Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 13, Number 1
Fall 1990


Technology: changing learning, changing teaching

By Gina Ferolino

Karen's architecture professor walks into the classroom, turns on a slide projector, and proceeds to flip through images of some of the world's major structures. She's overwhelmed, frantically taking notes. She gives up in frustration.

Later she learns that all of this information and more is at her fingertips, accessible at any pace she chooses, thanks to interactive video programs at the library. She can look at 2,500 images on the computer screen by selecting lecture numbers from an index.

She can call up text describing each image, call up a notepad, key in the information, and print it out to take with her.

* * * * * * * *

Robert, a graduate student in civil engineering, receives a job offer in Richmond just prior to finishing his master's degree at Virginia Tech. His employer agrees to let him leave work two hours early twice a week to complete the last required courses.

But how does he get from Richmond to Blacksburg and back to take graduate courses and still have time to work and study? Via satellite communications.

Robert leaves his job at roughly 3 p.m. and arrives at one of 20 designated sites in the state to pick up the signal broadcast from an electronic classroom on the Virginia Tech campus.

He is able to hold his job, support his two children, and finish his education.

Tomorrow's educators

New technologies are increasingly being introduced into education, affecting the learning process from elementary curricula to college level programs. In the coming decades, as these technologies are further developed, many believe that there will emerge a new learning environment that will require future teachers to shift roles and that will provide more indepth and independent study for future students.

Interactive video systems, for example, will become a commonplace among classrooms from elementary grades through college level programs. Students of the future will be able to complete their course work on personal computers set up within the classroom, progressing on an individual basis. The teacher will oversee their work, assisting them through whatever stage of the program they're at.

In fact, two students within one classroom may complete assignments for two separate courses in the same subject area—or in two different subject areas. One student may advance to a second-semester history course, for example, while the other progresses through the first-semester course, within the same classroom, at the same time.

If students are advancing in one subject area—in geography, for example—they may opt to work with a program in another subject area—such as foreign language—within the same classroom and at the same time.

Advances in technology will require tomorrow's educators to interact with students in a more loosely structured manner, sometimes over long distances as satellite teleconferencing is increasingly used. Teachers will become instructional designers, rather than deliver course content in the one-way communication process found in the traditional classroom.

"The teachers of the future are going to have to change their mode of thinking to a large extent," says Stanley A. Huffman Jr., director of Distance Learning at Virginia Tech. "Teachers will have to reorganize their material, developing small segments. They will have to take the time and effort to learn how to put this material into a technology system, whether it be television, interactive video, CD-ROM, what have you."

Once teachers have designed the course content, gathering information from various resources, they will work with technical support staff to produce the instructional programs.

With the programs in place, teachers should have more time for research, developing new courses, and meeting with students one-on-one or in small-group tutorial or discussion sessions, according to a report issued last year by Virginia Tech's University Task Force on the Impact of Digital Technology on the Classroom Environment.

The new technologies will also enable students to work outside the classroom, in learning laboratories or in their own homes. More flexibility in work schedules for both teachers and students should allow for greater productivity, the report states.

Interactive video systems, for example, will permit students to proceed with programs at their own pace. With such systems, students can also pretest, develop individualized study guides based on a pretesting error analysis, and test themselves upon completion of the course. The process can be completed outside the classroom at the student's convenience.

"The interactive systems store a lot of information. Students can go backwards, forwards, pick up details that they need, react, and interact. They become more active in the learning process," says Huffman.

"I think future students will become more engaged in the learning process, with the capacity to explore more alternatives, particularly in the areas of computer simulation," says Charles W. Steger, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies and chair of the university's task force on implementing digital technology. "Rather than just reading about one case study, you could sit down and run through several scenarios, which would help to cultivate one's imagination rather than give bounds to it."

Virginia Tech students have several interactive video programs available to them through the library media center. While most of the programs were commercially produced, Virginia Tech faculty members are increasingly co-producing their own programs with the university's technical staff, according to Ed Schwartz, instructional designer with Virginia Tech's Learning Resources Center. Students are using such programs both in class and as supplemental independent study.

The ubiquitous personal computer

The personal computer is continuing to change how our students are learning and gathering information.

"The largest computer we had on this campus eight years ago has the same power as the personal computers our students are buying today," notes Robert C. Heterick Jr., vice president for information systems at Virginia Tech.

Two-thirds of the university's undergraduate population of 18,000 have personal computers. And every room in each of the 125 buildings on campus has a connection to the campus communications network, which provides powerful computer capabilities.

In addition to being able to link up with the electronic catalog listing of 1.5 million volumes at the library, students connected to the campus communications network can tap into Internet. Through Internet, users can connect to nearly 1,000 networks that have about 300,000 computers and about 10 million users at other universities throughout the United States, and in Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia, according to Heterick.

Long-distance learning

If the student can't come to the classroom, bring the classroom to the student. That has been the premise driving education's use of satellite communications technology.

The technology is bringing educational opportunities to far corners of the state where those opportunities have been limited. Televised courses are also becoming increasingly popular as more and more people find that they must work full-time and pursue their advanced degrees after hours.

Virginia Tech has been in the business of televised courses since 1983, according to Huffman. Eight graduate engineering courses are currently offered via satellite to 20 sites in Virginia and to sites in eight surrounding states.

"We have an average of 400 students enrolled in our TV courses at any one time," says Huffman. "We have graduated a number of students who have taken part or all of their engineering courses through television, so we have now reached the point where we can say that we have graduated students who have never been to Blacksburg."

High-tech vs. high-touch?

Implementing technology into education is a continuous process, as is addressing the problems that emerge. Courseware must be validated, "tested out with students to ensure that there are achievements in the learning process before it is sold," says Huffman.

Educators must also adjust to new technologies and learn how to incorporate them into their courses. "There are a number of courses being taught in colleges of education to teach teachers how to use computers," Huffman says. "It requires a supportive administration and the right attitude on the part of teachers. If you don't get in tune with the technology, you're not in tune with society for the future of education of the students in this country," he contends.

Some would argue, however, that extensive use of technology is dehumanizing the learning process. A careful balance of personal contact and technology must be maintained, says Steger.

Finding ways to motivate students and to evaluate their performance in a loosely structured learning environment will become a major challenge for educators in the coming years.

"You will never replace the necessity and desirability of human interaction. The capacity of able faculty to motivate students takes a demonstrated interest in someone's personal welfare," says Steger. "It has to be genuine. You can't do that via a TV screen. You can't sit in a dorm room and punch away at a machine all day long. The collective experience of students being part of a group and learning from each other has to be preserved, and it will take on different forms."

Adds Don Smellie, head of the department of instructional technology at Utah State, "If teachers are freed from re-inventing instruction, freed from always being the content person and the dispenser of information, they will have more time for one-to-one contact with learners."

Smellie spoke at a teleconference sponsored recently by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology. The teleconference was broadcast via satellite from Virginia Tech and Utah State to more than 100 sites throughout the United States and in Canada.

"The idea of putting 35 young people in a box and only giving the teacher a textbook and a piece of chalk, and expecting positive results, is ludicrous," Smellie says.

"Good teachers have no fear of being replaced by technology. . . . What is wrong with admitting that tools are needed by teachers and that they have a legitimate place in American education?"

The tools are expensive, "but it's also expensive to keep hiring faculty to do things which the technology can do," Huffman says.

"What we really need is a massive effort with a lot of coordination," adds Terrel Bell, former U.S. Secretary of Education, who also spoke as part of the teleconference.

He called for an increased partnership between business and education to further implement technology into the nation's classrooms.

"There's a genuine desire on the part of corporate leaders to serve education," says Bell. "The corporate world's interest in education stems from a worry about productivity and our nation's competitiveness in the world marketplace."

"We will see a rethinking of the role of higher education and the university as an entity in society over these next several decades," Steger says. "Part of that will be the result of the internal information revolution . . . . Having an undereducated population in this world would be a serious national weakness."

Blind professor finds independence in computer technology
By Gina Ferolino

Virgil Cook walks into his technical writing class, sets down his briefcase, and listens as his students happily chat away.

It's hot outside. The class meets every day this summer session — at 8 a.m.

"Everybody seems happy and alert," he says. "I wonder if this being Friday has anything to do with it." They laugh. He takes roll and commences with his lecture.

"In describing a physical object, you need to establish an orientation," he tells the students, gesturing with his hands as he sits on the edge of a desk at the front of the classroom.

This particular lecture is about selecting terminology for descriptive writing. "You draw from your experiences and select words from your experiences to explain what something is, how it works, and what it looks like," he says.

Chances are that Cook's description of an object's appearance would vary from those given by his students. Blind from birth, Cook would draw on a set of experiences unique from those who can see.

But the handicap has hardly proven prohibitive for this English professor at Virginia Tech. Cook has overcome some major obstacles in his lifetime.

One is a heavy dependence upon readers in his work environment. Thanks to advanced technologies and Cook's enthusiasm in applying them to the learning process, his reliance on readers has dropped significantly.

Cook has a computer set-up that enables him to grade between 500 and 600 papers per semester. Students in his technical writing and English literature courses turn in their papers on computer disks.

Cook's computer system is a typical one, except that it includes a voice synthesizer that reads computer files — text and punctuation — at speeds of 120 to 300 words per minute. He reads at maximum speed.

"You probably can't understand that," he quips, as he demonstrates how the voice synthesizer works. But, as he explains, when you have to rely on the senses that work for you, then those senses become fine-tuned.

Cook also has a special printer that turns out manuscripts in the Braille alphabet. Many of the documents present in his Williams Hall office are printouts from this machine.

The technology, he says, has enabled him to operate more efficiently, more effectively, and much more independently.

"Before, I depended on readers, generally student help, to read papers. It was time-consuming," he says. "It was frustrating because I had to meet the readers' schedules. Now I mark the papers on computer and return the disks to the students, and they can print the paper out or read it on screen."

What's more, Cook retains copies of the papers and can call them up on his computer at home should a student call and ask a question. "We can talk on the phone and both have copies of the paper in front of us," he says.

All class syllabi, tests, and handouts are computerized as well, and the computer system has carried over from the classroom into other facets of his work — committee work, for example. "All memos, agendas, and minutes are sent to me on the mainframe, and I download them to a disk. I can print them out in Braille and have copies in front of me during the meetings just like everyone else."

While using such a system took some initial training and adjustment, Cook says it "has changed the way I do everything. If I had to go back, I'm not sure that I could handle it emotionally."

Cook still relies on readers for those papers turned in by students who don't have access to computers, for his mail, and for his own reading — scholarly material, textbooks being considered, and personal reading.

But with the advances in computer technology — the emergence of more sophisticated electronic storage systems and capabilities for accessing text on screen — his reliance on readers will probably be reduced even more in the coming years.

High school too late for computer training, alum believes

With the world's ever-increasing body of knowledge, it is imperative that today's students become adept at using new technologies to retrieve information.

And students should begin that training as soon as possible, according to Paul Rice, Class of 1975, who serves as Superintendent of Schools for New Hampshire's School Administrative Unit #32 (comprised of the Lebanon, Grantham, and Plainfield districts).

Rice, who earned his doctorate in education at Virginia Tech, has been recognized by Apple Computer as one of 200 administrators in the northeast region of the United States to have made a significant impact on integrating computer technology into public education.

There are computers in every classroom within this unit, serving approximately 2,500 students in grades kindergarten through 12. There are computer labs in two elementary schools and at the high school.

Circulation and inventory has been automated at the libraries within these districts, and interactive video programs have been introduced to students who may opt to use them for research projects.

"At the lowest levels, we have students interacting with computers, in disciplines from mathematics to language and writing skills," Rice says. "In the last two years, we've been teaching third and fourth graders word processing."

He says the state board of education requires all high-school students to pass a quarter credit in computer education.

"Our feeling is that high school is too late in this day and age, that students should be computer literate before they get to high school," says Rice.

So a program for computer education has been integrated into the lower grades, from kindergarten through grade eight. Students completing the curriculum requirements earn the credit prior to entering high school.

Rice says that young students learn computer skills quickly. "Some people have questioned the value of interactive video games, but I think that because of them, students are at ease with computers," he says. "With the software available, they pick up on the concepts and skills very readily. And when they see that they can start designing some of their own, it really becomes a challenge.

"We're constantly asking ourselves how we can better use technology and how we can get those people who are reluctant," Rice says. "I think as we get older we get more cautious and slow to accept change. So what we've had to look at for teachers are techniques that are not intrusive — that can show when to use technology with a curriculum and program, how computer technology will help to reduce time and make teaching easier for them, and how it can make learning more exciting to the students."

Rice also believes that parents must take an active role in pushing for advanced technologies in their school systems, as well as consider purchasing computer systems for home use.

"The United States is becoming more service oriented," he explains. "And now, some businesses are faxing work to third world countries where the labor pool is less expensive. We're going to have to teach students how to use technology so that we don't lose business to other countries in the long run."

High-tech education tools at a glance

Interactive video systems combine optical disk technology with a microcomputer for the features of an audio tape recorder, slide projector, 16 mm film projector, and computer floppy disk on one storage medium.

Another interactive learning tool is the CD-ROM (compact disk read-only memory) system, which is designed primarily for text and graphics applications, but is capable of delivering full-motion video on screen.

CDI (compact disk interactive) systems incorporate data, computer software, and a CD player into a single system, resulting in capabilities for high-quality graphics and full-motion video.

And DVI (digital video interactive) systems integrate all digital technology into a system that delivers full-motion video, audio, graphics, text, and computer software on one optical disk.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 12, Number 2 Fall 1990