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Educational mind shift

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue October, October 1 - October 31, 2000 | BY Robert C. Heterick, Jr. , John Gehl 

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Robert C. Heterick, Jr. discusses mentoring, immersion, interactive learning environments, and more

Robert C. Heterick, Jr. is Vice President Emeritus at Virginia Tech and Associate of the Center for Academic Transformation at RPI. He is the former President of Educom and a Fellow of the Center for Organizational and Technological Advancement at Virginia Tech.



UBIQUITY: How long do you think you've been in the business of trying to transform education through information technology?

ROBERT C. HETERICK, JR.: Actually, I know the answer to that question, 1959.

UBIQUITY: And how did it happen?

HETERICK: I was working on my master's degree, writing my thesis and I used this new-fangled gadget called the computer. And I miraculously solved a problem that would be duck soup for a pocket calculator today but that took me about six months to program for the IBM 650. I was teaching at the same time and I began to think about what all this meant for students and the learning process, taking and giving exams and all of the things associated with the process of education.

UBIQUITY: So you had a vision. Have you had to battle over the years to get other people to share that vision?

HETERICK: Oh sure. You know 1959 is early enough that you're not a visionary, you're an idiot. It takes awhile for it even to get to the point where somebody says, "Well maybe there might be some realistic potential here." I remember that I'd bring my thesis advisor the results of all my computer work, and he'd take them home over the weekend and check them by hand. And he said, "Bob I'm going to trust you that someday this thing will really be worth something." So, yeah, I think that over the years it's been interesting to watch people come to grips with something that's so transforming. And that's mainly because for the first 20 years I was doing this, very few people used a computer or basically even knew what a computer was. So it's pretty hard for people to imagine the potential in something that they have no grasp of whatsoever.

UBIQUITY: Well, in the last few years, the majority of American households have purchased personal computers, and a smaller but still fairly large percent of those households are on the Internet. Does that mean the battle is over? Can you declare a victory?

HETERICK: I think we can say that the computer is an accepted appurtenance in modern society. Now, whether the battle is over or not is another kind of a question, because as with all these kinds of things there's a mind shift as well as an acceptance of technology required. For many people, particularly in education, that mind shift is still yet to take place. I mean, we're talking about a process that has remained relatively unchanged since the 14th century, and that is the idea that you bring together a group of knowledgeable people or experts, the faculty, and you cloister them, and then you bring students to them. Some kind of an exchange takes place between the faculty and the students and at some point the students have been sufficiently stuffed with learning and so are able to leave. But of course the computer and the communications networks change all that. It's no longer necessary to aggregate the experts. It's no longer necessary to cloister them. It's not necessary to bring the students physically to them. Once you break those barriers in your mind, education can take on all sorts of forms that are still not generally accepted by everyone in the community.

UBIQUITY: You give a lot of talks about information technology and education. In audiences that you address, do you sometimes find a level of hysteria on the subject of computers and the transformation of education?

HETERICK: Not in the audiences I encounter, but that's probably because those audiences are somewhat self-selecting, and the people who might have some sense of hysteria probably don't attend any of the talks that I give. However, there certainly are people who write about the subject who perceive the kinds of things that I and others like me say as being absurd and totally wrong. I don't know whether to characterize their position as hysterical, but it probably borders on some level of extremely intense concern about the ideas I espouse.

UBIQUITY: What do you think is the essence of that concern? What does it boil down to?

HETERICK: For the insiders, for the people within the Academy itself, there is a feeling -- just a feeling, because it certainly is not supported by any factual information I've seen -- that there is some kind of an exchange that takes place between the faculty and the student simply because they have physical proximity. There is a belief that such proximity is a fundamental part of education, and that, therefore, should the faculty and the student attend to the teaching-learning process asynchronously, then that proximity exchange doesn't take place and thus the quality of the education of the student is somehow or another reduced.

UBIQUITY: Would you be willing to concede the idea that quality could be reduced somewhat, and that you might be arguing mainly about how much it's reduced?

HETERICK: No, I wouldn't concede that, based on my very strong belief, which I think is supported by the evidence, that we don't currently know how much "education" students get in a conventional classroom. So, to suggest that the amount of education a student receives in an unconventional classroom is more or less is a very difficult position to hold because you don't have a baseline to operate from. We do know that from a testing standpoint -- and this has been demonstrated in hundreds and hundreds of studies -- that there's no significant difference in the test scores of students who take a course in a conventional classroom versus those who take one in some unconventional classroom, by distance learning, over the Net, correspondence school, or whatever it may be.

UBIQUITY: Then let's evaluate some anecdotal evidence. In your own history, do you have some fondness for personal exchanges in your own education with favored professors?

HETERICK: Oh, absolutely. I think everyone can recall some career or life-defining moments, one or two at least, that took place in the four-year span of his or her undergraduate education, and it involved a faculty member. But what I find interesting is that when I talk to people about those defining moments it becomes clear that those moments almost never occurred in the classroom. They occurred in a coffee shop or in an exchange in the hall, or in a meeting of a club at which the faculty member was an advisor, or some venue other than the classroom. And that's not surprising, I think when I reflect on it, because you seldom have a dialog going in the classroom. You have pretty much of a one-way dribble of information moving from the faculty member to the student. Moreover, the faculty member is not providing information to the student as the student actually needs it; instead, the students are trying to accumulate it in the expectation that at some later time they will, in fact, need it and come to understand why it was important. As a result, the concept of "just-in-time" learning doesn't really exist in the conventional classroom.

UBIQUITY: Well, in your approach to technology-based education, would you abandon the idea of those hallway meetings and coffee shop meetings?

HETERICK: No, absolutely not. In fact I think that is what's going to turn out to be the extraordinary advantage of these unconventional learning experiences. They're going to free the faculty to have more occasions for those exchanges with students that anecdotally have turned out to be the defining exchanges on the behalf of the student. Of course, we really should be talking about "mentor" here or use some other terminology besides "faculty," because mentors are not necessarily going to be the assigned faculty for the course.

UBIQUITY: What do you have in mind?

HETERICK: The fellow who repairs my computers happens to have his office in the Math Emporium at Virginia Tech, which offers a very unconventional studio-type learning experience. So I find myself wandering through that building at all hours of the day and night with my never-ending series of computer problems, because what I've discovered is that the more computers you have the more problems you have, and I have a lot of computers at home. While I'm at the Math Emporium I talk with the students there, and what I've learned is that some of their defining moments have occurred not between them and a faculty member, but between them and another student. Because, in that environment, students mentor and coach other students. But I think the perception that students get these defining moments only from the faculty will be broken down, and we'll begin to discover that those defining moments come at all sorts of unpredictable points.

UBIQUITY: What's your opinion of the current state and the future prospects of the many fully-online educational programs that have sprung up in the last couple of years?

HETERICK: Well, first I would make a distinction that generally goes unsaid by me, but I think I'll say it here. There is a socialization or culturalization process that goes on for young people, the 18- to 22-year-olds, as they go away to college and as they participate in what we've begun to think of as the college or university experience -- which is one heck of a lot of other things other than being in the classroom. That's important, and I think that will continue. But we have to remember that the 18- to 22-year-old group represents, at best right now, a third or less of the students formally enrolled in higher education. And probably represents something on the order of 15 percent of the total people who are pursuing or who desire to pursue post-secondary learning experiences. So, if you set aside those 18- to 22-year-olds (and there are about six million young people in that category), and you look at the other 15 to 20 million people who are looking at post-secondary learning experiences on the job while they're working -- people who are 30 years old, 50 years old, 60 years old, or older ­ you find that for those people the process of learning at a distance and in some asynchronous fashion is a godsend. It provides them an access to education that they would have never had if they had had to remove themselves physically to this cloistered environment and spend some time learning in the conventional way. So, I think in general the idea of those kinds of programs is a great one and it's going to propel our society for the next 50 or 100 years by educating our workforce for this constant turnover and job skills they need.

UBIQUITY: Are the current programs generally well-designed and well-implemented?

HETERICK: The programs themselves today are pretty rough and pretty darn unrefined. We'll look back 30 or 40 years from now and think, "Gee, was that all the better we could do?" I guess what I'm suggesting is that we're going to see extraordinary improvements in the environment within which people learn at a distance, and that today's strategies and programs will appear positively antediluvian.

UBIQUITY: Are you thinking that if the technology got to the point that education could assume the gloss of CNN or the Jim Lehrer show, with worldwide dialogs among faculty and students, that the experience would be different?

HETERICK: Yeah, but those examples are not the ones I would compare it to. I'd be more inclined to compare it to what we're beginning to see now in the virtual reality stuff within universities, where you enter a virtual environment and you interact with that environment. I think what we'll see develop over the next ten years or so is the beginning of what I call "educational immersion," in which the learners become immersed in an environment that captures their attention, responds to their cues -- whether visual or in other more exotic ways -- but certainly responds to the cues and provides a learning experience that identifies where the student is weak, pushes them to overcome that weakness, and reinforces the learning process.

UBIQUITY: An example?

HETERICK: There's some absolutely marvelous experiments that people have done in things like the learning of languages. Jim Noblet, at North Carolina, did some marvelous work on this, oh gosh, almost 10 years ago, in which the student becomes immersed the process of learning languages and pronounces material to the computer, in this case, and has the computer pronounce material back to them, quizzes them, and put them in everyday experiences. That of course is what Berlitz and similar schools famous for teaching languages have realized for a number of years -- that you need to get immersed in a subject in order to most effectively learn it. So we'll see the rise of these new kinds of learning environments that are constructed to make people most effective in using their talents to learn.

UBIQUITY: Has any event particularly surprised you about the way the technology has been accepted or not accepted in education?

HETERICK: In retrospect, probably not, but as it was happening I was frequently surprised. You're always surprised that people seem to hold out and resist an idea or a technology for as long as they do. And then, at some later point, you find yourself surprised that people are so uncritically accepting of it, and just willing to believe anything relative to it. Arthur C. Clarke once said something to the effect that every new technology is like magic; well, at some point, you become a little nervous at the way people accept the capabilities of the technology. You see it in the movies with these extraordinary sequences of things that people appear to do almost instantaneously with a computer, things that if you've ever actually had a computer, you know are just pure magic tricks. They have nothing to do with what the technology is really about.

UBIQUITY: Would that suggest an important new problem for education? With regard to emersion and simulation and so forth, is there a danger that people would confuse the simulation with the reality, and not understand some of the assumptions that created the simulation or the emersion experience?

HETERICK: Yes, there's always a danger of that, and we certainly have seen that played out in many areas. You probably recall the "limits to growth" scenario years ago, which made some extraordinary computer-supported and extrapolation-based projections of what was going to happen, but then people suddenly discovered that the results were frequently bogus, because even within the constraints of our model we had a mistake. So, yes, there is a problem that people become very uncritical about accepting what comes out of the computer and getting confused about the reality of it. That's always a scary thing. We see people wondering, "Well why do we even bother to have an election? Why don't we just have a sample of 400 people and decide who won?" It hasn't quite come to that point yet, but there are certainly some people who are pretty willing to uncritically accept that idea.

UBIQUITY: The ACM, of course, has numerous initiatives on the various issues we've talked about. What do you hope ACM might accomplish?

HETERICK: Like all organizations, ACM has a number of different constituencies, so it's difficult to find a single tag line that suits them all. There is a certain amount of evangelical work that an organization like ACM ought to be doing to educate the lay public, and I think ACM does that and has historically done that -- probably not as much as some people would've liked, but nonetheless they've done it. And then there's the educational process for people within the profession, which is of course where most of ACM's efforts are expended. And there's an extraordinary amount of educational material through the publications of ACM that are very, very useful to lots and lots of people. What an organization like ACM could do, assuming it has both the desire and the funding to do it, is find ways to create interactive learning environments for people, experiences that go well beyond the publications. I'm thinking here particularly of the lay public. All organizations, the ACM included, just have to decide whether or not that level of evangelical work is in their charter or not. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it is.


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