The University Record, April 8, 1997

Technology should enhance teaching

By Jared Blank

"Computers are not a replacement for lectures, they supplement them," said biology Prof. Lewis J. Kleinsmith at the "Forum on the Virtual University" held last Wednesday at the Institute for Social Research. Kleinsmith's assertion that computer technology will not replace, only enhance classroom teaching mirrored that of panelists Douglas E. Van Houweling, dean for academic outreach and vice provost for information and technology, and J. David Velleman, professor of philosophy.

Kleinsmith discussed a problem that he encountered when he was teaching introductory biology classes in the 1970s: how to meet the disparate needs of introductory biology students who enter the University with varied skill levels. When inexpensive microcomputers became available in the early 1980s, Kleinsmith had the beginnings of a solution. He helped design interactive software that students could use at their own pace and that would tell them why an incorrect answer was incorrect.

In fact, he said, the feedback for incorrect answers became one of the most popular features of the software. The software also had a positive effect on what often matters most to students: grades. "Exam performance improved considerably," Kleinsmith said. "`At-risk' students virtually closed the gap with the other students."

Kleinsmith noted that the student-perceived strengths of the software---constant feedback, learning from mistakes, anonymity, and student control over time and place of use---eliminate some of the negatives of a large, somewhat impersonal lecture, where the professor cannot address many individual questions.

Velleman also addressed ways that technology can complement classroom teaching. He said that the type of distance learning that interests him is "the distance between Angell Hall and Bursley Hall." He added that software does not and should not eliminate face-to-face interaction; rather, it should create new and different interactions. Innovations that he would like to see include software that would allow on-line voice annotation of students' papers and class lists that include photos of students.

Velleman added, though, that he envisions pitfalls with the constant influx of new technologies. "That one has to be an instructional designer to buy into the `virtual university' bothers me," he said. Velleman also is concerned that faculty will not have the time and money required to develop good interactive software.

The ways computers are used can definitely enhance rather than dissipate a feeling of community, according to Van Houweling. "A computer can now be an intermediary in nearly all ways that we communicate knowledge," he said. "One of the extraordinary changes in the way we find ourselves living today is that computer technology is allowing large groups to deal with us as individuals."

He added that because a community of scholars may not necessarily be defined in geographic terms---that a researcher's colleagues may be located throughout the world---computers may enhance the feeling of collegiality by allowing for easy communication within groups. "Scientists join lots of virtual teams to collaborate on research problems. They have long-term spatially distributed communities" that are facilitated through computer-based communications.

The forum was sponsored by the U-M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the Academic Women's Caucus and the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs.