By William J. Cromi
Eric Mazur's undergraduate physics class appears to be in chaos.
Two hundred and fifty students are talking to each other and
punching buttons on hand-held computers. It looks as if I they
are voting for this week's funniest home video.
In front of the class, Mazur, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied
Physics, sees their votes on a computerized switchboard. He realizes
at once that about 30 percent of the students don't understand
what he just told them about Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
"I knew immediately that I would
have to spend more time explaining the material to them,"
Mazur said. "Before
we had this technology, I would have gone on to the next topic
and increased the number of students that I left behind. There's
no doubt that computers have changed the way that I teach and
my students learn."
That's becoming a more familiar refrain all over Harvard as
faculty discover the advantages of new teaching tools--the computers,
software, networks, modems, video disks, and other electronic
paraphernalia collectively known as "information
In the last few years, the University has become a leader
in developing innovative computer programs for teaching and in
positioning itself as a major intersection on the information
superhighway. Combined with this technology are miles of optical
fibers carrying words, numbers, and pictures at the speed of
light beneath the campus' quadrangles. This so-called high speed
data network will soon link all major buildings in the University
with each other and with the world through international networks
such as Internet. In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS),
the high speed data network will be accessible to every dormitory
room and office by the spring of 1994. This effort will provide
what Paul Martin, Dean of the Division of Applied Sciences, calls
"an infrastructure whose capability
and quality few universities can match."
"The last year or two has witnessed
a tremendous upswing in the use of information technology,"
said Richard Steen, acting director of computer services at
"Network connections have spawned
greater interest in Internet. It starts with electronic mail,
then people look for sources of data. Increasingly, we find that
first-year students have experience using networked computers.
And incoming faculty expect to be able to access data and colleagues
around the world."
A Model for the Future
A mini-model of what the future of information technology
might be like now operates at the Business School. Mid-career
executives participating in the Program for Management Development
(PMD) arrive to find a networked computer in their quarters.
They soon learn to use the computer to communicate with each
other and the faculty, and to prepare for case studies. The latter
range from traditional ink-on-paper to interactive multimedia
simulations. The network serves as a background for electronic
mail, scheduling, case distribution, and simulations. Faculty
can connect to the network from their homes via modem.
Put in place in 1989, the local network "has
raised the level of creativity," said M. Colyer
Crum, the James R. Williston Professor of Investment Management.
"We find that the computing support
and networking have increased coordination and commitment of
the faculty to the PMD and to the students. We have a wonderful
new incentive and opportunity to collaborate with one another
and with the participants."
"The computing infrastructure
has vastly improved how I am able to interact with my students
added Carliss Baldwin, the William L. White Professor of Business
''This dynamic interaction has improved
our dialogue and enriched the learning process."
Emphasis on Interaction
Expanding such local networks to include the world may produce
a proportionately greater impact on As an example, take Judith
Frommer's efforts to bring French culture into her language classes.
Through Internet, the senior preceptor in Romance languages and
literatures brings daily news summaries from French publications
into local computers.
"Students can access this information
24 hours a day," Frommer
"Increasing their contact with
natural French beyond a few hours in a classroom is part of an
attempt to unite language with contemporary culture, to teach
language in a holistic way." The Internet connection
has greatly enhanced opportunities for doing that, she noted.
Other forms of information technology allow Frommer's students
to get in touch with French as it is spoken in everyday situations.
Using an interactive videodisk, her students interview
French people about subjects such as the family and the role
of women in France. For this, they choose from a list of males
and females, young and old, urban and rural residents whose views
have been previously taped. Using a multimedia work station,
students choose from a menu of questions that interest them,
the? see and hear the people they select give their answers.
Interactive video programs also are used in teaching German and
Italian. Other software helps language students with the inevitable
grammar exercises. 'They can do these
on their own, freeing more time to do creative work in the classroom,"
Undergraduate subjects where computer-based videos, photographs,
maps, diagrams, and problem sets have been available for teaching
and tutoring include physics, chemistry, Greek literature, introductory
Greek, anthropology, and the history of science. /
Mazur, for instance, uses computers to instruct, measure progress,
and tutor. Students receive his prize-winning tutorial software
Essence of Physics when they buy the textbook for introductory
physics. It features interactive demonstrations and problems
they can work out on their own computers.
In the classroom, Mazur lectures for about 10 minutes on a subject
with the help of computer. displays, which are projected onto
large screens. He then flashes a multiple-choice question on
the screen. Each student has a hand-held device with which to
register her or his choice.
That's when what Mazur calls "wonderful
chaos" breaks out. Students, get one minute to
discuss their answers with each other. Those who think they are
right try to talk seat mates who gave a different answer into
making a change. The number of right answers the second time
around is always higher.