Bringing Cyberspace Into the College Classroom

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 5, 1999 — By now, it’s no surprise that information technology is a major part of college life. Professors are making their course materials easily accessible to students by posting them on the Internet. Students are e-mailing their teachers to obtain quick answers to questions while they study. And numerous universities are attracting more students by offering entire programs and degrees over the Web.

But how well is this being done? Are there new opportunities that universities could tap into? In an effort to answer these questions, Microsoft and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) today announced a partnership to research new technologies that will enhance university education. The five-year effort, dubbed
will bring together scientists at Microsoft Research with students, faculty and researchers at MIT to develop solutions that could broaden learning opportunities at the higher-education level.

“There’s a sea change in the way universities are beginning to deliver education to students,”
said William Vablais, program manager, Microsoft University Research Programs.
“As more and more universities come online, what does that mean for universities and what does that mean for students? What types of platforms are needed to deliver the information they need, and what kinds of tools do they need to create communities of people over the Web? We’re trying to find out answers to these questions.”

Microsoft plans to allocate $25 million to the project over the next five years, and will assign several staff to I-Campus from its Microsoft Research division. MIT will commit faculty, students and researchers to the project, and serve as a

“We’ve now got enormous technical capabilities that we didn’t have two decades ago,”
said Thomas L. Magnanti, Dean of MIT’s School of Engineering.
“And we’d like to think collectively about how we tap into that technology base to develop the appropriate models for education and how we deliver it. How do we educate in this new world that we’re living in?”

While Microsoft has made numerous donations to universities and has worked informally with individual university professors on technology projects, this marks the first broad-based research partnership Microsoft has established with a university, Vablais said.
“This goes far beyond what we’ve done before, and is essentially a model for how we want to work with other universities in the future,”
he said.

The number of students taking undergraduate and graduate courses online is expected to more than triple to 2.23 million by 2002, according to the International Data Corp. The goal of I-Campus is develop technologies and methods that will be critical to the way universities deliver education as it becomes more closely intertwined with information technology.

“The technologies for delivering classroom learning have been developed over the last several centuries,”
Vablais said.
“University lecture rooms have been made to have a theater-like quality so you can hear people speaking properly, but that was developed over many thousands of years. Online learning is a brand new medium for delivering education and requires research to determine what technologies and methods are most effective. What are the technological hurdles required to make the lecture room operate effectively over the Internet? These are the types of questions we’re asking.”

Researchers will focus their work in three key areas, officials said. They will explore ways to use information technology to enhance learning. They will develop new approaches to teaching that take advantage of the opportunities information technology provides. And they will develop ways to turn the university into a broader learning network through initiatives like distance learning and lifelong learning for alumni.

“You can’t just slap a bunch of courses on the Web, get people to log on and that’s the end of it,”
Vablais said.
“What we’re trying to do is set up a research program that monitors how teaching is conducted over the Internet, how effectively it is absorbed by students and what can be done to improve it.”

Microsoft and MIT plan to support a variety of research projects over the next five years, and make the results of these projects available to the wider academic community, officials said. Initially, I-Campus will support three projects:

  • Using information technology to enhance multimedia learning opportunities. This project will expand MIT’s Shakespeare Electronic Archive (SEA), an online repository of information about Shakespeare designed to help students better understand the famous playwright’s work. The repository provides a single place where students can view and compare electronic copies of old manuscripts, interviews, films, art and other interpretations of Shakespeare’s writing. The partnership will explore ways to enhance the multimedia environment to create more innovative learning experiences for students.

  • Designing a program that optimizes student learning in distance learning environments. Researchers at Microsoft, MIT and the National University of Singapore will collaboratively design an education system to teach engineering over the Web to students at MIT and the National University of Singapore using Internet2, the next generation Internet network. Researchers will examine ways to effectively tailor student learning to a distance-learning environment, in which students are 12 hours apart and geographically at opposite ends of the world.

  • Developing an educational curriculum that uses information technology to enhance collaborative learning. The partnership will investigate how information technology such as the Web, desktop video conferencing and collaborative design tools can enhance learning by creating opportunities for engineering design students within MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The curriculum will enable students to design engineering projects with outside experts and engineering students from other universities.

The results of the research will benefit students, teachers and administrators alike, officials said. The goal is to offer students more creative learning opportunities, provide teachers with the tools they need to develop more innovative teaching methods, and offer administrators the infrastructure they need to manage and provide information services.

“Some elements of the university use information technology fairly extensively and effectively, but we’ve hardly tapped the full potential,”
Magnanti said.
“The hope is that we’ll create some new teaching models and educational tools that will dramatically enhance education.”

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