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Volume 9, Number 4: December 20, 2002

A View from the Summit: William Massy Addresses UW Administrators

by Tammy Kempfert,
TTT Editor

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At the sixth annual IT Summit earlier this month in Eau Claire, William Massy gave a group of UW administrators a "tour" of the instructional technology horizon. Dr. Massy, Emeritus Professor of Business and Education at Stanford, now presides over the Jackson Hole Higher Education Group in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Based literally at the summit of the Grand Tetons, he shared his "view from 30,000 feet" of the challenges technology poses to higher education today.

Massy's audience, very much entrenched in ground-level issues at their institutions, face rising instructional technology (IT) costs along with looming budget problems. However, Massy contends that the current financial crisis may offer a timely opportunity to question traditional academic models, which he sees as inefficient. Universities have resisted change for centuries, he says, because our core technologies have remained the same. Today, as newer technologies begin removing obstacles to the teaching and learning process, sweeping change is inevitable.

According to Massy, students have already moved from the "don't know/won't try" mindset to a "don't know/link and lurk" approach to learning. Learning materials will evolve, as better, cheaper, more user friendly technology enables teachers to facilitate discovery. Already, innovators have begun creating, storing, and sharing interactive, "bite-sized" pieces of content called learning objects. (For an example, visit the MERLOT project at http://www.merlot.org/.) Electronic learning objects can allow for self-paced learning, meet a variety of learning styles, and provide continual feedback to students. In the contemporary classroom, "faculty are still the content experts, but now they're searching and assembling learning objects. They can lurk and monitor student progress," Massy says. Teaching in the traditional sense will make way for "learning content management."

Massy's vision involves revolutionizing the traditional course structure. "Right now we're doing things backwards," he says. Students typically receive their first exposure to course content by way of lecture. They often process that content on their own, in the form of readings, papers, and other projects, and finally receive response upon finishing the project (or the course) through the grading process. More effective, Massy says, would be an introductory motivating lecture followed by an opportunity for students to work with the course software--to discover the content rather than be told about it. This improved strategy for first exposure not only frees faculty to become more involved in the process phase, it also helps students come to classes better prepared. Faculty, T.A.s, and peers could all be involved in interpretive seminars and in providing feedback to papers and projects. Response would also be handled collectively, in what Massy calls "reporting sessions."

Though receptive to his cause, Massy's audience of provosts, business officers, and CIOs cite some real barriers to bringing about such a transformation. Faculty worry about giving up their creative work. They feel they do not have sufficient evidence that IT enhances learning. They want rewards for the substantial amount of time it would take to develop the new tools. And they do not yet view technology as a basic utility, using it every day without thinking about how it got there. As Tom Peischl, Assistant Vice Chancellor and CIO at UW-Parkside, notes, "This is not an IT issue. It's a cultural issue."

Massy agrees that this "problem of psychology" represents a major challenge to higher education institutions. But he says a new wave of students, who grew up during the IT revolution, are taking greater responsibility for their own learning. As K-12 schools have embraced IT, university students now come to college expecting cutting-edge technology--and they have surpassed faculty in their use of it. "Students are really our great hope. They are driving faculty to change," he says.

He reminds the group that "new technologies are always disruptive; however, once proven successful, they can't be contained … the products will continue to improve. Costs will rise or fall or stay the same." Would increased costs and IT adoption lead to higher quality? "That's up to the people who are using it," he says.

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