IT Initiatives in Education Span Wide Spectrum

IT Initiatives in Education Span Wide Spectrum

Robert Childs

By John Makulowich

Stirred by a beta mentality that is increasingly accepted in cyberspace and among software developers, if not in office suites, the thought of adopting cutting edge technology for education or training carries a certain cachet. Any IT professional worth his or her salt gets excited easily about trying software for collaborative learning or hardware for virtual reality.

But turn to your everyday end user, the one with little exposure or interest in getting wounded on cutting edge technology, and an entirely different picture emerges.

That picture is one reason why Peter Kuhmerker, director of the Field Automation and Information Management Division in the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department, chose a training vehicle that falls on the low end of the high-tech spectrum in today's whiz-bang computer education environment.

Kuhmerker is responsible for coordinating nationwide the training of several thousand in-plant meat and poultry inspectors. These inspectors vary in education backgrounds from high school to veterinary training in India, all the way to doctorate in microbiology. Their computer experience is extremely limited; 70 percent never worked with a computer before. Because of this, Kuhmerker selected a computer-based training CD-ROM approach, produced by DiscoverWare and distributed by Enterprise Training Solutions of Ardsley, N.Y.

That company, a multimedia training integrator, delivers interactive technology instruction for IT and business skills. Other customers include the Navy, the Army Medical Command, the New York City Board of Education and the New York State Office of Court Administration.

"Bringing 3,500 inspectors to one location for training was not an option. A typical one-day session will cost around $1,000 in travel plus the course itself," Kuhmerker said. "Since no plant can operate or sell without an on-site inspector, there is the cost of getting a backup while the full-time inspector is in training. Compare that with a $10 CD, a $9 manual and the opportunity to learn at your own pace."

The software's low price is accounted for by the General Services Administration schedule, which covers a range of computer-based training for IT professionals and end users that is distributed by Enterprise Training Solutions. Their GSA contract is good until December 2003.

While all inspectors have access to computers with multimedia features — two-thirds have a laptop and one-third have desktops — little thought was given to Web-based training, simply because the inspectors' locations throughout the country did not allow equal access to Internet service providers, especially those in more rural areas. Further, the main use was learning Microsoft's Outlook 98 to transmit e-mail as the division shifts from a proprietary MS-DOS system.

Training for new users just started this month and will go into full swing for more than 5,000 inspectors in April, including 1,500 state meat and poultry inspectors. Phased in over five years, the training will cover a range of applications and operating systems, from electronic forms to the conversion from MS-DOS to Windows 95.

The core set of instruction includes general computer awareness, microcomputer security, Windows 95 Help system, MS-Works 95, notebook assembly/hardware review, job-specific software and utilities and software downloads.

The effort is part of the agency's focus, cited in its mission statement, on making inspection processes more effective and efficient, promoting information sharing and data quality and providing the inspection staff with automated work tools and the ability to transmit information electronically.

At the other edge of the spectrum in IT initiatives in education is the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. An agency of the Defense Department, it counts among its system the Information Resources Management College and its dean, Robert Childs.

Sporting new-age concepts like the principle of flexible positioning, the institution, according to Childs, is a management school that concerns itself with technology. It deals first with the standard management fare of organizational theory and functional performance, and only then does it tackle the role of automation.

"Historically, the government has bought gadgets and then put them on our work. While the government has been effective, it has not always been efficient. Our job is to look at management from top to bottom," said Childs.

One piece of legislation that made his job easier was the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, co-authored by Secretary of Defense William Cohen. For Childs, the act put teeth into the concept that agencies had to make good technology decisions and had to show a return on that technology.

Practically, it means the Information Resources Management College spends money and time on faculty development, helping them stay abreast of technology through adopting theories such as the principle of flexible positioning.

As Childs noted, this principle allows the college to respond to opportunities that arise within the Department of Defense, for example, assuming continuing change and altering the curriculum over 40 percent most years.

"Flexible positioning is the key," he said. "To understand the concept, picture yourself at a crossroads. On one side are emerging technologies with a relative chance of being used, things like virtual reality. Another road is policy and policy changes that are going on, such as the National Information Infrastructure or the Clinger-Cohen Act. You make decisions with both those options clearly in your mind."

For Childs, the Clinger-Cohen Act also applies to creating innovative programs, like developing competencies and a program for the function of chief information officer. Originally 14 weeks long, the course evolved into a senior-level program to address what the upper-level manager needs to know about technology to make the right decisions and to incorporate that into planning. That has led to an eight-week CIO certificate program.

"It is now more information age. People are finding it harder and harder to get away for 14 weeks. What we strive to do is develop a way of thinking," said Childs.

The major challenge for the college is to keep atop developments not just in defense and the government, but in academia and industry. One way of facing it is a weeklong field study to private industry, to companies like Oracle Corp. and Silicon Graphics Inc., where an analysis is performed at the end of the study.

The 22 intensive courses offered at the Information Resources Management College are a benchmark of what's hot in information technology.

Among the courses are Assuring the Information Infrastructure, Critical Information Systems Technologies, Data Management Strategies and Technologies, Information Warfare and Information Operations and Electronic Commerce: Doing Business on the Information Highway.

One of the newest is Information Visualization, which covers alternatives in modeling and simulation, answering the burning question inspired by the flood of information on the Internet: How can you deal with all this data without having to read it? One example would be visualizing a stock portfolio's value beyond just reading numbers.

In his vision of the road ahead for information technology, Childs sees the need, echoing the chairmen of Oracle and Sun Microsystems, for ubiquitous computer systems that are easy to use, not unlike the HoloDeck on "StarTrek."

"It boils down to the question: Do you want to become a technologist, or do you just want to use the technology? We just want to use the technology. Our job is to teach a manager how to be concerned about technology and how to share information," he said.

That concern also is the interest of Barbara Means, assistant director of the Center for Technology in Learning at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif. Means is an educational psychologist whose research probes the ways technology can support student learning of advanced skills and revitalize classrooms.

She is directing research for two technology innovations. One is the GLOBE program, where thousands of students worldwide collect data on their local environments and use the Web to share it. The other is Silicon Valley Challenge 2000, a public-private partnership to reform school systems and promote student learning through multimedia technology.

Asked about IT initiatives in education from the government side, Means pointed to the four pillars of the Technology Literacy Challenge put forth by Education Secretary Richard Riley in July 1998.

The pillars support the Clinton administration's commitment to bring technology into the classroom through the President's Educational Technology Initiative, and the president's and vice president's challenge to the nation to assure all children are technologically literate by the dawn of the 21st century.

Amid these initiatives, however, key questions remain, such as the level of access, the proportion of classes with training in technology and whether students have access to high-quality educational software.

Even deeper, though, are the questions Means raised.

"Looking at technology and education, we are measuring inputs rather than impacts on learners. A large part of the problem is that we have never had a large-scale research effort to see what impact technology is having on learners," said Means.

She noted that with learning software, for example, students are learning what the software wants them to learn. The programs are embedded with measures of how well students reason with the problems they are presented.

But, said Means, we know a lot less about whether those students are able to use those concepts in other settings.

"The research needed to answer those questions would take a lot longer. We do not know how lasting the impact of the learning is and how broad it is, that is, how it works beyond the time frame in which it is given, that is, one year," said Means.

One major problem in doing such research is the constantly moving target of software and hardware. Given the broad acceptance of the beta environment on the Web, that situation is not likely to get any better. Complicating it is the political football that the purchase of technology has become.

What it boils down to for Means is developing instructional strategies that take into account the different types of technology use and which are effective for what purposes.

"Technology is coming anyway. The level at which the World Wide Web is changing our lives is profound. Research is important to try to get at a greater level of detail, to better inform our decisions," said Means.

"We need to ask what are the learning goals. Given that, what do we know about instructional strategy that best supports students in meeting those goals?" she said. "Does technology fit in here? We need a more disciplined approach to answer these questions than many are taking."

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