are providing solutions--and they are having fun.
Making the senses come alive
Virginia Tech students in the humanities are seeing, hearing, and even getting the feel of ancient Greek like never before--thanks to the computer and Perseus, a multimedia database developed at Harvard University. Because of Perseus, students can "stroll" through archaeological sites, gaze at art from long ago, and peruse texts in their original Greek and their English translations. And the program is hypercard-based, so the click of a mouse can send students down avenues they might not have explored otherwise. Perseus, of course, does not replace a good professor. But faculty members feel like students retain more information when they use more of their senses during the learning process, and students say the electronic presentations make the whole course more meaningful.
Putting words on the chips
Instructional technology is helping thousands of Virginia Tech students through the difficulty of putting words on paper--or in memory chips. And those improved writing skills are used in all of their classes. The English department's Computer Integrated Classroom and Daedalus, a computer writing environment that helps users choose a topic and then develop their ideas, force students and professors to "talk" to each other by writing. As a result, students are writing 50 percent more than they would in a traditional course. And more writing leads to improved writing. In addition, the electronic classroom increases contact between student and instructor because the student can "speak up" at any time, rather than waiting for a break in a lecture or an appointment.
Richard Lovegrove is a senior writer with the university publications office.
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 3 Spring 1995