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
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 CaliforniaColleges.edu.
"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
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'
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
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,"
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
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
· 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.
· 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
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
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
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
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.