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New tools, new teaching for a different kind of student
an interview with Don Norman

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2000 | BY John Gehl 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library


Don Norman calls himself a "user advocate," and he is a fierce promoter of designing information systems that put human needs first, technology second. Norman spent most of his life as a professor of Cognitive Science and Psychology at the University of California, San Diego (he is now Prof. emeritus). Then he moved to Silicon Valley and became VP of Advanced technology at Apple Computer. He started a user advocacy consulting firm with Jakob Nielsen -- the Nielsen Norman group. Norman still serves on numerous boards of start-up and small companies, but along the way, one of his clients, Unext.com, hired him.


When we talked with hm was getting ready for the Demo 2000 Conference, and we asked him about it.

UBIQUITY: You just finished preparing a demo on UNext, so tell us about it. What's UNext all about?

DON NORMAN: Well, in the demo we start off by saying, "Look, most traditional education is based around lectures" . . . and we show a boring lecture on various rates of return and financial indices. Then we say, "You know, most people think that distance learning basically means nothing more than education at a distance and so it looks like this . . ." and we show a QuickTime movie of the very same boring, dull lecture. The point is that lectures don't really work, especially when streaming video over the Internet. Lectures are not the way to learn. So at UNext, the company that takes education seriously, we've hired world-class experts in education, we've partnered with some of the world's best universities, and we've started our own university, Cardean University.

UBIQUITY: Which universities are you partnering with?

NORMAN: The University of Chicago, Columbia University, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics. We work closely with the faculty of those institutions, but we don't just use their existing courses because courses that work in the university don't work over the Internet.

UBIQUITY: Why not?

NORMAN: They don't work because in the conventional school you have a huge amount of support structure built in. If a student hears a bad lecture, if they don't quite understand it, afterwards they can always go to the professor or meet with fellow students. In fact, the fellow students are the most important. They are also trapped. They have moved to the university, they live there, they are taking a number of courses and they have invested quite a lot in going. So they stick at it. They have nothing else to do and other students will help them through.

We want to give courses to people who are employed, who are busy professionals who don't have much time. Even though they really need this material, if they have a bad experience, they won't come back. They don't have the kind of social support [described above]. On top of that, they don't have the same time available. They have other things they have to do.

UBIQUITY: How will your courses be different?

NORMAN: We've developed a whole new approach to teaching. We use relatively short courses. We expect no more than five hours a week from each student. The courses last no more than five weeks and they're all problem-based learning courses. They're based around realistic examples. We call this inquiry learning because the learning is driven by the student¹s inquiries into the problem. The result is the learning is driven by the needs of the student, not by the whims of the professor.

So, [in the demo] we illustrate a course that we did with Columbia University. In the first couple of minutes, a student is suddenly confronted with the problem: you're a manager at Turing Computer. Ever heard of Turing? No? Well, that's because Turing has no market share compared to Compaq, Dell and Gateway. So what are you going to do? . . . In the demo you see a scenario that describes this problem and the student says, "Gee, I guess my VP tells me I should compare Compaq, Dell and Gateway to try to understand them."

UBIQUITY: So how does somebody do that?

NORMAN: They use something called a common value balance sheet. But the student doesn't know anything about that, so we present a module that explains how to do the balance sheet on your spreadsheet. The point is that the students, in order to solve the problem of what Turing should do, have to learn how to read balance sheets; have to learn financials. Actually, one of the things we're encouraging them to do is consider whether they should buy a handheld computer company, in particular, Psion. So they go off to read the Psion balance sheet to try to understand it and they discover they can't because Psion is a British company and they do their balance sheets differently. Students learn how the same principles can lead to different kinds of statements.

UBIQUITY: And then . . .?

NORMAN: We encourage students to debate and to listen to experts. We show a one-minute clip from Merton Miller, who's a Nobel Laureate and a member of our advisory board. Merton Miller says, "never trust this stuff. Accountants get together in their dry co-harmless way and they try to figure out rules. Once they've figured out the rules, all the companies get together and try to figure out how to go around them."

And so then our student says "I wonder what the professor of my course thinks about that?" And then we see a little clip by Mike Kerstenheiter, who's the professor at Columbia who worked with us on the course, saying, "I don't really agree with what Miller is saying. Accounting is a language. It's really important to understand the language of business. But look, if somebody lies to you in English or lies to you in French, you don't blame English or French."

The point is that we encourage a lot of discussion. And in fact, we then go on to show in our demo a discussion among the students. We show that a student is saying "hmm, Helen has said that she doesn't understand. She sees that Dell doesn't have any inventory. Well, I've just figured that one out," and so he writes "you see, Dell's whole competitive advantage is that it builds computers just in time." Our instructors don't lecture, our instructors mentor and guide. We show an instructor coming on saying, "we think that Dan has a good point there. In fact, here's a URL to a Wall Street Journal article that's discussing Dell's strategy."

UBIQUITY: How far along is UNext now?

NORMAN: We will offer courses to industry starting in Spring 2000. We're in the process of making initial sales contacts. We don't yet have enough finished courses that we feel we can really call it live, although we have some paying customers taking them. What happened is that we're doing all these tests and some companies liked what we were doing so much they insisted on taking some of the courses now even though they're still being tested.

UBIQUITY: Do you have the intention of having a whole degree program?

NORMAN: Absolutely. We intend to get full accreditation and offer an MBA from Cardean University. We think, though, that most people won't get the degree. We can imagine people who already have the MBA, but who took it 20 years ago, who need to refresh. The funny thing about traditional education is that you load up the person for the first third of their life and then assume they know enough to last forever. We say that's nonsense. We'll take the other two-thirds of your life and give the information to you when you need it. Maybe you just got promoted and your boss says "hey, do a financial projection on that project." And you say, "I'm an engineer, I don't know about financial projections." You can come to our course and learn enough for the next stage of your life.

UBIQUITY: What does Cardean stand for?

NORMAN: The most important thing is that it doesn't stand for anything obscene in any language that we can find. Cardean was the Greek goddess of portals. That's a great marketing line, but most important of all, it's nobody else's trademark either.

UBIQUITY: So what you're saying is that things are moving nicely?

NORMAN: Oh, yeah. When I joined the company there were 15 people. There are now about 150. We just opened a facility in Bloomington, Indiana, to produce courses even more quickly. Things are going very well.

UBIQUITY: So you have how many courses now?

NORMAN: Working on about eight, but we're adding more almost every day.

UBIQUITY: So if you keep going at this pace, you would have a whole program ready to go starting in Spring 2000. When would you expect to go beyond business courses?

NORMAN: Our agreement with Stanford and Carnegie Mellon covers all of the courses in the university. But there's a huge market for the business courses and so that's where we're starting. We'll move on to the others when we have a solid business curriculum.

UBIQUITY: So far, how is what you're doing received -- not by people who see the demos, but by people who don't -- people in the universities that are your partners?

NORMAN: The universities see the courses because we work closely with the university, and the faculty members see the courses all the way through development. In fact, the agreement we have with the universities is that we can't release a course without their approval. In fact, we can't keep teaching it unless they're happy with the way we teach it.

UBIQUITY: I guess what I'm asking is how popular are the teachers who participate with the teachers who don't?

NORMAN: Let me ask a different question: are there faculty who object to what we're doing? And the answer is yes. I personally think their objections are misguided. First of all, most of them don't know what we're doing. I think our courses are actually superior in many ways to the courses that you get in the university. We pay much more attention to making sure they really work. I run a testing program in which every course goes through an exhaustive series of four different kinds of tests before they can be released. In 30 years of teaching classes in the university, I never tested the courses before I taught them and I never actually evaluated them afterwards to see if people learned. The only evaluations were the student popularity contests.

But the university is more than just the courses, especially the top-notch research universities. First of all, they are places for faculty. It is one of the university's roles to advance the world's knowledge. In a research university, research takes priority. Second, you have a huge social interaction of students among students. And in the research universities, they attract the best students. It's a great social interaction. Then in the small teaching universities, you have excellent interaction with teachers and students. We don't pretend to substitute for either of these situations.

We can give education to people who can't otherwise get it: people who live in India; people who live in Brazil where the penetration rate of universities is four percent, and yet it's an industrialized technical country. We also can give courses to people in the U.S. who are busily employed and can't take the time off to go to an executive training program or even to go to night school because maybe they travel too much.

So when some faculty complain that we don't offer the same social interaction, the same climate and the same faculty rights, they are absolutely correct; but we don't pretend to either. So I don't feel it's a fair criticism for something that we don't even claim that we're doing.

UBIQUITY: I guess the underlying theme of what he and other people are expressing is fear that somehow their own turf will be upset.

NORMAN: Well, yes, they should be afraid, but that's like saying the Pony Express should have been afraid when the railroad or the telegraph came out. The point is how successful are universities at teaching? In the end, the university that takes this seriously can actually improve its own stature. I think that what we're doing should be done, as well, by the teaching universities and the research universities. Maybe faculty who have not been taking teaching seriously, maybe they do feel threatened -- and I don't apologize for that.

UBIQUITY: You mentioned India and Brazil and other countries. Has there been any discussions yet with the people outside the United States?

UBIQUITY: Oh, yes. We think our biggest market will be outside the U.S. where there's a lot of hunger for American business education and little ability to get it. This is true, especially in multinational companies. So a company that does business across the world needs to understand common business practices. Once again, we don't pretend to be the equal of existing executive or MBA programs. We make it available to people who couldn't attend those programs.

UBIQUITY: Well, if things went smashingly well, and I think you expect that they will, what would you see the actual fate of the university systems 25 years from now?

NORMAN: Well, the first thing that will happen, I think, is that we expand the market of universities because, once again, we are not competing with existing universities. When we look at Brazil, India and China, for them to provide education for all of their people requires building an incredible number of universities. It'll be just too expensive and difficult and time consuming. We can speed up that educational process.

Second, we are also trying to emphasize life-long learning, as I said earlier, the second two-thirds of life. This does not compete with traditional universities. Third, we partner with universities. So universities get royalties on the courses. They work closely with us. They can receive a lot of benefit if these courses are successful. So in the beginning, I think we can only be of help to the universities.

UBIQUITY: How will distance education change higher learning institutions? Will the effects be positive or negative?

NORMAN: In the long run, I think there will be changes in that we provide a way of taking teaching seriously. We provide tools for measuring the success of teaching and the quality of the education; tools that could be used within a university. They don't have to be applied only to distance education. In fact, when university professors work with us, they often like the tools we develop and take them back to use in their classrooms. I think, however, that in the end, there is a group of universities that will have to change a lot.

I believe the small teaching colleges won't change because they offer a kind of social interaction that you just can't get otherwise. The problem with the small college is that there's a restricted number of courses they can actually offer the students. With distance education, they increase that number of courses and therefore, the students get the benefits of a large university, namely, a large collection of courses, and the advantages of a small one, namely, intimate interaction with faculty and other students.

The research university shouldn't suffer because we can help teach some of their large introductory courses that no one likes to teach. The research university's main function is research. It's an important social and maturation process for the students and I think it will always be.

Now think of the community colleges, the four-year colleges and the state schools. The professors are overworked and underpaid, and the students are often commuters, which means that there is essentially no social interaction. So these students don't get as good an education as might be possible. They don't have much interaction with faculty. Faculty don't have much time to give personal attention and the students don't really interact with one another. These are the colleges that, I think, face the biggest threat. But on the other hand, these are the ones that could gain the most by changing their model.

UBIQUITY: One thing that I wanted to ask you is how testing of students is accomplished? Is that part of the system or is that outside the system?

NORMAN: Well, we have lots of problems that people have to hand in. So, in the example I gave you of Turing Computer, the students hand in their evaluations of Dell, Gateway and Compaq. They do an evaluation of Psion. They're given a whole bunch of business questions to answer. We ask them "what if" questions. For example, "what if Compaq sales suffer by 15 percent, what would that mean?" And we ask students to do collaborative exercises as well. These provide part of the assessment.

Then we will provide a formal assessment method, but we don't want to use traditional examination questions because we think that traditional exams don't really test your knowledge. They test how well you've memorized the stuff. We want our questions to be problem-based much like the teaching is. We have a team that's developing rubrics for testing and scoring the responses. That process is heavily underway right now but not yet complete.

UBIQUITY: What has been the hardest part of putting the company and the projects and the learning materials together?

NORMAN: The pedagogy and trying it out and making sure it works. When we work with the faculty members, they don't understand this pedagogy because they're used to organizing a lecture course where they're the one with all of the knowledge and students come to them. Trying to bring together the problem base, the role of the instructor and the role of the social interaction in collaborative tools is the trickiest part.

UBIQUITY: And how have you handled it? How do you overcome that?

NORMAN: With lots of meetings, lots of reviews of the process, and lots of self-analysis.

UBIQUITY: You have some impressive partners with these universities that you mentioned. I was wondering whether you've thought of having partnerships with commercial activities, you know, TV networks, AOL, Turner, that kind of thing?

NORMAN: Yes, actually we're in discussion with a wide variety of different kinds of companies and a variety of different kinds of partnerships. So the answer is yes, we have.

UBIQUITY: How did you end up personally involved in this? I don't mean, did you have coffee with somebody?

NORMAN: As you know, we started the Nielsen Norman Group, which was going really well. UNext called me in as a consultant and I reviewed one of the courses and said "yeah, it's pretty bad."

The result was that they asked if I would consult more and then they asked if I would let UNext be my largest client. Then they said, "you know, if you lived in Chicago it'd be easier to run your consulting group because you have companies in Boston, in the East Coast, in Texas and California. Chicago is in the middle, easier to travel to." So they said "we'll move you to Chicago and then you can spend more time with us and still be a consultant." So I agreed and before I knew it, I was president of a division. And then they said, "you know, our financial backers say we can't have a president who's a consultant." In the end, I thought this put together everything I've ever done. It puts together all my teaching. It puts together my knowledge of technology and my emphasis on trying to make technology usable. It is really a committed company and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

I mean, I'd like to describe who the executives are: our CEO is on the Board of Trustees of the University of Chicago and teaches in the law school. Our Chief Learning Officer is a faculty member from Indiana and headed their Center for Research on Learning and Technology. I did research on learning at Apple. Our CFO used to be CFO of Carnegie Mellon University, and the Dean of Cardean University used to be dean of the University of Chicago Business School. So this is filled with people who really care about education.

UBIQUITY: Well, great, it sounds like you're having a terrific time.

NORMAN: I am. Oh, but it's busy. It's standard start up. It's busy.



Donald A. Norman is President of UNext Learning Systems, UNext.com.

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