Discovering the promises of technology By Jana Miller

Bob Kerrey started it all. On a visit to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., in the mid-1990s, then-Sen. Kerrey challenged scientists to do a better job adapting space technology to education. From that challenge came a joint venture involving the JPL, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
    The leader of that effort, attracted to Nebraska and ready for a new challenge, moved here and in 2001 co-founded the National Center for Information Technology in Education, NCITE for short, based in Teachers College at UNL.
    Arthur Zygielbaum, former engineer and senior manger for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is now NCITE's co-director for technology. Co-director for education is Roger Bruning, professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Teachers College.
    Together the two led an effort to secure a $2.7 million federal grant to evaluate and develop instructional technology to determine what technology produces what learning and how technology can best be used in education.
    "Promising new instructional technologies have come on the scene rather quickly over the past several years," said Dean James O'Hanlon. "Educators have had the challenge of learning to use these technologies to help students learn. NCITE will help us move to the next level in the use of instructional technology by producing research that will guide us to the most effective uses."
Roger Bruning and Arthur Zygielbaum

'Shaky' evidence

    "The evidence is shaky as far as the role of technology," Bruning said. "All believe it is very beneficial to the educational process, but as far as how best to use it and in what context, we have a lot to learn. A huge amount of money is spent on technology in schools, and relatively little is known about whether those expenditures are justified, especially comparedwith other uses of the money."
    Bruning said the field of education is just beginning to discover ways to use technology effectively. "There are all kinds of possibilities information technology can provide, such as looking in more detail about how students think, the decisions they make, the information they draw on to make those decisions, and how technology affects their long-term development.
    "Many of the same educational questions we've always asked now have a technological side to them," he said. "Questions of motivation, how do you help kids become motivated? Access to information we have never had before, how do we help students take advantage of that?"
    Zygielbaum comes at the question from a different perspective. "I spent my life in engineering and hard science, so I am naturally skeptical," he said. "I think technology might make a difference in education, but I would like it proven. I would like the technology and methodology tested." To that end, he said, NCITE is trying to answer basic questions: Does technology make a difference? How do you measure its importance? What kind of technology do you build to make those measurements?
    While the skills commonly addressed by educational computer programs to date have involved drill and practice exercises, Zygielbaum, too, believes computers can be used for much deeper learning such as the improvement of critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Joint degree programs

    One outgrowth of NCITE, to date, has been talks between Teachers College and the UNL Department of Computer Science and Engineering about the possibility of joint advanced degree programs so that, for instance, an education major could receive a minor in computer science or vice versa, leading to much more integrated crossovers and deeper understandings on the part of both disciplines. Such programs would be a first in the country, Zygielbaum and Bruning said.
    Interaction between Teachers College and the Computer Science and Engineering Department "has been one of the really exciting things" happening at NCITE, Bruning said, noting that before NCITE there was almost no contact between the two disciplines. "The interaction has led to productive interchanges and proposed revisions in undergraduate curriculums, he said.
    Another outgrowth, resulting from a Mellon Foundation grant, has been a proposed shift in undergraduate courses in educational psychology from a lecture and discussion format to a format using case studies and online discussion. Bruning said the format, which is under development, is intended "to enrich students' experiences through online augmentation" and not to create purely online classes.
    "By supporting our development of Internet-based tools, NCITE is helping us begin to transform instruction in those classes," Bruning said. The work is being done in cooperation with the Center for Instructional Innovation, a 10-year-old research center that looks at both technological and non-technological ways to improve instruction.
    NCITE also has initiated a Gallup survey on how UNL faculty and students use Blackboard, a learning management computer system used by the university. According to the survey, 80 percent of the faculty and students used Blackboard for posting and retrieving assignments. While the state of the art allows Blackboard to be used for delivering course content and interacting online, very rarely were those aspects used.
    "There's a big gap between the state of the art and the state of the practice. Is that bad? I don't think so. It means we're at a nexus," Zygielbaum said.
    Bruning added that the data provided "all kinds of fascinating information," including who logged on, when they logged on and what year they were in school as well as which departments are making the most use of the technology.
    "I have faith technology has a great deal of promise. But at the same time we don't yet have the answers," Bruning said. "We don't know how to optimize technology. We're not even close."