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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Tech gets prestigious Sloan Foundation grant

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 08 - October 12, 1995

Virginia Tech's College of Arts and Sciences, in partnership with Information Systems, has received a $200,000 grant from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to use technology to enhance the students' individual skill development through a customized learning process and to determine the impact technology has on the economics of education and the quality of life for faculty members.

The prestigious Sloan Foundation grants range over different kinds of schools, from a grant to Rio Salad Community College to use networked computers for off-campus education of GED students (those with high-school equivalency diplomas) to grants to Stanford, Brown, Berkeley, New York University, SUNY, Drexel, and the University of Illinois, among others.

The Virginia Tech program, called ACCESS (Asynchronous Communication Courses to Enable Student Success), will begin in the biology department, where faculty will work with an interdisciplinary team to design courses using standard network tools such as e-mail, listservs, and bulletin boards, as well as more customized modes of communication such as Web sites, the Daedalus integrated writing environment, and WebChats to develop a technology-based teaching/learning model.

"We want to find out the tradeoffs between contact hours, faculty/student ratios, improvements in student learning, and the quality of faculty members' professional lives," said Lucinda Roy, associate dean for curriculum, outreach, and diversity for the College of Arts and Sciences, who is co-manager of the project with John Moore of Information Systems. The project is part of Virginia Tech's "cyberschool" initiative.

"I am glad we have the opportunity to collaborate to create some new models of teaching and learning that capitalize on the multimedia and networking technologies we have," said John Moore of Instructional Technologies. Moore said the grant project is "a good example of the return on the university's investment in the Faculty Development Initiative" in which biology and other faculty members were introduced to the potential of instructional technologies.

Frank Mayadas, program officer with the Sloan Foundation, said he was very pleased that the foundation was so quickly able to reach a meeting of the minds with Virginia Tech and that the interests of the two so nearly overlapped. "If I have any regret," Mayadas said, "it's that I didn't make this discovery earlier because I'm very impressed with what Tech has done, all the work they have done on faculty development and trying to make widespread use of computers and networking in the educational process." Mayadas said Virginia Tech's being "right in the middle of the Blacksburg Electronic Village, which is another great environment for experimentation" was a strong point in the project.

The ACCESS project came about as a result of the steady increase in student credit hours and majors in many departments in the College of Arts and Sciences, particularly biology, in which majors increased from 826 to 1,245. Resources have not kept pace with increased enrollment, so universities are being forced to find economical ways to meet the growing demand.

The ACCESS project's task is to explore the trade-offs and benefits to be derived in using a technology-based solution to meet that growing demand for services. More than 4,000 students enroll each year in the introductory biology and laboratory courses that the project will target. Students in the courses will be able to communicate any time with faculty members by computer, unlimited by class times. Biology offers a unique opportunity for investigation in that traditional sections of the courses will be taught alongside ACCESS courses, enabling project participants to obtain baseline data and monitor student success effectively.

"We have already developed some `cyberschool' classes (a term coined by Tim Luke when he served on the Arts and Sciences' Curriculum Development Task Force), which use network technology to increase communications and enrich course content while simultaneously reducing in-class lecture time," Roy said. "Students in these classes have been able to communicate with the instructor at their convenience, view course materials, and share them remotely." The cyberschool team will share methodology and help monitor the success of the ACCESS project.

Virginia Tech has been a leader in employing instructional technology to the enhancement of student learning. This past summer, Roy, who teaches English, and Mary Beth Oliver, who teaches in communication studies, taught courses "on-line" to selected students who accessed material using the World Wide Web/Home Page format, participated in WebChat sessions in which they could have real-time discussions with each other and the professor, and viewed multimedia lecture packages. They also met as a class periodically.

"Encouraged to work at their own pace and form their own electronic `study groups,' students noticed a marked increase in the amount of communication among their peers and with the faculty," Roy said. "Having asynchronous access to the material meant that students and faculty members were not constrained by designated class times." The students indicated that the technology, rather than dehumanizing the learning process, enhanced it.

"I was splendidly surprised that Lucinda Roy and Mary Beth Oliver have already done a kind of experimental shot at teaching in a way that tended to de-emphasize the traditional classroom lecture and emphasize teaching over the network," Mayadas said.

Many other faculty members at Virginia Tech are incorporating technology into their classes in innovative ways. The ACCESS and cyberschool participants draw upon the individual experience of those faculty members to work on team-based approaches to the new classroom.

"I am just delighted with the opportunity to be able to do some of this development," said William Claus of biology, one of the four co-principal investigators for the project. With the funds, he said, he can hire people who know computer hardware and software and can then experiment and accomplish "things in the next year that would take me five to 10 years to do on my own."

One of the goals of ACCESS is to change the current requirement of three contact hours per week for three hours of course credit so that faculty members will meet less often with the whole class. The savings in time will free them to meet with smaller class units, with individuals, and with students on-line. ACCESS classes also include an electronic reserve of course handouts and instructional modules that will provide students with exposure to a wide variety of specimens.

With the grant, Mayadas said, Virginia Tech and the Sloan Foundation can work together to see if computer networks can really help produce new outcomes in education, "all the possibilities we have talked about and wondered about." The project, he said, will help discover if the interaction computers provide will improve the learning process.

At the end of the project, a variety of assessment procedures, also funded by the Sloan grant, will enable the faculty to study the effectiveness of the technology-based courses. "We anticipate that the results we obtain will guide us and others in higher education and the business community as we develop new ways to teach in the 1990s and beyond," Roy said.