Wired Revolution on Campus

Nursing professor Ellie MacFarlane is a self-confessed "technological klutz," the type of person who finds programming a videocassette recorder a daunting experience. So it was with some trepidation that she learned last year that St.

Wired Revolution on Campus

Nursing professor Ellie MacFarlane is a self-confessed "technological klutz," the type of person who finds programming a videocassette recorder a daunting experience. So it was with some trepidation that she learned last year that St. Francis Xavier University, where she has taught for nearly two decades, was about to begin cruising the information highway in a big way. Starting last fall, faculty and students in every discipline at St. Francis Xavier, a small residential university set in the gentle highlands of northeastern Nova Scotia, were given access to so-called WebFx, which links up all classrooms, faculty offices and student residences to the Internet and other computer-based resources. Technical jitters aside, MacFarlane had reservations about the costs of the project - a cool $8 million - and how the machinery might impinge on her very personal style of teaching. But after five months of exposure to WebFx, MacFarlane has put most of her misgivings behind her. "It's really been a positive experience that has opened up some tremendous opportunities," she enthuses.

WebFx comes quickly on the heels of an even more ambitious - and expensive - foray into the wired world at another small, tightly knit Nova Scotia campus. Starting in the fall of 1996, Acadia University in Wolfville launched what it dubbed the Acadia Advantage. Under the program, which will include all undergraduates by the year 2000, students are issued identical laptop computers and a sophisticated array of software. They can plug into the system from more than 3,000 ports spread across the campus - at residences, libraries, student lounges and from every seat in every classroom. The goal, explains Acadia president Kelvin Ogilvie, is "to provide access to the world's information services from the user's preferred location, 24 hours a day." Membership in the cyber-club, though, has its price as well as its privileges: the university spent $11 million developing its computer infrastructure and students are charged $1,200 annually on top of the normal tuition fee for the laptops. Acadia is planning to allow students to keep their laptops after four years of use.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, universities and colleges across Canada are turning to CD-ROMs, the World Wide Web and video-conferencing to change the way education is delivered. The recently privatized business administration program at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., already employs state-of-the-art computer wizardry, as does McGill University's medical faculty in Montreal. But what sets the two Nova Scotia campuses apart is the way they have applied the technology to all disciplines - foreshadowing the day when philosophy and English majors may graduate with the same technological smarts as their counterparts in business and the sciences. Some observers say the Canadian academic establishment has been painfully slow to take up that challenge. "The Acadia and WebFx experiments are quite superb," says David Johnston, a professor of law at McGill and former chairman of Ottawa's information highway advisory council. "We see other experiments on more modest scales. But I'm concerned that our faculties of education have not led this revolution. I think we could be more vigorous in taking up these tools quickly."

The potential for technology to radically alter the classroom environment can already be glimpsed on the two Nova Scotia campuses. At St. Francis Xavier, faculty members are now able to bring the resources of the Internet directly into the classroom through a computerized digital camera that projects Web sites onto an overhead screen. During a recent religious studies class, Prof. Burton MacDonald took his students electronically to Jerusalem's Wailing Wall courtesy of a Web site that provides images, updated every 60 seconds, of the faithful praying at the holy shrine. Many instructors are also hard at work developing their own home pages, posting assignments and lecture notes on the Net and overseeing on-line "chat groups" in which students continue to thrash out topics that have been raised in class.

Even more radical innovations are under way at Acadia. Many traditional lecture halls have been converted into studio labs where students sit at tables in small groups, laptops at the ready. English students use CD-ROMs on which novelists read from their works; business students dial up the latest stock prices for companies they are discussing; and physics students call up video simulations of equations or phenomena raised by their instructors. In such settings, says Ogilvie, the professor "is now free to move through the classroom as a facilitator of the intellectual dialogue." At the same time, he adds, students have been "empowered" because they now possess the same research tools as their teachers and "may, in fact, find out things the professor would never have found."

A brave new world - but not one in which everybody is comfortable. At Acadia University, faculty were on the brink of walking off the job earlier this month - in part because many professors bristled at being told that they must employ the new technology in their classrooms. "The administration wants to require every faculty member to use Acadia Advantage," complained faculty association president Jim Sacouman shortly after his membership voted 91 per cent in favor of a strike. "We're trying to use it creatively, but the only way to do that is not to have it imposed upon us." In the end, the two sides agreed to a new 32-month contract, ratified last week, which does not require faculty members to use Acadia Advantage.

At St. Francis Xavier, university president Sean Riley has tried to ward off similar strife by building in as many incentives as possible to convince skeptical faculty members to take advantage of the new technology. One popular measure was his decision to hire a small army of about 100 computer-literate student interns who meet individually with faculty members on a weekly basis. The interns, who are each paid an annual stipend of $1,000, help guide their elders through the trickiest corners of the wired world. The 55-year-old MacFarlane retained the services of 19-year-old Sarah MacKinnon, who has been using computers since she was a toddler. "She flips through this stuff like I used to flip through a comic book," marvels MacFarlane. "It's like I'm the student again and she's the teacher."

Some pundits say it is MacKinnon's generation which will prove the driving force behind the techno-revolution. Toronto-based communications guru Don Tapscott, author of the recently published Growing Up Digital, points out that the students now entering university are part of a generation "bathed in bytes," for whom surfing the Net is "like breathing air." By contrast, he says, many faculty members and university administrators see computers as a threat to a centuries-old tradition of pedagogy. "There's great irony to this," adds Tapscott. "It's not technology that's the threat; it's the status quo. If the universities don't reinvent themselves, they will be replaced."

In fact, even some of the academics who are embracing the new technology admit to serious misgivings. St. Francis Xavier English professor Philip Milner notes that "students are entering a world where, whatever else they are going to do, it is also going to be about computers." Recognizing that, Milner incorporated on-line discussion groups into his literature and creative writing courses. As well, students in a course he teaches on novels that have been turned into movies are asked to write up their essays in the form of CD-ROM presentations. For all of that, Milner, a 20-year teaching veteran, has some qualms about where technology is taking higher education. "My students are not the same compulsive readers as the students I used to teach," he says. "They like on-line, and not other media. I suspect the book, as we know it and love it, is on the way out."

In another corner of the St. Francis Xavier campus, mathematics professor Charlie Gallant exhibits a similar ambivalence. Thanks to WebFx, he can instantly provide overhead digital projections of graphs that previously would take his classes several hours to plot manually. Students can then concentrate on the task at hand: analyzing and interpreting the data. And because classroom exercises are all on the campus network, students can work at their own pace. Still, Gallant expresses some dismay that, when he gives an assignment, the first instinct of many students is to search for solutions on the Internet. "These days," he says, "if you enter a problem on the Net, by the next morning someone will have solved it. It's like the cribbing that you used to do from your roommates' notes. But now, this type of plagiarism is at your fingertips worldwide."

McGill University's Johnston - who continues to serve as a special adviser on information technology to the federal industry minister, John Manley - acknowledges there are some obvious potholes along the electronic highway. "We need to recognize the limitations as well as the strengths of computers," he says. "They will never, for example, replace critical thinking." That said, Johnston argues "we've been too slow to recognize that this technology is as important as Gutenberg's printing press" - a 15th-century innovation that helped usher in the industrial era. And when it comes to the latest techno-revolution, he suggests, universities should be in the front lines, not fighting a rearguard action.

Maclean's March 2, 1998