On the Leading Edge in the `Paperless Classroom'
ART SCOTT still enters a classroom to teach on Mondays and Wednesdays, but every other class activity - homework, exams, student conferences - he conducts electronically. He calls it his "paperless classroom." He may be part of something big.
It helps that his course is "Introduction to Computers." "The way to teach students to use computers is to make them use computers," he says.
It also helps that he teaches at Marist College. This Poughkeepsie, N.Y., institution may not quite match the leading-edge efforts of some large universities, but among small, liberal-arts colleges, the college is a leader in pushing information technology into the classroom.
Walk into a downstairs physics lab, and Brian Desiletz will give you a pendulum demonstration. There's still the familiar weight hanging from a string. Only now it's hooked up to an electronic sensor that's wired to a computer. Swing the weight. The computer measures its arc, speed, and just about everything else 200 times a second.
"What I am trying to do is use the computer to teach real physics," Professor Desiletz says. By letting the computer take the readings and calculate the basic math, students can concentrate on the physics of the pendulum.
The same thing has happened at the college's Marist Institute for Public Opinion. A new computer network simplifies the institute's polling. It used to take 10 hours to tabulate poll results. Now it takes 10 minutes.
The immediacy gives teachers and students more time to concentrate on the results, says director Barbara Carvalho. It also makes it more interesting.
"I am now a part of the process; I am not just sitting back and learning in the classroom," says April Amonica, who just graduated from Marist.
Over at Marist's library, technology is speeding up information searches and extending the college's reach. The library already has a CD-ROM/computer system called ProQuest that uses optical disks to store five years' issues of nearly 1,000 periodicals. The library is also linking its on-line catalog to other area institutions through a regional network called Waldo. By networking, Marist will be able to share the costs of subscribing to electronic databases.
Marist's vision of the electronic library is very aggressive. A small college on its own could not afford to do what Marist is doing.
Marist couldn't have achieved this alone. Since 1988, it has worked on a $16 million joint study with IBM, headquartered in nearby Armonk, N.Y. In return for agreeing to serve as a testing ground, IBM gave the college a $10 million mainframe computer, an advanced telephone system, and a fiber-optics network that will link every office and dormitory room electronically.
The relationship between IBM and Marist is close - too close, some faculty say. The college's board of trustees includes two IBM executives. One of them, IBM vice president James Cannavino, was recently elected board chairman.
"I wasn't roundly applauded, believe me," for the technology partnership with IBM, says Dennis Murray, Marist's president. "Some thought I was betraying some of the basic values of this institution."
Not surprisingly, the deal has made IBM computer equipment ubiquitous on campus. Computers from other manufacturers, notably Apple Computer, an educator's favorite, are conspicuously absent.
The technology certainly speeds up certain tasks. It will also enhance communications. Professors at their desks will be able to leave electronic messages for colleagues and students, look up library material, chat electronically with Australia or Ukraine.
But will it change, fundamentally, teaching and learning at Marist?
Dr. Murray talks about professors becoming "conductors of information orchestras." Ms. Carvalho sees the opportunity for deeper probing and more individualized instruction.
Even in the paperless classroom, some things don't change. Mr. Scott still comes to campus regularly, holding impromptu office hours in the computer lab. He has to keep a sharp eye for cheating. And something tells me that by the year 2000, he or his successor will still be walking into a classroom. Even if it is just Mondays and Wednesdays.