[Paleopsych] Liberal Education: Beyond Computer Literacy

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Beyond  Computer Literacy
Liberal Education, Fall 2004

[First, the summary from the News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher 
Education, 5.2.7:]

Computers and the Internet already play important roles in 
liberal education, but greater attention is needed to the 
educational outcomes of the technologies, argues Stephen 
Ehrmann, vice president of the Teaching, Learning, and 
Technology Group, a consulting organization that focuses on 
teaching with technology.

More and more of the goals of liberal education, such as 
analytical thinking and communication skills, require 
technological proficiency, Mr. Ehrmann writes. For example, 
students need to acquire skills in finding, retrieving, and 
analyzing information in a library, on the Internet, or 

One way to gauge students' computer literacy is to require them 
to turn in electronic portfolios of their work, Mr. Ehrmann 
says. Portfolios could include Web projects, video recordings of 
oral presentations, and students' thoughts on how those tasks 
advanced their skills and learning, and the portfolios could 
even be made available to prospective employers, he says.

Electronic portfolios could also help faculties see how well 
students are meeting instructional goals, and that could guide 
curricular change, he suggests. "When portfolios are used in 
that way, the doorway to rapid, intentional evolution of liberal 
education opens," he writes.

Institutions that are already taking account of such changes and 
possibilities are the ones that will "redefine what it means to 
be an educated person in the 21st century," he argues.

Beyond Computer Literacy:
Implications of Technology for the Content of a College Education

    By Stephen Ehrmann

    Computers and the Internet already play several important roles in
    liberal education.
     1. Computer literacy and fluency: the ability of students to use
        computers and the Internet as tools for general purposes

     2. Effectiveness: the use of technology to foster faculty-student
        connections, student-student collaboration, active learning, and
        other practices that can improve outcomes

     3. Access: the use of technology to support programs and practices
        that are fully available to nontraditional learners who would
        otherwise be unable to enroll and excel

    All three of these applications are well established and growing. Now
    there's another application of technology to liberal education to
     4. Content: Computers and the Internet, as they're used in the larger
        world, have implications for what all college students, by the
        time they graduate, should have learned from their majors as well
        as from general education requirements. These implications go far
        beyond computer literacy.

    What students should learn

    These changes in content, too, are already in motion, although they're
    at an earlier stage than the first three. A recent AAC&U report, Our
    Students' Best Work, specifies five key educational outcomes for
    liberal education (2004, 5-6).
     1. strong analytical, communication, quantitative, and information

     2. deep understanding of and hands-on experience with the inquiry
        practices of disciplines that explore the natural, social, and
        cultural realms

     3. ntercultural knowledge and collaborative problem-solving skills

     4. a proactive sense of responsibility for individual, civic, and
        social choices

     5. habits of mind that foster integrative thinking and the ability to
        transfer skills and knowledge from one setting to another

    For each of these five, computers and the Web are already beginning to
    affect faculty thinking about what all students should learn, and how.

    First outcome

    "Strong analytical, communication, quantitative, and information
    skills--achieved and demonstrated through learning in a range of
    fields, settings, and media, and through advanced studies in one or
    more areas of concentration"(AAC&U 2004, 5).

    Today there are important types of analytical thinking, communication,
    quantitative reasoning, and information skills that cannot be used, or
    learned, without technology. Let's look at just two: information
    literacy and the ability to create Web sites as a medium of academic

    Information literacy is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve,
    analyze, and use information in a library, on the Web, or anywhere
    else. Virtually all majors require some form of information literacy,
    which almost always requires knowing how to use a maze of information
    on the Internet, as well as print resources. Information literacy,
    like writing across the curriculum, is learned via a series of
    assignments and feedback on those assignments that should occur
    frequently and throughout the student's course of study.

    Earlham College's Diana Punzo, associate professor of psychology,
    talks about how computers have changed the process of research in her
    discipline. "When I was a student, we didn't use computers. You had to
    spend hours thumbing through indices of the literature. Now the
    process is far more efficient and students can focus on the literature
    itself and the process of research." In course after course,
    psychology students at Earlham get briefings from librarians and do
    research on the literature. They learn, for example, the difference
    between using "racism" and "prejudice" as search terms. Faculty
    members coordinate their efforts informally, talking about these
    skills and other facets of the curriculum in biweekly departmental

    Over the years, students learn skills that are manifested and assessed
    in a senior year capstone experience. For psychology majors at
    Earlham, the capstone experience is a multipart project. In one piece
    of it, students are each given an article written for the general
    public (e.g., from a newspaper). They have to search and interpret the
    academic literature on the topic and then write an analysis of the
    article, also geared to the general public. In another part of this
    capstone, seniors do an experimental project and must search and
    analyze the relevant research literature. These capstone projects are
    each graded by a pair of faculty who examine, among many other things,
    the students' use of the literature.

    Student-created Web sites as a medium of academic expression: Imagine
    a course on nineteenth-century English literature or a course on the
    politics of urban neighborhoods. Multimedia projects offer several
    distinctive advantages for learning and assessment. Here are just a
      * Student authors of Web sites can include evidence such as
        pictures, audio recordings, video clips, databases, and live links
        to references. Providing the reader with direct access to the
        supporting evidence also puts more pressure on the student to
        explain why the evidence is being cited instead of just inserting
        a terse "Smith 1996" and moving on.
      * When creating a Web-based project, students can create an argument
        that operates on several levels: a summary form of the argument
        that links at several points to more detailed explanations, data,
        and responses to anticipated objections.
      * One of the most educationally important features of creating
        Web-based projects is the option of expanding the audience. The
        implications of this shift surprised the faculty and students who
        initially tried it. For example, in 1995 Bosnian peace talks began
        in Dayton, Ohio. Not far away, students in a journalism course at
        Miami University were asked to create a Web site with background
        on the conflict and the peace talks. Professor Linda Crider wrote
        later that students quickly received e-mail criticisms to their
        site from as far away as Bosnia. The students were shocked, but
        soon, Crider wrote, she was shocked more than they were because
        she had never seen students work that hard. Suddenly this
        assignment was real and they didn't want to be embarrassed in
        front of the world. Students today can create projects for use by
        other students (students who take the course in future semesters
        or students in the public schools, for example) or as parts of
        internships. Later in this article, we'll see some examples of
        such projects.

    As with their skills of writing or information literacy, students
    usually cannot learn how to use the Web as a medium for thought and
    communication in just a single course. The more courses that encourage
    or require students to create multimedia projects in addition to
    writing papers, the easier it becomes for each new faculty member to
    take advantage of, and further develop, this new and important skill.
    The University of Southern California's Institute of Multimedia
    Literacy is a leader in this area, providing faculty development and
    support across the institution. Starting in fall 2004, USC is offering
    a new honors program in multimedia scholarship to help lead the way in
    further development of undergraduate skills. Sixty students from
    twenty-five different departments have been admitted to this four-year
    program. Stanford is also taking steps to foster multimedia literacy
    across the curriculum: the university's new required second-year
    course in communications includes development of multimedia by
    students, along with writing and oral presentation.

    Second outcome

    "Deep understanding and hands-on experience with the inquiry practices
    of disciplines that explore the natural, social, and cultural
    realms--achieved and demonstrated through studies that build
    conceptual knowledge by engaging learners in concepts and modes of
    inquiry that are basic to the natural sciences, social sciences,
    humanities, and arts" (AAC&U 2004, 5).

    Professionals in almost every discipline now use technology-based
    tools to think in new ways. For example, statisticians explore data
    differently now, using new statistical procedures and displaying
    results graphically. Technology-based tools enable relative novices to
    ask meaningful questions of their own--literature students learning a
    bit about inquiry in biology, and vice versa. In addition to these
    "power tools for novices," technology is playing other roles in
    helping people from all fields learn skills of inquiry.

    In order to attract and educate students, science literacy programs
    often use active forms of learning. At West Point, for example, all
    students must learn math and science. In calculus courses, students
    are told that they have captured a number of perfectly serviceable
    cannons with plenty of ammunition. Unfortunately, however, the
    operations manuals are missing, so the students must experiment. They
    are allowed to measure the distance the ball travels when the cannon
    is fired at one particular angle.

    Working in teams with their laptop computers and using theory learned
    in physics and calculus, students must then deduce muzzle velocity.
    With that information and some more physics, they should be able to
    figure out the appropriate angle of elevation to hit any target so
    long as they know the target's distance and elevation. Each team gets
    a different target and only one shot. Visiting a calculus class at the
    right moment, one can see cheering students who've just hit a distant
    target with the first shot of their toy cannon. West Point uses a
    number of such games, often based on simulations, to help all students
    learn to think the way that scientists and engineers do.

    Physics and calculus are not the only realms of science literacy where
    technology can play a transformative role. BioQUEST creates, collects,
    and distributes realistic research simulations in biology. BioQUEST
    values the "Three P's":
     1. Problem posing: creating a research problem to do in the simulated
        world, such as a genetics experiment or a biochemical analysis

     2. Problem solving: carrying out the research and developing a
        conclusion based on the evidence

     3. Persuasion: persuading first a peer and then the instructor that
        the experimental evidence is sufficient to support the student's

    One nice feature of the BioQUEST software is that not even the
    instructor can "open" the simulation to find the right answer. The
    instructor, like the peers and the student investigator, must examine
    the chain of experiments and the resulting evidence in order to grade
    the student's work.

    Third outcome

    "Intercultural knowledge and collaborative problem-solving
    skills--achieved and demonstrated in a variety of collaborative
    contexts (classroom, community-based, international, and online) that
    prepare students both for democratic citizenship and for work" (AAC&U
    2004, 5).

    Imagine an undergraduate from suburbia reading a translation of
    Beowulf or studying a novel of Appalachia. How can the student develop
    a deeper understanding of another culture where familiar words may not
    have familiar meanings? How can the student express that understanding
    in a form that allows feedback? In two different courses Professor
    Patricia O'Connor of Georgetown University has asked her students to
    create Web sites that annotate text from their readings. Students link
    each selected word and phrase to illustrate commentary about their
    meaning in context; terms used in the commentary are themselves linked
    to other such commentaries, creating a web of description of that
    culture. Andrew Owen, one of O'Connor's students, analyzed a brief
    passage from River of Earth, a novel by James Still set in Appalachia.
    Dozens of phrases and terms such as "patriarchy," "God's green earth,"
    and "homeplace" were analyzed and illustrated with archival images.
    Owen's analysis, like the culture it depicts, has no beginning or
    end--each narrative annotation stands partly on its own, but it is
    interlinked with, and given further meaning by, several other such

    Technology is making more direct learning about other cultures
    possible, too. For example, "Raison d'Etre" is a project conducted
    jointly by the University of South Carolina, Lycée Paul Héroult, and
    Dickinson College. Students learning French in the United States
    interact regularly with students in France who are majoring in
    English. They correspond weekly, engage in regular chat sessions, and
    use Web cams as they talk about one another's cultures. The project
    won a 2003 National Award from the American Council of Education's
    AT&T Program on Technology as a Tool for Internationalization.

    Another ACE/AT&T national award-winner was Ball State University's
    Global Media Network. Thirteen institutions on five continents are
    members. The technology they share makes it possible to have highly
    interactive class meetings with faculty and students from pairs of
    institutions. Imagine a conference table with faculty and students
    from an American institution and a university in Korea seated around
    it and talking with one another. A major goal of the program is to
    provide initial international exposure to lower-division students in
    the university's core curriculum.

    These are just two examples of how technology can open gateways into
    other cultures from a distance. Technology can also make it easier,
    and more productive, to study abroad, as the next section describes.

    Fourth outcome

    "A proactive sense of responsibility for individual, civic, and social
    choices--achieved and demonstrated through forms of learning that
    connect knowledge, skills, values, and public action, and through
    reflection on students' own roles and responsibilities in social and
    civic contexts" (AAC&U 2004, 6).

    Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has had for thirty years one of
    the most exciting programs in engineering education. For example, the
    Interactive Qualifying Project, typically done in the junior year,
    requires students to apply what they've learned in their majors to
    problems of social significance. Surprisingly, half of WPI's students
    go abroad to do this project these days. Technology seems to have a
    subtle but spectacular impact on the feasibility of study abroad. The
    Web allows students to define and prepare for their projects long
    before they and their faculty advisors travel to London, Thailand, or
    any of WPI's more than twenty other off-campus sites. And digital
    communications (including cell phones that WPI provides the students
    and faculty) make it easier for them to be so far from campus for
    seven or eight weeks while working on their projects.

    Last year, for example, seven student teams and two faculty advisors
    traveled to WPI's London site. One of those student teams, composed of
    students from several engineering programs, was assigned to respond to
    a request for help from the municipal government of the borough of
    Merton, a London suburb. A new census of the UK had just been done,
    and the planning unit wanted the students to prepare a display of the
    data relevant to the borough, perhaps a sixty-page book of the sort
    that had been created for the previous census, a decade earlier.

    Working with other students and with their faculty advisors in a
    preparatory course, two months before leaving for London, the students
    were guided into asking questions about this task. How was the book
    used in the last ten years? By whom? For what? This dialogue led the
    students and the borough to redefine the task: the four-student team
    would create a Web-based resource for mapping and analyzing census
    data. Professor Paul Davis, a mathematician who was one of the faculty
    supervisors of the London site and is dean of interdisciplinary and
    global studies at WPI, commented, "In terms of liberal education, this
    is a key step, where students are grappling with open-ended issues and
    trying to form a project they can do in the weeks they're on site.
    They identified the problem as helping policy makers visualize
    deprivation on maps of the borough."

    In London, the WPI students created a geographic information system
    that turned indices based on census data (such as number of toilets
    per resident in buildings) into maps. The maps helped planners
    identify a swath of poverty that crossed the boundary from Merton into
    a neighboring borough. In an "aha!" moment, the planners realized that
    they could collaborate with that borough in applying for funds to work
    on the problems, rather than competing with it for funds as they had
    in the past.

    Professor Davis commented, "The lesson we think the students carried
    away was that the technology, well used, could inform important social
    decisions. They also realized they hadn't solved the problem of
    deprivation or even answered all the possible questions. Instead they
    got a sense of technology's possibilities and limits, the complexity
    of social issues, and the political and social environment in which
    those problems exist. From our perspective those are all successes for
    liberal education."

    Fifth outcome

    "Habits of mind that foster integrative thinking and the ability to
    transfer skills and knowledge from one setting to another--achieved
    and demonstrated through advanced research and/or creative projects in
    which students take the primary responsibility for framing questions,
    carrying out an analysis, and producing work of substantial complexity
    and quality" (AAC&U 2004, 6).

    Many of the approaches to teaching described above have dealt with
    integrative thinking and the ability to apply what has been learned in
    one context to an unfamiliar problem or setting. This ability to think
    about your own thinking doesn't develop automatically while studying
    in traditional courses, as Professor Sharon Hamilton discovered in her
    teaching at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
    She and her colleagues asked students to reflect on their learning in
    relation to artifacts the students had uploaded on the electronic
    portfolios. Hamilton commented, "There were several top-notch writing
    students in the pilot, and I was eager to read their reflections." One
    student, who had uploaded a thoughtful analysis and synthesis of a
    group of novels of the South as an example of her ability, wrote,

      Reflection involves analysis and synthesis to come to a new
      understanding. In this paper, I analyzed six novels and synthesized
      their approaches to the role of women in the South. I learned a lot
      about different perceptions of women in the South from this
      critical thinking.

    "And that was...one of the top achieving students in the group!"
    Hamilton exclaimed. "It became evident to me that students require
    instruction and support for their reflective writing."

    Electronic portfolios

    IUPUI accelerated its work with electronic portfolios. Portfolios have
    been used for centuries in disciplines such as architecture and the
    arts. A portfolio is a thoughtfully organized collection of student
    work, usually including work other than, or in addition to,
    traditional academic papers. Portfolios also often include student
    reflections about how the project demonstrates their developing
    skills. These reflective statements are one way in which portfolio use
    is intended to deepen student learning. Alverno College in Milwaukee
    pioneered the use of portfolios in liberal education starting in the
    1970s, using them to chart student progress in developing competencies
    required of all students by graduation.

    Electronic portfolios store those projects, or recordings of them,
    plus reflections and feedback, on computers so that these records can
    easily be accessed online. For example, Web projects can be stored in
    portfolios, as can video recordings of student performances (oral
    presentations, participation in teams, dances). In contrast to paper
    portfolios, the online portfolio can organize the projects in several
    different ways: one "view" organized for an individual course, another
    view organizing the content to show progress toward goals of liberal
    education, another showing progress in the major, and yet another that
    might be used for employment or graduate school applications. The work
    can be used over a period of time by the student, by faculty, and, at
    some institutions, by people outside the institution (e.g., potential
    employers). This ability to revisit a project long after the project
    is completed is one of many distinctive values of electronic

    Electronic portfolios offer an ideal infrastructure for the
    development of all the outcomes of liberal education described in this
    paper--doubly so because, as we've seen, a growing proportion of
    student work in all these areas is being done with computers and
    Internet resources.

    Bit by bit, putting it all together

    Electronic portfolios have at least one other kind of significance for
    changing the content of a college education: they can help faculty
    members, as a group, see what's going on and guide curricular change.
    In the past, college education has resembled an elephant designed by a
    committee of blind men, each faculty member teaching a course while
    knowing almost nothing about teaching and learning inside courses
    taught by other faculty. Electronic student portfolios can be used to
    change that.

    Some of the impacts of student portfolios are subtle. For example, at
    Alverno faculty need to designate "Key Performances" in each
    course--assignments, assessments, and projects that represent the most
    important goals for the course and, usually, for meeting requirements
    of the major and for graduation from the college. These Key
    Performances, including descriptions, criteria, student
    self-assessments, and faculty feedback, are visible to other faculty.
    Linda Ehley, associate professor of computer science at Alverno,
    reports that this ability to see, and be seen, provides a basis for
    both collaboration and faculty development.

    Other impacts of student portfolios on the ability to plan are more
    obvious and strategic. Clemson Provost Doris Helms comments that
    electronic portfolios have "freed us to think about general education
    as something other than a smorgasbord of courses." Clemson is using
    portfolios to collect student projects that are intended to
    demonstrate progress toward institutional educational goals.
    Portfolios used in this way require faculty to work together in
    describing the intellectual achievement represented by student work:
    first, to frame the goals, and then, to provide feedback to students
    about whether they've provided adequate evidence of progress toward
    meeting those goals for graduation. Provost Helms told me, "We'll not
    only assess student work but also use student portfolios for
    research--where are students learning what they're learning? For
    example, what are students learning while outside the classroom, in
    jobs, at home, and in extracurricular experiences? What kinds of
    learning should we foster, more intentionally, outside the course?" So
    the electronic portfolio can also provide data for scholarship of
    teaching and learning by the faculty working as a research team. Helms
    said that such a use of portfolios would not have been feasible at a
    large public institution such as Clemson without the online dimension.

    Three conditions are critical if student portfolios are to provide a
    tool for collaborative planning by faculty:
     1. Faculty need to collaborate in deciding what kinds of learning are
        to be charted by the portfolio.

     2. Faculty need to collaborate in assessing at least some aspects of
        student progress.

     3. Faculty need to use what they learn from assessment to consider
        whether and how to change the goals, the curriculum, their
        teaching, and assessment.

    When portfolios are used that way, the doorway to rapid, intentional
    evolution of liberal education opens.

    Concluding thoughts

    The changes in the content of a college education described above have
    several common elements.

    First, students use the technologies as a tool more often than as a
    "teacher": these uses of technology alter and enhance the role of the
    faculty member. The more powerful and widely used the technology, the
    more invisible it becomes to both students and faculty. They think
    with the technology rather than thinking about it. In fact, one reason
    that faculty are finding some of these changes relatively easy to make
    is that they themselves already use these technologies in their
    research and their lives outside the college.

    Second, technology widens the range of experiences and resources
    available to the student, which creates an even greater need to help
    students learn use such freedom, rather than floundering in it. More
    than ever, college needs to help students learn how to learn.

    Third, the curricular changes described in this article require a mix
    of bottom-up, incremental changes coming out of individual courses and
    top-down, strategic changes (e.g., portfolios) that come out of
    faculty and administrative leadership.

    Fourth, there is no magic level of technology that an institution
    needs before such changes can begin. I've seen examples of such
    changes in the content of education for almost a quarter century now,
    the earliest ones relying on Apple II computers. But the pace is
    accelerating, especially now that most students can use computers and
    the Internet as personal tools. What seems most important for each
    institution is that some level of technology be extremely reliable.
    When people no longer need to think consciously about their skills or
    worry overmuch about things breaking down, that particular technology
    achieves a certain invisibility. How many people still think of word
    processing as "technology?" Once that happens, faculty and students
    can think about advancing education instead of just about advancing
    technology. Institutional leadership comes from a thoughtful,
    committed coalition of faculty, administrators, students, and alumni,
    not from cutting edge technology.

    This is an extraordinarily exciting moment in the evolution of liberal
    education. This article has mentioned a number of institutions that
    are currently among the leaders in redefining the curriculum. The
    chances are excellent that, in five years, additional institutions
    will have leapfrogged forward, drawing international attention to
    their academic programs. Their fame will not come from having (for a
    brief moment) the newest of the new technologies. Instead, these
    institutions will attract attention and resources because they have
    helped redefine what it means to be an educated person in the
    twenty-first century.

    Work Cited

    Board of Directors, Association of American Colleges and Universities
    (AAC&U). 2004. Our students' best work: A framework of accountability
    worthy of our mission. Washington, DC: Association of American
    Colleges and Universities. Also at

    Stephen C. Ehrmann is director of the Flashlight Program for the Study
    and Improvement of Educational Uses of Technology and vice president
    of The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group.

    To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled at aacu.org, with the
    author's name on the subject line.

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