Technology debated in symposium

News Services Editor

Point and counterpoint-it was mathematician and educational technology entrepreneur William Graves, whose computer-assisted presentation celebrated the "revolution" in information technology, taking on a panel of humanities faculty to debate UB's wildly fluctuating information technology environment.

The event was the second UB Spring Symposium on Technology and Learning sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development. It took place March 28 in 120 Clemens Hall.

The faculty panel was comprised of John Meacham, professor of psychology; Lynda Schneekloth, professor of architecture; Austin Booth, humanities librarian, Lockwood Library, and Rick Lesniak, director of academic services for the Center for Information Technology. The discussion was moderated by Joseph Tufariello, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and chair of the Student Access Subcommittee of UB's Information Technology Committee.

The panel issued a strong request to the administration to put a tighter rein on the university's galloping IT steed, which is hauling tail full-speed toward wholesale computerization. Global decisions that now are being made, they said, will have a serious impact on the campus culture and should not be imposed without more study and much greater faculty input.

Trends, issues described

Graves gave an overview of the trends and issues changing the nature of the educational environment, trends that he said should inform the university's planning, budgeting and faculty development programs as they relate to information technology.

Graves presented new and intriguing software applications- "learningware"-developed and used by faculty with whom he's worked. These approaches, he said, incorporate the idea of learning-as-expedition with instructor-as-guide. They use software and Internet links to organize courses using a variety of IT tools marketed as "course packs."

"They promote on-line collaborative efforts with the instructor moderating the collective effort to move the class along," Graves said, "and encourage solitary discovery by the learner."

Meacham argued for learning processes that move students beyond the isolation of the computer. He said the current environment promotes passive forms of information gathering in the face of a large body of empirical evidence that indicates actively constructed knowledge is retained longer.

"We tend to think that the only thing we'll lose with the increasing involvement of technology is the lecture format," Meacham said. "I think other things will be lost," he said. "Depth of understanding and retention are two of them."

He called for UB to develop a better sense of the "ethnography of student life before forcing and extending computerization.

Technology, student culture

"This technology may all be interesting to discuss and it may be convenient for some faculty but it is just not part of student culture on this campus," he said, suggesting that experiments be conducted to compare learning outcomes in identical classes using computer materials like those Graves presented, traditional methods to learn which courses in which disciplines are most compatible with on-line learning.

"Test or query the students again one year later," he said. "Let's see what they retain, what they understand about what they learned with different approaches before we apply this very expensive technology globally."

Booth agreed with Meacham, asking, "What models do we have for evaluating how well computer and information technology works and in which fields of investigation?"

Noting the proliferation of demands to apply information technologies quickly throughout the educational system, she said, "It's important to remember that the return on this extremely expensive investment is still very uncertain in terms of productivity and pedagogical enhancement.

"First information technology was touted as a cost-saving measure," Booth contended. "Well, we know that turned out to be untrue!"

She added that she and many others have concerns about the possible development of a two-tiered system of higher education-one for those who can't afford computer technology and its continuous updating, and one for those who can.

"People think that because nobody owns the Internet, it's somehow classless. It's not," she said. "Cyberspace is expensive space and access is not available to everybody.

"There are many proprietary issues we need to address also," Booth said. "How will faculty maintain control over the technology they produce? How will we keep the curriculum under the control of faculty and students?

"I think we should not start producing computer-based courses just because they use the available technology. Technology is expensive to produce and expensive to buy. Within this ongoing commodifica-tion of higher education," she said, "we also need to think about who owns these new products."

Schneekloth offered a somewhat different perspective, a carefully prepared and provocative talk on "The Imagined Space of Electronic Media," a media that, she said, "is a continuation of America's fascination with the frontier."

She discussed the concept of the frontier not as an actual "thing," but as a product of the American imagination. Computer technologies are wildly popular, she said, because they sustain the great American myth of the frontier-the hope of complete happiness and success to be found "out there." Computer technology promises the good life just as any American frontier has, only this time it's supposedly found in chat rooms and in other forms of virtual reality, she added.

Schneekloth warned that as we sign on to enter cyberspace, "we should note the places we are leaving behind-our bodies, for instance. Information technologies let us imagine we can extend our brains into the world, but it's just that-our imagination.

"We also leave our communities," she said, "and this weakens our ability to mobilize into collective action. Like Jack (Meacham), I find that these technologies tend to isolate human beings when what we need is embodied human beings who will participate in and build our communities."

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, she suggested that instead of force-feeding the campus community vast amounts of technology, "UB could take an ever more extreme position-we could market ourselves as the one American university where learning exclusively involves interaction among human beings."

And Schneekloth agreed with Meacham and Booth, noting that computer technology, with all of its color and lights, speed and connections, conceals the world of capital.

"There is a hidden curriculum in any new technology," she said. "and we need to explore these hidden curriculums before we dive into the technology head-first."

Lesniak joked that he felt a bit overwhelmed, "like Jay Leno at a meeting of the National Security Council." Nevertheless, he, too, said that the environment of information technology does not provide clear direction, and it should not be assumed that it does.

"Field of Dreams"

Information technologists tend to construe the technology realm according to a kind of "Field of Dreams" model, he said. "We're always waiting for the players to come. We're never quite sure if they will. The IT realm is expanding rapidly. We confront a multiplicity of choices but we don't know what will work in a given scenario or who will want it and for how long. Things are moving so fast that our cost estimates are based on models that no longer exist. Technological 'infrastructure' is not lasting very long at all. In fact, everything we decide to do is outmoded by the time we decide to do it," he said. "We need much more collaboration with the teaching faculty before we decide what road to follow here. Otherwise," he said, "we'll make very expensive and uninformed decisions."

William Fischer, vice provost for faculty development, said he hopes to further this dialogue in a public way because the university is trying to adjust itself to a revolutionary environment, trying to reinvent and reform itself.

Tufariello, speaking as chair of the Student Access Subcommittee, added, "We've been to the faculties; we're really trying and want to talk to those involved in these issues; everyone's comments are welcome."

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