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Copyright 1997

AN OVERVIEW OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND HOW TO PROMOTE ITS ADOPTION


INTRODUCTION

Information technology presents a critical challenge for colleges and universities. With the rising costs of higher education and the declining quality of graduates, information technology may present a more effective and lower-cost form of instruction (Burke, 1994). This technology has the potential to transfer the mode of instruction in tomorrow's classrooms. Instead of lectures being the predominant mode of instruction, computers and multimedia presentations could augment or even supplement the lectures and redirect the responsibilities of learning to the student. While few people doubt that information technology can enhance teaching and learning, there seems to be missing a sense of urgency to quickly integrate this technology into the classrooms. This paper will examine why this technology has not been as rapidly adopted into the educational arena as people initially expected and discusses steps which can be taken to successfully promote its adoption.

The phrase "Information Technology" (IT) will be defined throughout this paper as: the use of computers, communication networks (including the World-Wide Web), and audio-visual equipment to help transform the technology of instruction. The definition of IT varies slightly from one article to the next and is sometimes described using one of the following phrases: academic technology, computer-assisted instruction, computer-based training, educational technology, and instructional technology. In this paper, the term IT encompasses or represents a combination of all of these technologies when used to link teaching with learning.

To better understand the reasons behind information technology's limited use and how best to promote it, an overview of this technology will be provided. This overview will include a discussion of how best to develop and implement IT and the benefits and costs associated with this technology.


Implementation and Development of Information Technology

Should IT augment or supplement the traditional method of teaching? This answer will vary depending on the subject area being taught. In areas where the subject matter focuses more on value, meaning, and philosophical ideas, IT will only partially be able to substitute for human interaction. In these areas, IT will, at best, be able to augment or enhance a student's experience. However, in areas which have a high volume of students, standardized curriculum, and factual content, IT will more likely be able to supplement the curriculum and teaching technique. Furthermore, we must continuely remind ourselves that technologies such as IT should only be used when they provide new opportunities for students to visualize and understand material.

When creating IT lessons and presentations, it is important to not just computerize or digitize the methods and materials of instruction, but rather investigate how value can be added. To exploit this technology, every attempt must be taken to innovatively reconceive new information, not just repackage old information. For example, by just taking a textbook and making it available on-line is simply repackaging old information. Instead, studies and research should be performed to investigate how textbooks can be reconceived so that students are not just memorizing information, but rather are engaged in an activity which promotes a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

Who should develop IT? First and foremost, students must be involved in the development of any IT since they are the real experts on what does and does not work. The students should be able to continuously provide feedback to help separate the methods which are successful from those which are not. Student involvement is essential in the development of effective IT.

Secondly, should universities and colleges or should publishers be developing IT? The research has reported that the best approach to IT development involves some form of strategic alliance with higher education and textbook publishers (Stewart, 95). When universities and colleges develop IT in collaboration with publishers, the 1) costs tend to be lower, 2) a more open architecture is created, and 3) a more global representation of the subject material is conveyed.


Benefits and Costs

There are many benefits and costs associated with IT that must be considered when evaluating the overall effectiveness of this technology and the reasons for its limited use. Listed below are some important considerations which must be addressed. For each of these issues, both the potential gains and loses will be examined.

Quality of Learning
The scale used to judge any teaching technique must first consider how the quality of learning is affected. A good approach towards teaching will promote a deep understanding of the subject matter, encourage students to comprehend and synthesize information, and help students improve their written, oral, and critical thinking skills. Many studies have found IT to be as good as or better than traditional approaches (Alexander, 1995). These studies have shown that information technology 1) increases motivation, 2) permits self-paced learning, 3) alleviates computer anxiety, 4) provides instant feedback, 5) encourages self-directed incidental learning, and 6) provides students with greater control over their own learning.

Well designed IT allows information to be presented in a user-friendly, easy-to-understand, and visually-simulating format by combining graphics, audio, and video. Lessons which incorporate IT can have an enormous advantage in the educational world since research has shown that people on the average remember less than 20 percent of what they read; but, they will remember up to 80 percent of what they see and hear (RAD, 1995). Hence, information taught using IT should more likely be remembered.

However, a point that is rarely discussed is that the learning gains can almost completely diminish when the same instructor teaches both a course using IT versus their traditional approach (Alexander, 1995). These results indicate that the learning gains are more likely due to the instructional methods used and not because of the technology. Therefore, by simplying transferring information from one medium to another, it is possible that no improvement will occur in the quality of learning.

Lesson Preparation
One disadvantage of IT, is the high cost associated with curriculum preparation. While a proliferation of commercial companies are developing lessons for some of the general curriculum courses, most instructors prefer to prepare their own lectures. Preparing multimedia lessons can take significantly longer than traditional approaches such as preparing overheads. This is because instructors must not only create and find materials, but they must also learn new software packages and best determine how to use this technology. Understanding this technology and how to use it can be a very time consuming process in itself. Furthermore, because most instructors are not trained in creating IT, there is no guarantee of its quality.

On the other hand, lesson preparation offers two of the biggest potential gains to IT. These two advantages are economies of scale and mass customization. Economies of scales implies that after a substantial initial or front-end financial investment, the average cost of usage for additional students decreases. Mass customization allows IT multimedia lessons to accommodate differences in the learning styles and abilities of students. At the same time, new software is being developed which makes it easier to create a complex multimedia environment. Adding movies, sound clips, or other powerful audio-visual materials is now easier than ever.

Bonds Between Students and Faculty
Powerful bonds are often created between students and faculty members especially at the graduate level. These strong relationships and the invaluable advice which stems from them can have a profound influence on a student's professional development. If these bonds fail to exist under information technology, then it must be questioned as to whether a good foundation for teaching can prevail. However, most initial research has shown that even greater bonds can develop under IT, since faculty spend less time disseminating information and more time advising and collaborating (Dwyer, 1993).

On the other hand, some of the bonds between students and faculty may be undesirable. For example, an apathetic teacher who teaches out-of-date information from faded notes may be cheating the students of their due.

Limits of Time and Space
One advantage of information technology is that it can help ease the limits of time and space. When using IT, in distributed environments learning becomes easier and students are provided more freedom as to when and where they are able to work. However, for a student who is lacking connectivity or equipment, the limits of time and space are constrained. To these students nothing could seem more portable than a textbook as they study while doing their laundry!

However, textbooks also have their limitations. For example, textbooks can quickly become out-of-date and often fail to integrate meaningful discussions and explanations with the facts. Furthermore, having to use a textbook's linear index to lookup information can be a tedious, time-consuming approach.

Complex Material
In the IT environment, many students find note taking a more difficult process. This is mainly due to the great deal of intangible information in the form of sounds and visuals which are incorporated into these presentations. It has been argued, that while photographs provide a great deal of information, much of the visual data is unrelated to what the student needs to grasp (Pence, 1995).

One simple solution to the note taking problem is for faculty to use less complex images or provide students with hard copies of the lectures. However, this perceived shortcoming of IT may really be a strength. It will force tomorrow's students to learn how to digest complex images.

Hypermedia
Another advantage of information technology is the ability to hyperlink to other information. For example, when IT is developed using the WWW, the Web can serve not only as a delivery medium but also a content provider for enormous quantities of information. Using hyperlinks, complex or difficult phrases and concepts used within a lesson can be linked to definitions, glossaries, biographies, and short essays which describe the phrases and concepts in more detail or from a different perspective. There are also educators who believe that hypermedia improves a student's ability to handle large amounts of data. Furthermore, from a learning perspective, many writers think that the Web and its hyperlinks closely resembles human cognition (Alexander, 1995). That is, this hypermedia environment of associated links is very similar to how humans store information as a semantic network of links. Consequently, some researchers report that learning can improve when the structure of knowledge (such as that found on the Web) closely represents how humans store information.

A final advantage to hypertext information is the ability to provide interactivity and continuous feedback. Feedback is a key aspect of learning, as it helps learners interpret and understand concepts and ideas by associating actions taken with results obtained. However, researchers argue that a hypermedia environment is really not interactive. Instead, it simply allows the learner to follow pre-determined paths chosen by the author. Under this argument, to really provide a true interactive environment, learners must become collaborative authors, creating their own hyperlinks in order to create a really useful learning tool.

Currently there are two major shortcomings of IT developed explicitly for the Web. These shortcomings are 1) the authoring tools developed for the Web are not as extensive as other multimedia development tools, and 2) it is difficult to limit students' exploration on the Web. However, both of these problems are actively being addressed.


Bridging the Gap

To successfully integrate information technology into tomorrow's classrooms, we must first identify the barriers to its adoption and the reasons for its limited use. Once this has been performed, we can consider how to bridge the gap by removing these barriers.

The first step is to understand the reasons for the limited use of IT. Surprisely, the low rate of adoption is not attributed to faculty discomfort with the technology, nor with faculty belief that IT can enhance the learning process. On the contrary, studies indicate that faculty usage and ownership of information technology is unexpectedly high. Studies have found that 95 percent or more of faculty now regularly use word processing software to support their teaching and research (Geoghegan, 1994). Similarly in the same study, up to 85 percent of faculty agreed that IT can enhance the quality of teaching and learning. Hence, if this is true, then why the slow adoption of information technology? Listed below are some of the reasons of IT's limited use or barriers to its adoption and solutions educators can take to remove these barriers.

Evaluation of Faculty
Barriers. Faculty are evaluated significantly more based on their research accomplishments than in comparison to their teaching performance. As a result, faculty are often less motivated to improve the quality of their teaching. At the same time, when a faculty's performance is evaluated, it is often measured by counting contact hours with students instead of their contribution towards student learning. Using this approach, faculty time is measured like that of unskilled labor - using a time clock. Consequently, teaching has been made to appear both easy and undemanding.

Solutions. Faculty must be encouraged to think of productivity in terms of both teaching and research. Incentives must be created to evaluate faculty's learning accomplishments, similar to the incentives that already exist for research accomplishments. Efforts must also be taken to change the attitude towards teaching to make it look as difficult and demanding as research.

Teaching must be more carefully audited. While most departments carefully evaluate faculty's research, their teaching and learning performance are seldomed audited. Departments must begin to evaluate the teaching skills of their faculty, much like individual professors are evaluated by their students.

Institutional Support and Equipment
Barriers. Many colleges and universities lack a formal a plan for integrating computers into the curriculum as well as the financial support for the equipment and facilities this technology requires. Studies have shown that more than 50 percent of all colleges and universities have no formal plan for integrating IT into the classrooms (Geoghegan, 1994). Similarly, most institutions are not financially in a position to make the large front-end investments needed to fully exploit information technology's potential.

At the same time, many IT models have been focused on the "technically literate" rather than on a cross-disciplinary approach. Hence, non-technically oriented disciplines sometimes lack the support services to assist faculty in developing, creating, and using IT.

Solutions. A solid commitment from the institution is critical for widespread adoption of IT. This commitment should include 1) formal plans and policies for integrating computers into the classrooms, 2) financial support to allow the necessary equipment and facilities to be obtained, and 3) support-services and assistance across disciplines.

Lack of a Compelling Reason
Barriers. For information technology to really bridge the gap, a compelling reason for institutions to buy must be illustrated. Unfortunately, from this perspective, many of the early prototypes have almost had a negative impact on IT. For example, on the World-Wide Web there are currently many sites which claim to provide beautiful examples of instructional technology. One such collection is the World Lecture Hall at http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture. While a few of the links listed are impressive, a vast majority of the sites merely contain syllabi, textbooks, and articles which have been slapped on-line. These repackaged examples do not allow students to see, understand, and visualize information in ways that were not possible before. In fact, when these pages are browsed using a narrow bandwidth, the time taken to view these pages is much greater and a good deal more frustrating than simply turning pages in a book. Judging from these examples, it is no wonder that the mainstream faculty have not rapidly adopted information technology. To these faculty, the time and effort required to adopt IT is not worth it, if at best, this technology will only barely assist them with their teaching and research tasks.

Solutions. To convince the faculty to bridge the gap and incorporate IT, a compelling example must be created that when viewed, clearly provides recognizable benefits. This application must 1) perform a currently existing task more effectively or in less time, or 2) perform a task that was previously unsolvable. The added value of the application must exceed the time, money, and effort needed for its development. Such an compelling example could provide the necessary incentive for mainstream faculty to bridge the gap and more actively integrate information technology. However, we must realized that since teaching performance is not closely evaluated, even a slightly compelling example may go unnoticed.


Special thanks to Susan Metros - her comments and suggestions improved this paper considerably.




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