Technology: a considerable investment expected to pay big dividends – use of the World Wide Web as an educational resourceJuly 11, 2007 |
by Ronald Roach
Like most American institutions of higher learning, Voorhees
College is boldly embracing the future. The small liberal arts,
historically Black institution in Denmark, S.C., has adopted
information technology to overcome the isolation that its rural,
out-of-the-way location has imposed on the Episcopal Church-affiliated
With generous support from the family that founded the institution
in 1901, Voorhees has spent roughly $4 million over the past five years
building an information technology infrastructure that includes four
laboratories which host 150 computers. As a result of the investment,
faculty members and the 700 students enrolled at the college now have
access to electronic mail accounts, a state-of-the-art campus computer
network, and the Internet. In addition, the school’s administrative
operations have undergone automation with registration, planning and
budget functions converted to electronic formats.
Students at Voorhees are required to take a basic computing course.
They receive and complete class assignments via the campus network, use
the Internet for research, and communicate with their professors by
“We decided at Voorhees that we did not want to limit ourselves. We
have recognized that the Information Age is upon us,” said Dr. Leonard
E. Dawson, president of Voorhees College.
The changes taking place at Voorhees College are common ones
occurring across the landscape of American higher education. For the
past decade or two, U.S. colleges and universities have been building
extensive computer networks, developing campus-based computer
laboratories and adding computer-based instruction to courses. Access
to computers, multimedia technology, and global networks, such as the
Internet, are considered the basic tools for participation in the
Information Age. But all this has required considerable
experimentation, innovation, and large-scale investment.
For the survey entitled Campus Computing 1996, respondents reported
that roughly one in four courses on their campuses used electronic
mail, an increase from one in five in 1995. The survey also revealed
that 67 percent of all undergraduates have access to the Internet, up
from 60 percent in 1995. Although Internet and World Wide Web access
for faculty was reported at 76.5 percent, that figure reflects
virtually no change from 1995.
When comparing types of institutions, the survey found that almost
80 percent of public universities had technology resource centers
compared to approximately 45 percent of private four-year colleges,
which have had the most trouble finding the money to pay for the new
technology. However, approximately 14 percent of private four-year
colleges have formal programs which reward instructional technology as
part of their promotion and tenure review compared to less than 10
percent of public universities with similar programs.
Dr. Kenneth C. Green, director of the Campus Computing Project,
completed the study which tallied data gathered from computing resource
officials at 660 colleges and universities.
Dr. Alan Merten, president of George Mason University in Fairfax,
Virginia, says American higher education institutions have adopted
information technology to try to improve the researching, teaching and
administrative capabilities in their schools. He claims that
information technology has clearly benefitted the researching community
in higher education. But as a tool in teaching and administrating, Dr.
Merten contends that higher education’s use of information technology
has yet to see its potential fulfilled.
“Schools have been slow to use information technology on the administrative side,” Merten said.
On the teaching side, Merten says colleges and universities have
experienced some success when they have devoted adequate resources to
teaching faculty on how to use information technology in their
classrooms. But, he says, schools need to ensure “a transfer of ideas”
among faculty and academic departments with regard to
technology-enhanced teaching techniques and software.
“If someone leaves a department, the ideas or technology they’ve
introduced to their colleagues might be lost if they’re not fully
transferred to others,” Merten pointed out.
It is widely believed that information technology can empower
students to have greater control over the learning process. The focus
on student-centered learning, in which students take greater control of
learning by using self-paced instructional software programs and
relying upon faculty as facilitators, is gaining wide acceptance among
American educators. Much of the celebrated innovation in educational
software has centered on programs that allow students to learn material
with interactive and self-paced software.
At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, Dr. Jack
Wilson redesigned introductory science and math classes to develop what
is known as the “studio” format of teaching. Instead of requiring
hundreds of students to attend lectures and breaking up the class into
smaller groups for separate laboratory sessions, Wilson has groups of
fifty to sixty students attend lectures that include laboratory session
in computer-equipped interactive “studio” classes.
Wilson, who is dean of undergraduate learning and continuing
education at RPI, said teams of students sit together at computer
workstations that feature full-motion video, audio, text, color photos,
graphs and spreadsheets. While they carry out science experiments, the
students are helped along by instructional software that asks
questions, analyzes student responses, plots results and poses
“The studio concept was built around making learning a collaborative effort,” Wilson said.
The studio class format has enabled RPI to save money because the
process reduces the overall time professors and instructors spend in
the classes, according to Professor Wilson.
The evolution of the computer into a communications tool has
boosted its role in teaching and learning in higher education. And with
the advent of the Internet, access to it has put students and faculty
in reach of resources that schools could never have managed on their
own in the past. Merten said information technology that provides
access to the Internet and other archival networks have proven
invaluable in the research arena.
“There’s a high incentive for faculty to use information technology
in their research. It has given them new tools with which to compete,”
Educators are also excited about the Internet’s World Wide Web
because of its potential to advance the student-centered learning model
as well as its potential to support collaborative learning and research
efforts among students and researchers.
“The World Wide Web represents one of the biggest breakthroughs in
information technology for higher education,” said Dr. John Milam of
the Information Management and Reporting Department at GMU. The format
of the World Wide Web as a tool for accessing and publishing
information “is much closer to the way we think,” according to Milam.
While information technology transforms American higher education,
it is also extending the reach of many institutions to deliver
education to nontraditional or Information Age learners. Distance
learning programs offered by colleges and universities have grown
exponentially as information technology has gotten more sophisticated.
Distance learning and continuing education programs are among the
fastest growing segments in American higher education. Lucinda Roy, a
professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known
as Virginia Tech, said distance learning networks represent a logical
venture for land grant universities whose mission is to assist
agriculture and industry in a state.
As one of the many private institutions venturing into the distance
learning arena, Voorhees College plans to launch satellite campus
centers in Charleston, and Aiken that will use technology to enable
working adult students to earn their undergraduate degrees, according
to Dawson. The continuing education program will be the first for
Voorhees College and it will expand the school’s clientele.
Although information technology has opened a world of new
opportunities for higher education, there is concern that institutions
are adopting it with little or no comprehensive planning. Some critics
say campus leaders are failing to direct their information technology
spending to increase academic and administrative productivity.
“Most of higher education’s leadership is managing within today’s
teaching and learning paradigm,” according to Dr. Carol Twigg,
vice-president of EDUCOM, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit consortium
of schools and organizations serving higher education.
In higher education, information technology has largely been
adopted as an add-on teaching enhancement rather than as a cost-saving
productivity tool. For cash-strapped public and private institutions,
the question of academic productivity is a critical one as campus
officials attempt to increase the use of information technology at
“Not enough studies have been done to develop cost-effective instructional software,” Merten said.
Some leaders in higher education recognize that the model of
adopting information technology purely as an enhancement to traditional
teaching techniques cannot be sustained indefinitely. Many computing
experts argue that schools can likely reduce their expenses if their
plans for information technology are made on a campus-wide scale. In
the campus computing survey, Green found that just half of the
respondents reported their schools had a strategic plan for using
information technology and only a quarter of the schools had plans
indicating how the technology would be financed.
Twigg contends that companies, such as IBM and Apple Computer, and
organizations, such as the National Science Foundation, had long
supported innovations in technical products and software by individual
faculty members at the expense of helping institutions develop more
systematic approaches to using information technology. She argues that
institutions should work together in alliances to develop software
programs and standards, and to coordinate their technology research
efforts. Such coordination reduces overall technology costs and leads
to the development of software and equipment that can be widely
deployed in higher education, she said.
In the case of Voorhees College, spending on information technology
was carefully planned by its administration. According to Dawson, in
addition to building its information technology infrastructure, the
school is developing a geographic information systems (GIS) — or
computerized mapping program — for students. Also, the faculty will
undergo extensive training to learn how to use computers for teaching
in all disciplines. And the college is developing a program which will
allow it to furnish a laptop computer to every student. The students
will finance the laptop through an extended payment plan.
Approximately 90 percent of its students come from families that
qualify for financial aid, and many students hail from small rural
towns and communities with poor school districts. Their ability to
access computers and the Internet has been made possible by financing
from very generous sources.
Donations by Alan H. Voorhees, the great nephew of the school’s
first benefactor, private foundations and federal grants have been
critical to making computers and the Internet widely available to
students and faculty. The Lilly Foundation is picking up the tab for
training the institution’s faculty in the use of computers for teaching
in all disciplines. And Dawson expects that any investments not covered
by donations will be paid for by the administrative savings expected
from having computerized the school’s administrative operations.
Merten said he is optimistic that American higher education will
see more benefits coming from information technology advances. As one
of the few computer scientists in the nation running a major
university, Merten is well-positioned to guide research he sees as
necessary to improving information technology.
George Mason University benefits from a close relationship it
enjoys with the booming high technology community in northern Virginia
and Maryland. GMU faculty members are currently pursuing technology
research that is expected to benefit institutions of higher education,
according to Merten.
Merten said part of his mission is to support research that will
result in making instructional software more cost-effective and in
helping other institutions take advantage of information technology for
their administrative operations.
“If we can make a difference in those areas,” said Merten, “we’ll be doing well.”
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