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Robert Aiken on the future of learning

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue November, November 1- November 30, 2002 | BY Ubiquity staff 

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Full citation in the ACM Digital Library

In the hands of skilled teachers, technology will provide students with the best possible education -- both face-to-face and distant, collaborative and individualized, and entertaining and instructional.


In the hands of skilled teachers, technology will provide students with the best possible education -- both face-to-face and distant, collaborative and individualized, and entertaining and instructional.

Robert M. Aiken is Professor and Chair of the Research Committee in the Computer and Information Sciences Department, Temple University. He is an ACM Fellow and has received various awards including the ACM Outstanding Contribution Award (1996), the IEEE Computer Society Golden Core Award (1996), IFIP's highest award, the Silver Core, (1992) and the ACM Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education (SIGCSE) Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education (1995) and Lifetime Service Awards (1999).

UBIQUITY: What are you most interested in? If you had to pick one thing to be working on next month and next year, what would it be?

AIKEN: What I enjoy most of all is working one on one with students. I think that's where I have the biggest impact. I've particularly enjoyed working with PhD students.

UBIQUITY: Do you still teach at the undergraduate level?

AIKEN: I usually teach a course each semester at the undergraduate level. But I find it more difficult to establish the one-on-one relationships as we do in graduate courses. One of the things that I'm convinced of, as we look at the impact of distance education and long-distance learning, is that the one-on-one, mentoring aspect of being an educator is more important than ever. A lot can be achieved in long-distance learning with certain courses and modes of teaching. However, I think much of education still revolves around the teacher interacting directly with students. Some of that needs to happen face-to-face; especially at the undergraduate level.

UBIQUITY: How do you use distance learning, computers and the network in your teaching?

AIKEN: I don't do it as extensively as a number of my colleagues. I communicate a lot with my students by e-mail. I haven't used one of the systems that are set up for doing long-distance learning, like Blackboard. I don't use chat rooms but I have found that using e-mail gives me more opportunities to interact with students than just seeing them during office hours and during class.

UBIQUITY: Are you still interested in artificial intelligence?

AIKEN: Yes. Right now my students and I are working on what we call collaborative learning systems. Our goal is to look at ways in which we can help groups of people work more effectively. It's an extension of earlier research I did with intelligent tutoring systems.

UBIQUITY: Describe the work that you are doing.

AIKEN: Unlike in previous work we're not trying to provide tutoring to help students to better solve problems. To do that you need to incorporate a student model and try to ascertain why students make different kinds of mistakes. That is a very difficult cognitive task. In fact, in some of our ITS-research projects we had students evaluate themselves as a way of getting around what we saw as an intractable problem. This led us into looking at how this same technology could be used to assist students as they collaborate on solving problems. Our goal is to provide a system that both monitors the discussions among group members as well as assesses how well the members of the groups work together. That's what I've been doing in the last eight to ten years with several PhD students.

UBIQUITY: When you use a term like collaborative learning, or distance education, readers tend to perceive that there's no particular difference between learning one thing and learning the other. Are there important differences between teaching one subject and teaching another?

AIKEN: There are two pieces to that question. Research has shown that certain subjects are probably more amenable to teaching via online learning methodologies than other types. For example, certain MBA programs that involve a lot of factual information seem to flourish in this environment, but other programs may not, for example those requiring hands-on lab experimentation. A major piece of having a successful online learning environment is that students are mature enough to take on the responsibility for their own learning. So that's one piece.

UBIQUITY: And the other is?

AIKEN: With collaborative learning we look at ways to help people improve working together. We look at how they interact by passing information back and forth. Currently most information is communicated via text in these systems. We try to ferret out those who are not participating or if somebody tends to dominate the group we try to get them to back off a little and prompt other members to play a more active role. We see if members of the group stay focused on the topic or whether they tend to meander. We've tested our models with introductory computer science classes and the initial results are encouraging. We plan on doing further testing in the classroom plus we're talking with several companies that have expressed interest in using the tool to see how it might fit into their work environments.

UBIQUITY: Does age level make a difference in online learning?

AIKEN: The most important ingredient is the students' maturity. Having said that, I think that age does make a difference, particularly as we equate older students with being more likely to accept responsibility for their education. The most successful programs are at the graduate level where people have particular personal reasons -- family obligations, business obligations, traveling responsibilities, et cetera -- for obtaining an advanced degree through this route.

UBIQUITY: What about age levels in collaborative learning?

AIKEN: We see a lot of collaborative learning at all ages and levels of education. Teachers have done this for many years very successfully; everything from having students working together on, let's say, geography projects or small science projects in lower or middle school, to similar kinds of activities in high school. I think the technology now allows us to leverage the ways we've used collaboration in the past and make it more feasible for people who are geographically dispersed. One of the things that this technology enables us to do is to reach out globally, which fits in with something that's been a large part of my background and interest. It's been my contention for many years that we in the US need to reach out more to other societies and cultures. We have opportunities to do that through educational tools and activities. Using e-mail, list serves, and a variety of software we are able to develop projects with students from different geographical locations, both nationally and internationally. Through these projects students learn about different cultures, classroom environments, learning strategies as well as the possibilities and problems of collaborating at a distance.

UBIQUITY: You say this has been a part of your background and interest. Explain.

AIKEN: I have spent a large part of my professional life, since the late 1960s, reaching out to people in other countries and cultures, both through my professional activities within ACM, originally with SIGCSE, the Special Interest Group on Computer Science Education, and IFIP (the International Federation for Information Processing). I served on the board of SIGCSE for a number of years, as well as the chair from 1977-1981, and have maintained an ongoing interest. In conjunction with these activities I traveled abroad extensively. Also, I continued to follow up on contacts that I had made in a number of European countries early in the '70s -- some of which were then considered to be behind the Iron Curtain -- and in China in the '80s. I've probably been to 30 or 40 different countries either lecturing or during sabbaticals or simply making presentations at various international conferences and workshops. With the technology, it's easier to make those kinds of contacts and follow up on them. It helps eliminate some barriers and makes it easier to establish international cooperation. For example, it would not be possible for me to interact regularly with colleagues around the world if I did not have e-mail. I probably spend 1 ­ 2 hours a day using e-mail and about half of that is with people outside the USA. In addition, document sharing via e-mail allows me the flexibility and possibility to collaborate with colleagues at other (possibly very distant) locations to conduct research and co-author papers. I have collaborated with colleagues in Switzerland, France, the UK and even the Far East in preparing papers.

UBIQUITY: In the roughly three decades that you've been teaching, have you noticed any important differences in education, in general, and in the use of technology changing it?

AIKEN: In the last 35 years technology has had a tremendous impact on society. I think we hear that phrase and we accept it. But we don't often reflect on it. It permeates so many aspects of our lives, of which certainly education is a primary component. For example, young people today have so much exposure to all the technology from cell phones to inexpensive hand-held computers. It's just incredible the change that's taken place in such a short time. For example, five years ago when my son was in high school he was required to turn in a resume and the teacher insisted it be hand-written. Last year he was again required to submit a resume but only one prepared using a computer was accepted. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Ten- to twelve-year-olds are composing movies, taking and downloading photos on their computers, using the Internet for homework, etc. The computer is taken for granted and high-powered systems are available at very low prices. The major issue now is how can we provide reasonable access to students at all levels of society.

UBIQUITY: There are many ramifications to this constant exposure. How has it affected education specifically?

AIKEN: Students of today are much more visually oriented. From the standpoint of education, teachers today must think in terms of how to capture the attention of their students in novel ways, even more so than, say, 30 years ago. In a sense they're competing with the television age, or the image age. It's very difficult for teachers now because learning competes for their attention with all of the video, television and other media. Educators must not only impart knowledge to students; they have to find novel ways to motivate them. In part that means we are in the -- I hate to use the term -- entertainment business. There is a certain amount of that in how we try to get the message across. The fact that the students are so much more visually attuned today makes it more difficult for teachers who didn't come up with that same perspective to figure out how to reach these students. This is at all levels. So I would say that's a major piece.

UBIQUITY: Is technology being used effectively to reach these students?

AIKEN: The answer is a very qualified yes. Much of the problem is, a) we don't always know how to do this effectively and b) for the most part, teachers and educators don't have the opportunities to learn how to seamlessly incorporate this technology into their teaching.

UBIQUITY: Do your colleagues, either at Temple or in the country, embrace technology and education as much as you do?

AIKEN: I am continually amazed by the many great applications that come from people outside of computing science. A lot of exciting material has been developed by people in all disciplines ranging from history to languages to art and music -- content specialists who found ways to make technology bring their subjects more alive for students. But I have to say that's not necessarily the mainstream. Part of the reason is because educators must learn how to adapt new technology and move it into the classroom. By the time that has happened, the technology has already moved another step beyond us. It's almost impossible to keep up with it. At the same time, we still haven't necessarily interspersed the older technologies as effectively as we might in the classrooms.

UBIQUITY: Speaking of new possibilities, let's speak of far-out possibilities. Go out about 20 years. What do you think is likely to happen? We will check up on you to see whether you were right.

AIKEN: First of all, it's important for me to say what won't happen. I do not think we will live in world of virtual universities. There will continue to be a very important role filled in our society by universities with walls. Yes, they will be transformed, but they will be just as important in our society in 20 years as they are today. Next, I would say that this is a very difficult question on which to even speculate. If someone had been asked 20 years ago what the impact of technology would be today, how could they have predicted the impact of probably the most important change agent -- the Internet -- which was not even in its infancy then. Having provided that caveat let me try to answer your question.

There will be much more technology available in classrooms and that technology will be linked to students via remote hand-held devices, such as more powerful versions of the low-cost, palm-sized computers. Learning will take place in many more different ways. It will become standard for students to log onto Web sites as an integral part of their studies to get copies of lecture notes (slides, transparencies, etc.) not to simply search for information. With the increasing speed and memory expansion of laptops, many more students will be able to create their own "learning worlds" by combining material and media from a number of diverse sources. But there will continue to be the need for face-to-face environments. The importance of the professor or teacher as a mentor who students can identify with and respect will continue to be the most important piece of the educational environment.

UBIQUITY: How else will it be transformed, in terms of technology?

AIKEN: There will be more integration between the different types of media. We will see more imagery and multimedia built into curriculum and education. There will also be a major thrust about how to educate people to analyze and put information into perspective. There will be an increasing problem with information overload -- which is already difficult to cope with. We need ways to synthesize that information and provide tools for people to analyze it. We see the same thing in society in general. With all of the TV programs and news analysis and papers and information on the Web, how do people make sense of what the real issues are and how to deal with them? I'm hopeful that within education, we can help students and perhaps the general population get a better handle on information overload.

UBIQUITY: What about international education?

AIKEN: There certainly is an increased effort on the part of people in different countries to try to cross-fertilize. In my own area, computer science, there has just been a new curriculum put together called "computing curriculum 2001". This is the newest iteration of curriculum efforts that have gone on in the late 70s, 80s and 90s. Generally, it's been a cooperative effort between volunteers from ACM and the IEEE computer society. The ACM and the IEEE-CS, in appointing this curriculum team, made an effort to include people from other countries. That's just one indication of more awareness of the importance of the international perspective.

UBIQUITY: What countries are involved in the project?

AIKEN: For the most part European countries. But I know that people in other countries, such as in the Middle and Far East, are looking at more informal ways of connecting with the curriculum efforts. At ACM, in the last ten years, more effort has been made to reach out to the international community. At one point, international membership was probably the fasting-growing segment within ACM. As an international society we need to have a broader perspective rather than just what's happening in North America. This broader curriculum effort is one step in that direction.

UBIQUITY: Is there anything else you want to add before we conclude this interview?

AIKEN: My professional career has been spent at the university level teaching and conducting research in computer science. However, I've done a lot of work with pre-college teachers; particularly, in terms of investigating ways to most effectively integrate computer science in high school and even pre-high school curricula. I continually find two problems. One is the lack of training for in-service teachers. The other is that colleges of education do not provide the teachers of tomorrow the skill set and conceptual background that they need in order to integrate computers as tools in their classrooms. We need to do a much better job at the pre-service level through our colleges of education.

This is an important social as well as education issue. The students now in universities represent the first wave of young people who have grown up with technology as an integral part of their lives. For them it is ubiquitous. They are going to insist that their children have access to technology in education as a standard part of the curriculum -- a necessity, not a luxury. Education is at the core of a democratic society. We need to provide ALL students the best possible education, and that will mean ready access to technology and a teacher cadre that is properly educated to effectively harness this technology.

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