CAUSE/EFFECT

Copyright 1998 EDUCAUSE. From CAUSE/EFFECT Volume 21, Number 2, 1998, pp.15-18. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the EDUCAUSE copyright and its date appear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of EDUCAUSE. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact Jim Roche at EDUCAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301 USA; 303-939-0308; e-mail: jroche@educause.edu

Technology and the Learning Environment: An Interview with Lucinda Roy


Lucinda Roy

Lucinda Roy, Alumni Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, spoke to CAUSE/EFFECT Editor James Roche about her experience teaching online courses through the university's three-year-old Cyberschool. Roy, author of the recently published novel, Lady Moses, and several poetry books, teaches courses on creative writing, the civil rights movement, and literature.

Roche: Is there a risk, by doing things with e-mail and with less personal interaction, that students will never get to know their instructors' personalities and dynamic style of teaching? Or are there ways of maintaining that connection?

Roy: The question about whether we're going to lose human contact in the university environment is the predominant question that lots of us are asking, especially if we care about teaching. We do know it's the face-to-face energy that often exists in the classroom, the communal energy, that creates a wonderful space for learning. Whether there's a way to duplicate that [in an online environment] is questionable.

In one particular class, my students had videotapes. All of them did see me face to face. I wanted them to know that their professor was a woman of color, that she had a kind of strange personality, the eccentricities that would have made me decide to teach certain texts and not others. All those kinds of things are important: my body language, the way that I speak. I hoped that the videotape would at least capture some of that, even though it was something in the declarative mode, a series of statements. I had to imagine, pretend, I was a student for a while and imagine them answering some of those questions and asking questions.

As we start to think about what we can do with video, with voice, with data, we can do some amazing things that we could never have done before. Especially for those students who cannot come to campus, we need to think very creatively about how we're going to accommodate them. One of the problems we have right now is that we always think of the student as being eighteen to twenty-two and they'll come to class if they're not lazy. That's not the way it works. Fifty-four percent of students now are mature students. They cannot necessarily afford to get to campus; it's that particular community that we need to be thinking about now. I think we can do some things that we haven't even envisioned yet.

Roche: Any thoughts on what some of those things might be?

Roy: You can do a lot of things [with two-way, interactive video] that are interesting. As we become more adept at making sure that students can access us even in their homes, it will seem more natural. Let me give you an example. Right now, my students often e-mail me three or four times a day. One thing I've learned from this online interaction is that the ways in which we speak to each other [online] are very different from the way we would speak if we were face to face. Students working online are often much more informal early in the semester. Most teachers who love tutorials really love online interaction if it's designed well. You can have the kinds of dialogue you would not normally have in a public space.

Roche: Do you think that using e-mail as a means of correspondence will actually improve student writing?

Roy: One of the things I love about e-mail is the fact that for the most part, it is not an intimidating medium. Even students who are dyslexic sometimes really don't mind sending e-mail, partly because they can spell check it anyway. There's a sense that you can express yourself in e-mail as though you're talking to someone. Students will often begin with smiley faces and they'll talk in ways that they would not normally speak to a professor.

Something we have noticed in English is that when we've used Daedalus, it encourages students to write to each other.1 Even when they're in the lab together, they have to write responses. You cannot learn to write unless you write. When the only channel of communication you have is the online channel, it is amazing how much people will write. Professor Len Hatfield, who has studied the use of Daedalus at Virginia Tech, has found that students write two, three, four times as much because they feel as though they can. They feel as though they must.

Roche: You said some of your students e-mail you up to four times a day. That's a lot of work for the instructor. Do you think this is something that will alienate faculty or will change the dimensions in which we operate as faculty?

Roy: What we're seeing now at Virginia Tech is that faculty who get involved in this can suffer from burnout very quickly. If you're getting 300 e-mails a day from a class, what do you do with them? It's really important, not just that we have a kind of administrative structure in place that allows faculty to take time off to work on this kind of thing, but also that faculty themselves understand that you have to create filtering systems. You have to have TAs. If you have a class of 300 to 400, you cannot teach well using all this interactive technology unless you are also going to build in some personal support behind it. You cannot imagine that you can answer all those queries well and improve the quality of education if you're the only person doing it. It's very frustrating. We do need to think about how anyone experimenting with this new environment has the kind of personnel support that they need. I don't think we do very well at it.

Roche: Can you touch on the difference between having the technology versus thinking about the implications of using it in the learning environment?

Roy: Right now, it's as though we've entered this huge cafeteria. We have all these different choices that we can make as far as technology. So something that will be important in undergraduate education is selectivity. There's a term, "appropriate technology," that we originally used when we talked about Africa and developing countries and continents to see how they could use technology that would actually be helpful to them. Years ago, we used the example of sending fifty tractors out to a part of west Africa, and they would sit there, nobody would use them, and they'd rust. They would sit there because they were not appropriate technology. We had no personnel to support them; there was no way they could be used well.

One of the things I see is people selecting from this menu in the cafeteria and making a plate that's so ugly, you really wouldn't want to eat it. At some point we have to decide how we want the whole selection to cohere. What really is appropriate for us? If there are students who just cannot get online, for example, then Internet technology is inappropriate. We need to think carefully about what's best for us.

It's confusing also because there are a lot of people suddenly involved in the education process who have their own agendas. Some are from the corporate world and really want to push a particular kind of software as the answer to everything. And because a lot of our upper-level administrators are not familiar with the new environment, they rely very heavily on their technology officers. So, the technology officers just have to get it right, which is ludicrous. There's no way always to get it right.

Roche: If we get to a point when a student can sit on campus or at home and pick and choose courses from around the world, there's the thought that the courses that will succeed are the ones that are taught by instructors who get up and not only educate, but entertain. Any thoughts on global competition?

Roy: The star lecture courses that are now being touted will be broadcast to many people. They certainly have a role to play and they will have a strong niche in the education community. I worry about them though, because the danger of broadcast teaching is that it is essentially a delivery system. It doesn't give you a chance to have a response mechanism. What I could see myself doing in that kind of arena is getting a package together that is essentially declarative, something that's full of different statements, lectures--here's me telling you what I know about poetry, how to write poetry, how to be creative. There would be an accompanying package--much as we do with textbooks--that would go to an on-site instructor, who has an ability to really work one-on-one with students and can customize that package for his or her students. That mechanism in the middle will prove to be much more important than we think it is right now. Those in the middle will have autonomy, I hope, in their classroom space, but they would customize and add to what they've received. They receive templates, really. There are some courses--particularly hard science courses, where you have to have a body of information before you can begin to move forward--that lend themselves to the other model, where you'll have a standardized course that's offered globally.

Roche: That brings up the difference between the haves and the have-nots. Students who can afford the technology have access to all these wonderful things; people who can't afford it don't have access. Minority students sometimes have less money and less access to technology. Is the gap widening? Is it creating other problems we haven't looked at?

Roy: It looks to some of us as though things are getting worse, just because of the individual contact we have with students. Having said that, though, there's lots of different strategies we can use to help with this. We're talking about outreach all the time right now. For institutions of higher education, the key to a successful outreach is information technology. If there's a way of combining outreach and information technology, then you can reach so many more people. You can start to bring them into an academic learning environment. For minority students, when you bring them into that environment, they change at a swifter pace, I believe, than any other students I've worked with. I'm talking particularly about African-American students. The skills they develop because they can see an immediate application and because suddenly they have keys to a world that previously has been barred to them--it is like leaping over the color bar. The students say, "This isn't white technology, this is my technology, too." It becomes a question of survival. It's true also for poor white students.

We can think about partnerships. The historically black universities haven't normally partnered with majority institutions very well. With technology, we can at least partner with their teachers. There's a way to do that now because almost everyone is online. It should be one of the first things we think about.

Roche: You have warned against having our eyes focused too much on the future without understanding the past. How does that apply to technology?

Roy: When I talk about putting our eyes back to the past instead of just focusing on the future, it's become my mantra. The origination point is more important than the destination point. The origination point will determine where you go. In the '70s and '80s, universities did most of their teaching in large lecture classes--not for the quality of learning, but to save money by teaching hundreds of students at a time. We knew, in a sense, that wasn't the best way to go, but it was cost-effective. What we're doing again and again is taking those kinds of practices and saying we can redo these at a cost of $100,000 and then send them out again. It's even more cost-effective because you can send it out to thousands. That's one of the examples of us not looking back to the past and remembering we were only focused on large lecture courses for monetary reasons, which is not always the best reason to do something. If we'd thought instead about the quality of education, and whether there was anything we could do that would both be cost effective and address quality, then we wouldn't repeat the same mistakes.

Roche: We have students coming into colleges and universities who seem more at ease with the technology and are probably more literate with the technology than some of the faculty. What kind of problems does this create? What kind of solutions do we have?

Roy: We underestimate the sense of discomfort that faculty feel when they realize that the students are more computer literate than they are. For example, when we started Cyberschool at Virginia Tech, I made some pretty severe mistakes in terms of not informing all of the community about what we were doing. We'd have our students go to other professors and say, "Where's your Web page? Professor X has a Web page and if we miss class, we just download the lectures and read them." The people who were the most proactive for us turned out to be the students. They were the ones saying, "We really need to move forward."

Imagine if you're a faculty member, and a student comes up and says, essentially, there are things you ought to know that you don't know. All of this fast-paced change has created a place of real discomfort for some faculty. I don't think we should underestimate it. There are ways of making sure that faculty know they can get on board at any time.

Roche: You mentioned that students who take courses with instructors who are involved in technology tend to devote more time to those courses as a result of technology. A lot of faculty would love to embrace this. Is this because technology is a novel thing? In five or ten years, will technology have become another chalkboard or video?

Roy: I have a colleague who always asks, "What will happen when the gimmick is over?" He's right. There really is that drive right now because it's new. But very quickly, you come to expect technology as a right. Everybody, when they [temporarily] lost e-mail on AOL, just went crazy. It was their right to receive e-mail as it was sent. In America, it always surprises me how quickly people turn privilege to right. Now that it's been established, I think it's too late to turn it back. We still will be doing things with technology that are unwise, just as we did with the chalk. Look at how we used the chalk and chalkboard. You'd go into classrooms and all you'd see is the back side of the professor, scrawling away, talking to the board. We've accepted some bad practices.

Technology, to some extent, liberates the learners. It allows them to have a voice to say when things aren't working. For example, in my class, if students didn't think the discussion went the way they wanted it to go, then I'll learn it the next minute as soon as I sit down and check the screen. That is a good thing. If I get that kind of feedback, I know how to change what I'm doing. As long as you are willing to adapt, the technology will continue because it allows that incredible response mechanism. It allows you to really listen. If we allow the technology to help us do our listening for us, then we'll be really strong. If we just think of the technology as a place where we can speak as teachers, then it will be a mistake.

Roche: We are inundated with information. How do you teach students to determine quality?

Roy: It's very important to teach students three things: One is selectivity. What do you select? You have to have a set of criteria for your selection. Often, students don't have that set of criteria. They've selected something at random. The second thing they need is the ability to criticize. They have to be able to synthesize those details and overlay them on assumptions they already have about the world. And third, they need an ability to understand and appreciate irony. If they can't do that, if you can't teach them to think in stereo, to listen in stereo, to hear conflicting things coming at you from different places, they will never fully understand what that synthesis process is.

Roche: In a nutshell, what does Virginia Tech offer its faculty in the way of instructional development?

Roy: Virginia Tech has an instructional development initiative. That includes a faculty development initiative, which allows faculty to go through a three-day workshop and learn about the technology. We get the appropriate software and we learn how to use it. We get our computer as a gift. Before that, most of us were working in the dark. It was very hard for us to know what we could do because we'd had such a short orientation period.

When I became associate dean, it seemed that we had lots of people in Arts & Sciences, a faculty of 600, doing some wonderful things. But there was no cohesion there. We had somebody in Mathematics repeating what someone in Statistics had done. We had someone in English using exactly the same kind of software as someone in Biology. They wanted to share. That's why [we] started Cyberschool. It was really just a term to think of working together as a group, as faculty, trying to help each other and share our ideas with each other. What was very important, though, was to have the blessing of the upward administration. To some extent, [the work] does take you away from your department. Dean Robert Bates in Arts and Sciences understood that faculty were at risk, and so was careful to build in some safeguards so that faculty could succeed. We're still learning and we still have a long way to go. We need to keep on listening to faculty, staff, and student concerns. That's the key to success.

Endnotes

1 Daedalus is a program which provides an integrated writing environment for its users. Students can use it to work collaboratively or on their own, to compose essays, have discussions, peer edit, etc.

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James Roche (jroche@educause.edu) is director of Communications at EDUCAUSE.

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