The Harvard Gazette

By William J. Cromi
Gazette Staff


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 technology."

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 FRS.

"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 and colleagues,"

added Carliss Baldwin, the William L. White Professor of Business Administration.

''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 said.

"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," said Frommer.
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.

 

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