Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 20, 1997

SEDE Symposium
Looks Toward

Technology: Oakley to
discuss innovative uses
of computers in classrooms

Mike Field
Special to The Gazette

Can information technology available today create the learning space of tomorrow?

Burks Oakley II, a University of Illinois engineering professor whose innovative use of computer technology in the classroom has won national recognition, thinks so. He will talk about the ways in which computers and the Internet can improve life for both students and their professors when he visits the Homewood campus Oct. 24.

His keynote address will be part of the second Symposium on Electronic and Distance Education, sponsored by the Office of the Provost's Subcommittee on Electronic and Distance Education (SEDE). The half-day program, to be held in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, is open to faculty, staff and students from all divisions of the university. It is designed to promote the use of information technology to enhance instruction and learning. Part of the program will feature electronic poster sessions describing instructional projects designed and implemented at Hopkins using the new information technologies.

The symposium will also be accessible on-line via WelchCast, a real-time Web-based broadcast of the complete proceedings, including live audio and slides of the presentations.

University President William R. Brody will welcome attendees and introduce Oakley, who was recently appointed associate vice president for academic affairs for all three campuses of the University of Illinois. He previously directed the Sloan Center for Asynchronous Learning Environments, a three-year University of Illinois project aimed at integrating computers and the Internet into the undergraduate classroom to improve faculty productivity, increase student retention and decrease time-to-degree.

"Last year, there were more P.C.s sold in the U.S. than televisions," Oakley said of the profound changes affecting all aspects of society. "With the advent of the Internet we can now create new, more efficient learning environments that demonstrably improve the learning process. This is particularly true for people who are place-bound."

Although much of the current evidence suggesting improved learning outcomes is largely anecdotal, some early studies have shown that learning by computer can be at least as effective as traditional methods, and often more so, Oakley said. "We have been involved in creating new on-line methods of student learning that are showing dramatic changes in student performance," he said. "These are models in which the student is required to be on-line every day, with daily targets the student has to meet."

Yet he cautions that improved pedagogy only comes at a cost. "The biggest point I emphasize is, 'If this is done correctly,' " he said. "I don't want to say anyone can just jump in with no forethought. You're talking about a redesign of the whole educational process for any particular class. It requires a lot of work, and not just from one single individual."

At the University of Illinois, faculty members work with teams to redesign courses for information technology applications. "You need the proper infrastructure to carry this off," Oakley said. "You need Web page designers and system administrators and a proper level of support. It can't be the faculty who are expected to do these things. That would be a waste of their time."

Oakley and his associates at the University of Illinois have gained considerable experience in finding ways to make the technology work for, rather than against, the faculty. "You have to look for efficiencies," he said. "For instance, rather than e-mail, where a professor would need to answer each student individually, we divide the class into teams, and then post questions and discussions through conferencing systems. The students talk among themselves first, identifying problems and formulating questions. Then, as a team, they post to the conference where the professor and others respond."

Oakley's system also makes use of student tutors, available electronically in real time, to help other students through problem sets or with homework assignments. "We're not talking about doing away with the faculty. The professor remains the focal point of the process, guiding and shaping the course," he said. "But there are a number of strategies that allow faculty to employ information technology to enable them to become more efficient at what they do."

The symposium will take place in the Schafler Auditorium and adjacent lobbies of the Bloomberg Center from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m., Oct. 24. It will also include displays hosted by service providers who can support faculty with instructional design expertise and the latest knowledge about technological developments and new applications. For more information about the event, visit the symposium Web site at

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