Homecoming 2000



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Center for New Media Teaching and Learning
Supporting faculty's use of technology

Not long ago, George Flynn, Higgins Professor of Chemistry, was finishing his lectures with a hoarse throat and powdered palms. His students would retreat home with sketches hastily reconstructed from Flynn's renditions on the chalkboard, and a bit of fatigue from deciphering professorial handwriting.

Much has changed in 30 months. Now the professor comes to class armed with a Zip disk and a wireless headset microphone. His diagrams, as well as chemical models, graphs and pictures of famous scientists, are unveiled through a PowerPoint presentation via an LCD projector. He calls it "the chalk-less lecture project." (www.columbia.edu/itc/chemistry/chem-c2407/)

"The clarity of the presentations is stunning," says Flynn. "You can make things stand out in a lecture that you never could with chalk. Now we're so techno, I'm no longer satisfied if it isn't animated."

Flynn started to give students printouts of his lecture notes so that they could concentrate on listening rather than note-taking. But students told him he was going too far and making it too easy for them. "You have to make us take notes," they told him.

Other professors also have turned to technology to sculpt a new classroom experience, but as a group the faculty trails behind students in the use of new media.

"When I show this [chalk-less lecture project] to other faculty, they turn green and say, 'How much time did this take?'" Flynn says. "But the students are more blasé about it and say, 'We've seen this before.'"

When a task force was formed in 1997 to determine how Columbia should move ahead in the new media world, the first of its recommendations was to "provide appropriate assistance and support for the faculty's use of new media technologies.."

In response, the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu) opened in the spring of 1999, funded by the provost's office and a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor.

"We wanted to evolve the campus into one that is much more conversant with technology," says Provost Jonathan Cole '64. Part of the strategy, he says, was to open a center "where faculty can go with an idea and get help."

Flynn started his transformation from traditional to tech-savvy on his own, but now gets help from the CCNMTL. In a year and a half the center has grown from a staff of two to a staff of 20 full-timers and 35 part-timers, and has worked with more than 400 faculty members.

"This is an inevitable revolution in pedagogy and curriculum," says Frank Moretti, who holds five Columbia degrees and is executive director of the CCNMTL. "For Columbia to have its own stamp, rather than any blackboard.com, we're doing a broad range of things."

Those include helping professors start Web pages for courses, showing faculty how they can use technology in the classroom, and developing special projects that use new media to open up a world not possible or practical in the realm of chalkboards and books alone.

"It's been a huge success," Cole says of the CCNMTL. "It's going to transform the teaching materials of the University."

And in the process, those materials may be licensed to other universities or otherwise brought to the marketplace, thus earning money for Columbia to put back into its digital media efforts (see story on Columbia Media Enterprises, next issue).

The CCNMTL already has attracted attention from outside the University. Tom Reeves, a professor of instructional technology at the University of Georgia (www.it.coe.uga.edu/~treeves), visited the center last spring. "Most universities have something along the lines of a faculty development center that teaches how to give better lectures or how to give more effective tests," Reeves says, "but this is really on the cutting edge. Columbia is trying to change the pedagogy and the teaching methods that are used."

When introducing technology to, say, an English professor, the center succeeds by talking softly and not carrying on about anything slick. Moretti is a teacher himself (on the faculty of Teachers College) who grasps the intricacies of both pedagogy and technology, and strives to integrate the two.

The task is not to make courses showy, but "to make great courses greater," as Cole says. The consultants are called "educational technologists," and include students from the communication, computing and technology in education department at Teachers College.

"Oftentimes the people comfortable with the technology are not well-grounded in academia," says Manning Marable, professor of history and director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. "People at the center understand what teachers are trying to do."

The CCNMTL operates from offices in Lewisohn and Butler Library, including a staffed computer lab in Butler designed specifically to host faculty working on course development.


With the CCNMTL's multimedia template, students not only read text but can click to get background information or view images (such as The Scream by Edvard Munch), hear music and see video as they are discussed.

"It's a moment of invention and a moment for cutting teeth for many faculty," Moretti says. "We're interested in building a culture of use. It's one thing to have a tool box, another thing to have a project in mind to use the tools and execute the project."

The first order of business when faculty members come to the center is to sit down with one of the consultants and ascertain where they are and what they would like to accomplish. They discuss teaching styles and the faculty members' research. They go in depth because it is their aim to develop an on-going, career-long relationship between the faculty members and the center.

That relationship starts with the basics: the center will put the instructor's course syllabus on the Web, and may add to it with links and reference material. By attending workshops, faculty can learn how to use digital resources in teaching and communicating with students, starting with basic applications like e-mail and electronic bulletin boards and moving up to more complex projects (http://www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/index.html).

Rather than being just about technology, the workshops are all about using the technology in the context of teaching. For example, one workshop is on how to use e-mail in social work and shows how to get students to discuss case studies online.

Alan Brinkley, chair of the history department, developed a course Web page with bibliographies, a visual archive of what he shows in class, and a link to relevant sites. "For me, the Web has enhanced but not transformed how I teach," Brinkley says. "With the creation of this Web site [and the smart classrooms], I began to use film and images and other things in my course." He says that the CCNMTL has made it easier to use more multimedia in the classroom, and he thinks more teachers soon will be using audiovisual materials.

All the work that the center does with faculty must be related to their teaching. Technical support is not meant to assist research, which could quickly sap the center's resources. The center's staff focuses on how technology can be used to further students' understanding of material or their interaction with one another and the professors. "We're not just the tech folks, we really explain the educational use of this stuff," says Cory Brandt, a former associate director of the CCNMTL.

Professors may propose projects, or simply explain to a consultant what it is they envision for the course. Marable, who had been using W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk in class, worked with the center to transform the book into an in-depth presentation on the Web, where hundreds of icons explain concepts, give definitions and biographical background, and show video of scholars explaining the context of concepts in the book.

"It brings the book to life and gives students a sense of excitement and engagement, which is key to what the center does," Marable says. "There's no way I could do it in a lecture alone. It pushes education to a different level."

The one project is useful to several departments, since the book is also assigned for courses in American history, comparative literature, ethnic studies and American studies.

In some cases, where the technology doesn't exist to make happen what a professor envisions, the center works to create it. An example of that is the introductory environmental science class taught at Barnard. To simulate diagnosing a contaminated factory site, the center spent months developing a CD-ROM that is now used in conjunction with the Web.

For a Chinese language class, interactive online quizzes were developed, as well as simultaneous audio to accompany a text so the student can hear the language while reading it on the screen. Material created by the center not only can be used by students outside class, but also by professors to prepare for class or to demonstrate in class (no, the students don't have to gather around a laptop).

The center's goal is not to make everything electronic. It targets what naturally benefits from interactivity, multimedia or quick access. One example is the "multimedia template" (www.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/projects/mmt/index.html). This is a way to present essays or other text in an enriched online environment, so that students not only read the text, but can click to get background, see images discussed, hear music or see relevant video as they come up in the text.

A favorite example of Moretti's is the essay Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, by Frederic Jameson (URL is password protected). Among the myriad references in the opening paragraph alone are millenarianism, existentialism and Leninism; Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, Jean-Luc Godard and the Rolling Stones. Instead of glazing over or wondering what Jameson is talking about, students reading the essay in the template can click on highlighted items and, in a box on the screen, get the definition of coupure, a brief biography of Wallace Stevens or a picture of Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can.

To help professor Peter Awn's Literature Humanities students, an ambitious King Lear site was built that includes the searchable text, historical background, instructor's notes, discussion points for the bulletin board and video excerpts of several performances that can be compared side by side.

"It's not that you read the play this way, you study the play this way," Brandt says. "That's important - this is not a reading environment, it's a study environment. You'd probably still read the play in a book."

So far, over 400 faculty members have worked with the CCNMTL, and they're not just the new guard. "Lots of people said, 'Only the young will do this,' but 25 percent of the faculty the center has worked with are tenured professors," Moretti says.

Using the Internet and other new media helps some students more than others, Cole noted. People have different learning styles, so some really take to a hands-on or visual approach, while others absorb material just fine by listening to a lecture. "Teaching and learning should lead the way, and technology should enhance that," says professor Nicholas Turro of the chemistry department.

To monitor that mission, a full-time evaluator has joined the CCNMTL staff to track the end products and determine whether they are just flashy or really effective in helping students learn better, more fully or faster.

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