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Status report on technology and teaching commission

STANFORD -- Two years into its exploration of new information technologies, the Commission on Technology, Teaching and Learning has developed a variety of projects, ranging from creation of CD-ROM courseware to broadcasting Continuing Studies courses over cable Channel 51.

Philosophy Professor John Etchemendy, who chairs the standing committee, presented an interim report to a campus audience on Wednesday, Feb. 14, on what the group has accomplished so far.

The number and range of experimental projects that the commission has initiated required the formation of three sub-groups:

  • The "Inside Stanford" group explores ways that technology can enhance the education of residential students. In particular, Etchemendy said, this technology has the potential for eliminating large lecture classes, "which are well known to be the worst way to teach."
  • The "Outside Stanford" group investigates how new technology can be used to provide innovative ways to market Stanford's educational expertise nationally and internationally. In particular, the group is looking for methods for reaching pre-college students and for providing continuing education to Stanford alumni and other college graduates.
  • The "Infrastructure" group attempts to determine what changes the university must make in its basic infrastructure to support the initiatives that the other two groups envision.

Inside Stanford

Among the 30 projects being set up by the Inside Stanford group is Stanford Interactive, a collaboration among Stanford, the software company Academic Systems and a publishing company yet to be determined. The project will produce CD-ROM-based courseware, with a pilot course in Spanish language. If the university is successful in obtaining $3 million in development money, the plan is to develop other language courses, an economics course and possibly an introductory science course in this new format, Etchemendy said.

Inside Stanford also has plans to establish a Center for Educational Innovation, which is designed to put the commission out of business. The center would provide the campus with an "evangelistic service center." Instead of waiting for faculty members to come to them with ideas on how to incorporate new technology into the classes they teach, center specialists would actively encourage departments and faculty members to redesign their courses using the latest technology.

"Such development will be curriculum driven, not technology driven," Etchemendy emphasized. "But, because technology is so pervasive, it will be integral to virtually any course redesign."

Outside Stanford

Off campus, the commission intends to bolster the Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY), an existing project headed by Patrick Suppes, professor emeritus of philosophy, that is housed at the Center for the Study of Language and Information. EPGY has developed 17 CD-ROM-based courses in math and sciences that it provides to several hundred gifted elementary and high school students around the country.

Etchemendy visualizes EPGY as the basis for a new type of early admissions program in which high school seniors would become Stanford students and take Stanford CD-ROM courses at their high schools. "In this way, we won't be yanking them out of their social context, which is very important," he said. With Sloan Foundation funding, the university also will provide these courses to gifted Native American students.

"In the U.S., we have the best higher education system in the world, but not the best educational system. This is one way to partially solve this problem through technology," Etchemendy said.

Another major outreach program is Channel 51, the educational channel on the local cable TV system, for which the university began providing programming last year. The project is designed to increase outreach to the community and alumni, and to market campus events, but it also provides the campus with a laboratory for distance education, Etchemendy said.

In the fall, Channel 51 broadcast a history course, and it currently is broadcasting a course on U.S. drug policy taught by Hoover Institution research fellow Joseph McNamara. In addition to televising the lectures, the course has a Web page, an e-mail list and online teaching assistants to answer participants' questions. In the spring, a course on cathedrals will be offered for credit through Continuing Studies.

"Running a cable channel is expensive and the results are diffuse and hard to measure," Etchemendy said. "So we would like to keep 51 going for two more years before evaluating it."

The engineering school has been a pioneer in the use of television for continuing education. Now the university must determine whether it should pursue this idea in other disciplines, he said.


The commission also has proposed the creation of a new position called Information Resource Specialist, or IRS, as part of a two-year pilot project that represents a new model for technical support of faculty.

Currently, information specialists work with departments and faculty members to provide services such as access to e-mail and electronic library services at the office or at home; videoconferencing; and network trouble shooting. But because the information specialists do not work in department offices, faculty members often don't know where to go for help, and the specialists often aren't familiar with faculty members' information needs, Etchemendy said.

So the committee hit on what Etchemendy called the "octopus model," in which the information specialists will act something like branch librarians. Although they will work for Stanford University Libraries Academic Information Resources (SULAIR), their offices will be located in academic departments. In that way, the specialists and faculty members will become acquainted. The specialists will be in a position to ascertain the information needs of department members and provide advice on what hardware and software they should be using. At the same time, the faculty members will know where to turn with their computer-related problems, he said.


Etchemendy said that since he became head of the commission people have sent him numerous articles on the subject, and a surprisingly large number of those articles predict that information technology will make universities obsolete.

"I don't believe it. These arguments are based on naive assumptions about what universities do and about the nature of education," he said.

There is no doubt that information technologies will transform universities in an unpredictable way, but there always will be a need for their core competency, which is certifying to students that faculty are qualified to teach them a given subject, and certifying to faculty members that students are properly prepared to learn a given subject, he said.



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