Syllabus2003 Review<br>Designing New Learning Environments

"The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed." This appraisal, quoting science fiction writer William Gibson, was offered by education consultant Judith B'ettcher upon introducing the closing Syllabus2003 panel discussion, this past July, on the state of academic computing. It begged a question: If true, who holds the controlling share? By the end of the conference it was clear the answer was not planners but end users—the students and faculty power-users.

The creeping influence of end users over the choice of teaching tools and techniques was just one of the developments conference-g'ers grappled with at Syllabus2003. In other discussions, they peered into the classrooms of the future during a day at Stanford University. Campus chief information officers and technology leaders tore into research on the IT resource crisis at a Syllabus Executive Summit. And many heard Duke University law professor James Boyle advocate the virtues of disorder as a principle to cherish in the upcoming intellectual property wars.

But underneath the hub-bub, academic technologists expressed the growing awareness that a architectonic shift is underway in the academic IT community: that technology has now become embedded in the learning process; that end users are beginning to hold sway over campus IT directions; and that the learning and communications tools they are embracing are essentially consumer electronics.
"For me the Holy Grail is the transformation from an institutional model to a learner or individual model," said Frank Tansey, of "Right now the implementations are still institution-centric. But once people start seeing their information out there, they’re going to start saying, 'No, that’s my information, not your information, and I want to use it the way I want to use it.' It will be interesting to see.

Lois Brooks, director of academic computing at Stanford, when asked if she had experienced an epiphany at the conference, said she was struck by the changing role of campus IT organizations, "...particularly the influx of consumer electronics onto campuses, of technology becoming much more accessible for the faculty and students. They’re doing new and interesting things and quite often are far out ahead of our staff with what they want to do and try."

So far, in fact, that IT has become a given, like power or heating. "We don’t have to think of technology as something special," said Kathy Cristoph, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "Though it’s troublesome for faculty, the students are experiencing it as a natural part of their learning. So I feel, let’s get over this evangelism thing and just start dealing with that reality and using it to the best we can in learning."

The theme seemed to reflect the feelings of rank-and-file faculty. Jerry Meisner, a physics professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, said, "We’re content people, we’re not education technology people. We’re delighted that there seems to be a growing emphasis among education technology people that we need to be much more concerned about learning and less concerned about the delivery systems and the newest technologies which are available. We’d like to have more confluence between the content people and the technology people so that the students are at the center of what’s going on."

If that becomes the model, then the research going on at Stanford’s Wallenberg Hall and the Center for Innovations in Learning may best describe how students and faculty will interact with technology tools in the future. The Wallenberg classrooms feature an abundance of state of the art yet commercial technology tools which are easily reconfigured to suit the immediate needs—even whims—of students and faculty (see sidebar).

Said Kathy Christoph: "I think things like wireless are really challenging what people do in the classroom, both students and faculty. In looking at the Wallenberg classrooms, there is no 'sage on the stage' … I can imagine that the students would be controlling those classrooms. They’d come in, move the chairs, move the screens, decide where they wanted to gather, and just get going. That’s a very different kind of teaching and learning."

Some faculty members seemed to view the idea of students taking more control of their learning ominously. One rose and said, "I think the biggest problem is with the faculty, at least back on my campus, they don’t know how to think creatively about teaching in this new mode. If you get the students in control and you really need to deal with this content because that’s your job... How do we get creative about moving this content through all of their media?"

In an era of end user hegemony and easy file sharing, new ideas about authorship will be necessary, the panelists said. "There is a whimsical definition in higher education of collaborative learning—its called plagiarism," mused Tansey.

Phil Long, senior research strategist at MIT, called for a deeper understanding of the rules of engagement for collaboration. "One of the things that we need to focus on is understanding what a derivative work is and how you go about creating a derivative work collaboratively, preserving the importance of attribution but at the same time painfully and obviously borrowing on each other’s ideas so that there is something new that’s added to it."

Coming full circle, B'ettcher emphasized the idea that parts of the community are closer to the future than others. "So you’ve got a pocket on campus that’s in the year 2020 and you’ve got another pocket that’s back in 1965," she said. "I think one of the patterns is that we just have a lot going on. There’s a lot of input to the classroom. It’s not just self-contained... Faculty used to be able to semi-control or command the content, and now the students are just out there bringing all sorts of content in."

Going, Going, Gone

Panelists in the Syllabus2003 wrap-up session were asked to name technologies, systems, and traditions they believed have reached the end of their useful life, that are "over and done with." Here are some of their responses:

· Presentations about 'how I merged my IT and academic organizations together.'
· Spending $50,000 or $100,000 on building a CD for one class that was 'really cool' and had a lot of sound and motion.
· Computer classrooms with row upon row of tables where the faculty member sees only the backs of monitors and maybe a little hair sprouting out from the side. Now we have this radical technology innovation called a caster that allows for flexible reconfiguration of chairs and tables. It’s a big deal.
· Textbooks
· Distance Education by Teleconference
· Monolithic learning objects

Syllabus Executive Summit

On Sunday evening at the start of the conference, a select group of chief information officers and campus IT leaders were invited to attend the Syllabus Executive Summit, where a survey of their peers' opinions on the state of the higher education IT issues was presented.

The top priority of higher education leadership from the survey was course management systems—many of which had recently undergone stiff price increases.

Many respondents said that CMS vendors need to more carefully consider how their systems will integrate with other ERP systems, and pay more attention to support. They believe that CMS vendors "have invested more in additional product features than in providing the level of resources needed to support the products they have already sold," according to the survey report.

High Performance Learning at Stanford

Syllabus2003 conference g'ers had an opportunity to take a glimpse ahead at a teaching and learning environment of the future with a full-day immersion at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning (SCIL).

The new center is housed in the campus’s refurbished Wallenberg Hall, "a place for inventing the future of learning and the media across all spheres of scholarship and teaching," said co-director Roy Pea, professor of education and learning sciences at Stanford and the author of the NRC report How People Learn.

"We’re really working to make Wallenberg a new kind of commons for digital learning and media and teaching and scholarship," said Pea in the conference’s opening keynote. "We want to provide a kind of a front door to Stanford for companies and external researchers to provide an interconnected hub to the various research centers and programs on the campus that focus on interactive technology and learning."

Building the center was inspired by the idea that new tools and techniques for representing ideas—maps, matrices, programming languages—do more than just amplify existing teaching practices. Instead, they “make possible new kinds of thinking, reasoning, and social practices," said Pea. In the end, they “change the very infrastructure for doing learning."

The new facility would be place where teachers and students from across the disciplinary spectrum could use new tools to build "high performance learning environments," said Pea, where the "people that are experiencing that environment—the learners and teachers—feel they’re operating at a higher level of performance than they do elsewhere."

To deliver on that, the center is fielding a welter of technologies, from the video technologies, smart panels, Webster interactive boards, and wireless networking links. Tying these tools together are several software platforms, including:

iRooms: Provides support so that anyone in the classroom, using their wireless devices, can co-develop computer-based documents, models or other artifacts in real time without an esoteric operating system. "The key part from an instructional perspective," said Pea, is that the collaborative support can make students' and faculty members' thinking visible, which is really a central feature of many of the pedagogies that come out of the learning sciences."

PointRight: Helps users share control of the large Webster displays and collaboration stations or smart screens so that multiple students can work, on a single document, presentation or model.

Multibrowse: Enables file sharing between classrooms so that a user can select a computer or smart board that he or she wants to send a file to. In response, a Web page launches on the destination computer or the file shows up on the desktop of the computer that receives it.

Stanford professors are experimenting at Wallenberg with tools in various combinations to teach courses on Japanese conversation, the history of computer gaming, p'etry of Horace, as well as child development and archaeological computing. For a program on writing and rhetoric, Professor Andrea Lunsford has students work in small groups, facilitated by 2’x3’ flat screens on wheels. Using iRoom software, they can drag files from their laptops onto the collaboration station desktop to create, edit, and critique their work together. They then bring the results of their group work to the whole class on the large Webster screen. Lunsford says having students put their writing on a larger screen allows them to physically as well as psychologically distance themselves from their work. That seems to help students open up more easily to peer review, she says.

In a recent effort, Sun Microsystems has also been helping the center develop Conductor, a room configuration system that hides and automates many of the facets of the Wallenberg classroom infrastructure so that they can be used more easily by non-technical teachers.

Pea himself is using the center to work on a project called Diver for doing video analysis of learning and teaching processes. Using multiple cameras and video technologies, Pea’s team is performing video data capture of teaching sessions that allows researchers to go back and establish "path movies" through the video in order to do later pedagogical analysis on them. Eventually faculty will use the system to help mentor teachers.

Ultimately, Pea told the conference, Wallenberg’s mission can be compared to the Jeffersonian concept of missions to the West. “We need learning expeditions in which we can begin to define and invent and study life in these new representational ecologies, and we’re hoping that Wallenberg can serve as a kind of a laboratory for that and would welcome you working with us and us with you to help advance these considerations.

comments powered by Disqus