Conference Challenges and Aids Teachers to Reach "New Horizons" of Digital Education

June 7, 2007 -- The impact of the information age on education will be transformative and unavoidable, so higher education institutions should be engaging in bold experimentation to reinvigorate their utility to society, suggested Ann Kirschner, the University Dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, in her keynote speech at the first annual New Horizons in Teaching and Research Conference.

Kirschner's speech on May 21 to an audience of about 100 kicked off the four-day conference examining how technology can enhance education. Kirschner, who received a master’s in English in 1973 from U.Va., shared lessons from her years working on the Fathom Knowledge Network, a pioneering online consortium of 14 educational institutions (museums and libraries as well as universities including Columbia and Cambridge) in the United States and Britain. Fathom’s mission was to “link a global community of adult learners with quality educational and cultural resources,” she said.

Unlike for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, Fathom has never been a commercial success, said Kirschner, in part because of the reluctance of its member institutions to harness technology that could deliver their educational products to much larger populations, which would dilute the scarcity of their products that undergirds prestige.  She noted that management icon Peter Drucker warned in 1999 that traditional universities would not survive the evolution of distance learning. 

So far, that prediction has not come to pass, but Kirschner warned that traditional universities, "don’t have all the time in the world to get it right” in terms of incorporating and adapting the new technologies of distance learning. The roots of most educational institutions in agricultural and industrial eras are now outmoded and threaten to hold back progress, she argued. Fewer and fewer students every year are attending only one school, the average student continues to get older—driving more demand for flexible schooling hours—and more and more students are enrolling in at least some form of online education, noted Kirschner. There is whole movement of online virtual high schools that can be much more responsive to the special needs of individual students, such as dynamically speeding up and slowing down the pace of a curriculum. "No university will — or should — remain unaffected in the long run," she said.

Kirschner's speech opened discussions about technology in education that continued over the next three days in dozens of free workshops and demos, many led by fellow faculty and IT specialists harnessing digital tools in pioneering ways.

One of several themes explored by the over 500 total participants was how to engage students more in the classroom. Professors across departments share many of the same problems — spotty attendance when presentations are offered online after class, and the temptation of laptops with wireless Internet, which can be used just as easily to check sports scores in class as to take notes. That's why sessions on topics such as "clickers in the classroom," maximizing PowerPoint's capabilities, using U.Va.-developed Collab software or other online wiki tools, and creating curriculum podcasts were so well attended. Faculty at the conference were eager to learn ways to keep up with changing technologies that could better engage students.

For example, in one session astronomy professor Ed Murphy shared how using "clickers"—tiny handheld wireless input devices with 12 buttons, like a simplified TV remote control—have changed the way his introductory astronomy students learn. In class, he stops lecturing every five or ten minutes to "poll" students on a question related to the material. The students use the devices to "click" their answer, and the responses are received and tallied instantaneously by a wireless receiver connected to Murphy's laptop. Within seconds, he can gauge whether students are grasping the topic at hand or whether more class discussion would be helpful. At the same time, Murphy noted, the clickers prevent students from feeling embarrassed if they gave a wrong answer — important in a class of over 100 of their peers.

At the end of each semester, Murphy distributes a questionnaire asking students whether the clickers have positively impacted their learning experience. "I wanted to see whether it was just better for me, or if clickers were better for students too," he said. "Consistently, about 78 to 80 percent of students say it has greatly or somewhat positively affected their understanding of astronomy," he added. "Because of clickers, I believe my attendance is higher, students participate more in class discussion, and they understand more of the subject matter."

The New Horizons conference was sponsored by the U.Va. Library, Information Technology & Communication and the Arts and Sciences Center for Instructional Technology.  As University Librarian Karin Wittenborg noted at the opening event, often the great digital education work done at U.Va. is known internationally but not here at U.Va. The conference served to cross-pollinate and disseminate the educational innovations already in use here (and in development), and "enabling digital scholarship is one of the ways we can enable future teaching and learning at U.Va."