Campus & Community

Technology changes pace of learning

3 min read

Electronic mail and the Internet have become integral parts of our daily lives. These and other digital tools already have profoundly affected scholarship and learning at Harvard.

Thousands of courses now have Websites, many rich with images, audio clips, video-on-demand, electronic discussion groups, and timely Web links. A growing number of digital library materials are accessible, and more are being created every week. In-class electronic polling permits instantaneous feedback and supports peer-to-peer learning in the classroom. Many course section leaders rely on electronic interaction with, and among, students to introduce and to extend in-person discussion. Information technology, in short, is influencing the pace, place, nature, and time of learning.

At another edge of education, our professional schools are considering new programs to meet the lifelong educational needs of their alumni and others in their fields. They are striving to make professional education more accessible, personalized, and timely. They are working to offer active learning experiences asynchronously, to create online communities of interest, to share knowledge and experiences, and to let Harvard faculty reach wider audiences through new channels.

Whether used to enhance residential learning or to teach at a distance, information technology raises challenging questions for higher education. How can we ensure that technology serves a useful purpose without diminishing important aspects of the educational experience? Will technology build stronger communities of learning or lead to greater isolation and disconnection? What teaching skills and educational strategies will be most successful in conjunction with electronic aids to learning? Will new, electronic learning organizations, including for-profit ventures, do a better job than traditional universities in achieving the goals of higher education? What practical steps will encourage sharing, deploying, and evaluating new technologies in education?

To consider such questions, the University has turned to the Harvard Academic Computing Committee, a committee of faculty and senior administrators established two years ago to guide developments in academic computing.

This group has become the sponsor of Harvard’s Internet and Society Conference (being held this week) and recently hosted the second annual Workshop on Technology and Teaching, drawing together faculty and others from throughout the University.

Along with a number of deans and faculty leaders, the Harvard Academic Computing Committee has fostered a climate of innovation in the application of technology to learning. On the recommendation of the Committee, beginning with the new academic year Harvard will establish two innovation funds to finance projects in instructional computing. One will be linked to the classroom, and the other to the growing field of distance learning. The aim is to create a salutary cycle of testing, reflecting, and improving the application of information technology to learning throughout the University, and beyond.

Information technology offers a sea of promise for education, and a measure of risk. As technology advances, we must be prepared to recognize new possibilities, to evaluate, to adopt what makes sense, and to discard what fails to work. We will do well if we can take full advantage of electronic technology over time in a way that advances scholarship and learning, strengthens the academic community, and remains true to the values of higher education.