Colleges see the future in technology

Times Staff Writer

Coastline Community College was a higher-education pioneer in the late 1970s when it started developing television-based courses that students could take from anywhere as long as they had another innovation of the time, a video player.

Today the Fountain Valley-based school remains a trendsetter, producing college classes whose lectures and study materials can be viewed on iPods, personal digital assistants and cellphones.

But these days Coastline has plenty of company. Though long known for their adherence to tradition, colleges in California and elsewhere increasingly are embracing a variety of higher-tech approaches to teaching and learning.


And new gizmos, including gear with cutting-edge videogame or artificial intelligence technology, are on the way to provide more individualized instruction. Some of the most futuristic devices -- if colleges are adventurous enough to try them -- could even monitor students’ brainwaves to keep track of how they’re learning.

The trend toward electronic technology could be particularly dramatic in California, where demographic and economic forces are likely to promote ways to stretch the state’s educational resources.

Employers are expected to need many more college graduates, yet the rising number of young adults who want to attend college sometimes strains the capacity of the state’s two-year and four-year schools.

What’s more, many of the prospective students come from low-income and immigrant families, factors that could raise the demand for low-cost, technology-assisted education.

In California, “something’s got to give,” said Marshall S. Smith, the education program director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park. “You’ve got to begin to think more creatively about how you’re going to get enough students into the system.”

One sign of the times is the current boom in distance learning. According to a survey released last November funded by the Sloan Foundation, 2.35 million American college students took at least one online course in fall 2004, up from 1.6 million two years earlier.


Coastline is emblematic of the online trend. Its enrollment last fall was just over 16,500, with nearly 9,300 students taking online or other distance-learning courses exclusively, including many in the Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

For the students flocking to fully online instruction or to hybrid courses that blend online and classroom work, “time is an issue, travel is an issue, cost is an issue and convenience is an issue,” said Ted Boehler, Coastline’s dean of distance learning.

Denise Carbajal, 33, a single mother working toward a master’s degree in education and a teaching credential, is a case in point. In 4 1/2 years, she has taken hybrid or online classes from Coastline, the San Gabriel Valley’s Mt. San Antonio College and the University of La Verne, as well as the University of Phoenix.

Her approach enables her to save money, as well as to study at her own pace.

If a student is bored by a traditional lecture class, Carbajal said, “you have to sit there for hours and just take it.” By contrast, she said, with online classes “you decide what you need to expand on” without getting bogged down by questions from “someone in the back of the class who is totally clueless.”

Online learning could gain further momentum in coming years because of initiatives by such universities as M.I.T. and Carnegie Mellon, along with the Hewlett Foundation and European institutions, to put more course materials online for students and schools around the world. An array of U.S. schools already is using the materials, often called “open educational resources.”

Still, technology is changing not just students’ study habits outside the classroom, but their work in it. Some professors already employ so-called “personal response systems” -- better known as clickers -- that enable the professors to pose impromptu questions to their classes. The technology keeps students engaged and gives instructors an immediate assessment of whether students are absorbing lecture material.


Yet the transition to more tech hasn’t always been without glitches. Instructors often complain about the added burden created by the heavy volume of e-mails from students. And some online students flounder when they don’t have face-to-face contact with a teacher.

At the same time, when distance-learning options -- such as making lectures available in video format over the Internet -- are offered in conventional courses, instructors sometimes complain that too few students come to class.

Still, for experts such as Carol Twigg, president of the nonprofit National Center for Academic Transformation, the shift to more distance learning is part of an inevitable trend.

“Professors ought to get used to people not showing up for lectures,” she said. “They ought to be thinking about other ways to teach students. Lectures are certainly alive and well, but we’re starting to see the beginning of the end.”

Twigg’s outlook is based partly on her center’s four-year effort with 30 colleges to redesign high-enrollment courses. The 30 projects involved such things as deemphasizing lectures and relying more on online tutorials and discussion forums, along with using computerized grading to give students speedier assessments of what they were learning well and what they were getting wrong.

The result: Student learning rose in 25 of the 30 projects. And in the other five cases, performance remained roughly even with the level in traditionally taught classes. At the same time, the cost of providing instruction was reduced an average 37%.


Nationwide, meanwhile, pressures to hold schools accountable for student performance, already a preoccupation in K-12 education, are intensifying at the college level.

Experts say that trend, in turn, also could translate into demand for technologies that better monitor what students are learning.

Artificial intelligence experts are developing “intelligent tutoring systems” that can help students working on problems in, say, algebra or physics where there are many ways to solve a problem -- as well as many ways to go wrong.

When students ask for a hint, “they’ll get different answers based on what they’re doing,” said Joel M. Smith, vice provost and chief information officer at Carnegie Mellon.

Researchers also are investigating how videogame technology can provide simulations to enable students to explore historical events, develop foreign language skills and evaluate scientific problems.

Michael Zyda, director of the USC GamePipe Laboratory, which researches interactive game technology, said he was particularly enthusiastic about what he called “emotion-cognizant games.” These futuristic videogames would use sensors to gauge learning by measuring electrical activity in a student’s brain and other physical reactions. The brainwave sensors, he said, might detect how difficult students find course work to be and whether they tend to be, say, visual or auditory learners.


Within three years, Zyda predicted, “we’re going to be building [educational] games that react highly to the emotional state of the human.”

Other experts are less certain that the new educational technologies will be designed and applied in ways that both benefit students significantly and contain the ever-rising cost of attending college.

The technologies have “tremendous potential,” said Carnegie Mellon’s Smith. But if developers of the technologies don’t keep in mind what psychologists and other experts have discovered about how people learn, he warned, “there’s a danger in going off the rails.”