I'm Peter Marshall the head of the Research and Instructional Support group at ITS. I could tell you about the equipment that we have to do produce and digitally edit video, or the authoring packages that run on high-powered Macs and PCs in our visualization lab, but instead I'll concentrate on the less glitzy applications.
I'd like to talk about using computer technology to help with teaching and learning. It could include fancy graphics and CDROM-based courses or high-speed network access to video servers but by in large it doesn't.
We concentrating at least in the short term, on a number of technologies that could be utilized quickly by at least 10% if not 30% of the instructors here at Western and try to speak to the majority of students too. Our underlying philosophy here is that the instructors are the ones that do or will do the preparation work for courses. We help, we facilitate and ensure that the tools and infrastructure are in place to make the use of technology effective.
We're currently working in 3 areas: practice exams delivered via the Web, a Web-based conferencing system and providing web space for instructional purposes. I'd like to elaborate on each of these areas.
A big focus of any student's life is the test or exam. Multiple choice exams are common on campus (we've been running a computerized marking and analysis service (MARKEX) for at over 20 years) so when Michel Clarke approached us with some practice exam marking software we recognized a potentially useful application. Pilot testing both last term and this has born this out. The format is very simple and can be taught in five minutes and it is very quick to get a typical quiz up. It is a very non-threatening way to ease instructors towards using computer technology. (For some more feedback on the pilot you might want to consider attending the presentation that Colleen Bretzlaff and I are giving with the participation of 6 or 7 of the pilot instructors at the EDO Perspectives conference on May 1st at 1500.)
Students vote with their fingers -- just before the Psych 20 final last week we had almost 900 accesses to a practice quiz. We're seeing similar usage rates this week for Politics 20 (in a much smaller class). The Mathematics usage will probably peak tomorrow just before their Saturday exam. We're putting the final touches on this service to be ready for a September general rollout.
Some studies have shown that the more the members of a class collaborate and talk together better they do in a course (and they like the course better too -- very good for retention). Many of our course aren't oriented toward a multiple choice approach with the model is closer to one of collaboration or even discourse.
PTCE has, over the years, had a lot of success with various programs to allow virtual classes to electronically collaborate or conference. We've seen that conferencing services (like Usenet news) can also help on-campus classes work together, discuss the course and provide a forum for computer mediated discourse. Most recently PTCE has been working with the NODE (Network of Distance Educators) using a package named Caucus as a Web-based conferencing system.
But we need to make this available to virtually everyone so we've been working on scaling the user setup side of the Caucus software so that everyone who has an ID on the ITS systems will automatically be registered to use the conferencing software. We hope to have procedures in place to allow active use of this software for instructional use by September.
For the last two and a half years ITS and many other departments around the campus have been developing the World Wide Web service campus. It is being used by an active minority of instructors to deliver course content. Recently we've carved off a special section of the Web for instructional use (instr.uwo.ca). This is a place were we expect there to be some experimentation take place over the next few terms and we'll be there with people resources to help make that an innovative space.
In addition to this formal instructional space, by September we're opening up a new web service where space is available at no charge to all faculty, staff and students can develop and share web pages. For students especially, the new "publish" web server will open up possibilities for collaboration and new ways to submit assignments.
It isn't a coincidence that the practice exams, the conferencing and the web publishing space involve the Web. We believe that, for the near term, the web is the best mechanism for delivering content via computers.
The near-term future lies in delivering information via the Web and other network means. We'll be looking at packages like a very interesting one out of the University of Illinois named CyberProf that provide a more complete computer-mediated learning environment. They include tools to keep track of students (so you can have real quizzes), make it simpler to produce web-page content for courses and provide various integrated communications tools. Basically they provide a cosy environment for both the instructor and the student. New web capabilities are slowly gaining general acceptance and Java-based applications figure prominently but there's lots to do before we can unleash this on your average technically adept faculty member.
ITS is also involved in the building of the campus infrastructure to allow general and widespread use of technology for teaching. We started building the campus "backbone" in 1987, connected the campus to the Internet in 1988, the wiring of major classrooms in 1995, the massive growth in the dial-in modem pool over the last 3 years, the wiring of all residence rooms and deployment of 120 general purpose computer seats for teaching for September 1997. We now believe that the infrastructure is reaching enough students and enough faculty to start to move technology into the instructional mainstream. We don't kid ourselves, this isn't an overnight project, but we think that we're started on a series of projects that will substantially enhance the teaching environment at UWO.
So to summarize, our focus at ITS lies in looking at the big picture, building the infrastructure, delivering the general purpose tools with instructional application and where possible (after appropriate pilots) doing it with equal access in mind. We have to be continually mindful that no matter how great the technology it must be seen to be not only an significant improvement on existing practice AND require an effort on the instructor's part that isn't out of line with the level of improvement. Or to quote Steven Covey, it must be win-win or no deal.