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Computers come to the forefront
of university learning

by Alisa Smith (MA ’97)

A student in Port Hardy makes a statement that sparks a response from a counterpart in the Fraser Valley. The professor, miles away at the University of Victoria, encourages students assembled in his lecture theatre to join in, beginning a spontaneous classroom debate connected by computer wires and video monitors.

Such is the influence of late-20th century technology on the academic world. New communication technology is quickly changing the way post-secondary courses are taught, studied and accessed. Yet, for all of the video conferencing and virtual classrooms, the fundamentals of teaching and learning are still the same: a professor with students asking questions, exchanging thoughts and testing ideas. Technology may be changing how people learn, but is it really changing what they learn?

Professor Roy Ferguson of UVic’s School of Child and Youth Care began experimenting with the virtual classroom in 1995 with funding from the Ministry of Education. It started with a UVic professor teaching a first-year course to a roomful of 20 UVic students while another 20 students at the Fraser Valley College were visible to her via a large television screen. The professor wore a microphone, and a camera tracked her movements so the Fraser Valley students could see her, and their UVic classmates. The course was taught in "real time" over fibre-optic lines giving the computer transmission television broadcast quality. In 1996, Fraser Valley was the point of origin of the course, and it went "multi-point"—UVic, Fraser Valley College and North Island College all had students enrolled in this virtual classroom.

Unfortunately, the North Island College area is not yet on the fibre optics grid—as will be the case for more remote areas of the province for years to come—so the computer’s visual information is transmitted over old-fashioned phone lines and the picture is not quite up to par. Still, North Island students wouldn’t be able to take the course at all without undertaking the expensive move to Victoria.

Reactions to the experiment were closely monitored. Students in the virtual class had grades and completion rates comparable to students in traditional classroom settings. Sitting in a room full of 20 other students took away the isolation factor often associated with computer-based distance learning and students had a high satisfaction rate with their learning experience.

However, Ferguson says, "It’s not the best thing since sliced bread for all students." A small but significant number of the UVic students preferred the experience of real-life learning to the virtual. And the North Island students, when shown the slick TV-style signal enjoyed by their Lower Mainland counterparts, were dissatisfied with their transmission service.

As a next step in the virtual learning experiment, links are planned with the University of Calgary, institutions in Ontario, other parts of the country and even South Africa. Another possibility is setting up five learner stations, each with small numbers of students, to better serve rural students.

Computers cannot be seen as the cure-all for challenges facing education today. Cost is a key problem. One high-tech room at Queen’s University in Ontario cost a whopping $500,000. What other funding gets sacrificed to meet these needs?

In the United States, prestigious universities actually charge more for their "virtual degrees"—most notably MBAs earned via the home computer—even though the cost of delivery is generally lower. On the other end of the spectrum are what could be called "sweatshop" universities, often for-profit and paying professors a mere $2,700 to teach a standardized course.

Computer software programs, where computers easily process multiple choice exams, may jeopardize employment in lower-level courses. Funding once destined for graduate student marking jobs is being cut, with computer programs filling the gap.

And don’t let an exciting term like "virtual learning" whip you into a techo-frenzy. While it captures the real time visual learning UVic is experimenting with, it also encompasses more impersonal courses taught over the Web with snazzy graphics and sound, right down to plain old e-mail exchanges.

There are other concerns. For instance, individual-based distance learning means students must own their own hardware. Elizabeth Grove-White, a UVic English professor who takes a special interest in technology-based learning, worries about this problem. "Not every student has the computer networking capabilities to learn this way. We need a provincial infrastructure," she says. "Otherwise, we are in danger of creating technology haves-and-have-nots."

Grove-White believes, however, that computers add to the learning experience and that universities "must" embrace them or risk becoming dinosaurs. American universities such as Yale and Johns Hopkins are on the leading edge, using computers to facilitate life-long learning for alumni, especially professionals who require continual knowledge updates.

Optimally, she envisions computers as an addition to learning, not a replacement for human contact. "Education is not just the transmission of raw data," she says. "If it were, books and libraries would have put universities out of business long ago."

In September, the English department launched its first-ever on-line writing course, English Composition 115, and Grove-White says they will be eagerly monitoring the results. An early Internet pioneer in the English department was Michael Best, who developed an on-line Shakespeare course—showing a commitment to linking the wisdom of the 16th century with the technology of the 20th century to keep students intrigued with the classics.

UVic’s Computer Assisted Language Learning facility (CALL) was a national leader when its doors opened in 1989 to provide computerized grammar and vocabulary exercises, combined with audio and video tapes. A satellite addition allows the lab to pick up international, multi-lingual television and radio broadcasts to enhance the language learning experience. While Professor Peter Liddell suggests computers are not the best choice for classroom language teaching where the emphasis needs to be on speaking, pronunciation and group interaction, he says there are absolutely no disadvantages to their present use.

Students regularly line up outside of class time to use the popular lab and scores of people make the pilgrimage to examine and copy the lab—Liddell estimated he and co-worker Mary Sanseverino had devoted three person-months to tours in one year, prompting the creation of a web site.

The main drawback to computers on campus is the very speed of technological change. "Computers have a life span of three to five years as far as we’re concerned," says Liddell. "So donors are not too keen—they know you’ll soon be back for more. But the university has really supported us."

Liddell has created a course on the web, "Germany Since 1945," where topics ranging from politics, history, culture and government lead students to actual web sites in Germany.

Liddell particularly recommends his colleague Peter Glz’s German language web site, which took two years to develop. It is considered a model, accumulating more than 47,000 hits so far.

Glz takes a realistic approach to the wonders of technology and distance education. Many students go abroad to study their language of choice. A computer—unless a superior laptop—is not as transportable as a book while traveling. Also, he says it is important that difficult technology doesn’t block students from learning.

Overall, the additional time and expense of a web course has to be justified, which means interactivity is the key. "It has to move beyond a fancy textbook," Glz says.

In the UVic physics department, computers have transformed the way students gather data for experiments. For instance, computers record information on motion and collision experiments at a rate that was impossible just five years ago. Students can now devote time saved in labs to consideration of the actual "physics" of the experiment, says lab supervisor Don Stenton.

Professors find students are much more savvy when it comes to computers. Four years ago, when Grove-White took computers into her classroom she had to tell students how to start their machines, almost unheard of today.

Biology professor Paul Romaniuk, who uses a web site as an up-to-date reading library for a specialized fourth year course, even notes a difference between fourth and second year students, with younger students generally more enthusiastic and knowledgeable about using the web.

Grove-White jokes that when it comes to computers, she finds "20-year-olds sharper than 30-year-olds, 16-year-olds even sharper—and I’m convinced there’s an 8-year-old out there who knows everything."

Considering that the UVic library catalogue was not even computerized eight years ago, it becomes clear that the generation gap has narrowed from twenty years to five years or even less. Computer use is now ubiquitous. However, despite the rapid pace of technology development and the growing acceptance of technology-based learning, the human contact that makes the collegial experience most satisfying will never go out of style. When it comes right down to it, while computers as powerful as Deep Blue can beat Kasparov in a chess match, they can’t teach a class.

Contents | Grading Technology | Space Studies |
Editorial | Eureka! | Around the Ring |
Call for Nominations | Alumni News | Development News |
Travel | Keeping in Touch | Where are You Now? |
Robin Skelton | VOX Alumni