Do you remember the scene in the movie "Real Genius" that showed students at the beginning of a university semester sitting in a large lecture room listening to the professor? As the semester wore on, one-by-one each student left a tape recorder on their seat. The scene ended with the professor's recorder pontificating to a room full of other recorders. This is not all that far from the model of educational technology as it exists in many universities today.
Randy Hinrichs, a manager in the University Relations group at Microsoft Research wants this model to change. He's passionate about educational technology and wants to transform the way we educate people worldwide. His project, called iCampus, is a multi-year, multi-million dollar investment by two leading research organizations — Microsoft Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — that spans multiple disciplines and has funded over 30 projects.
"Education looks like the Industrial Revolution," he said, "where you have classrooms designed around some kind of factory model. Everyone turns to page 37 at the same time." Hinrichs believes the technological revolution of the last decade calls for an equal revolution in the way we teach. "We've evolved, we're now a knowledge economy and we have knowledge workers who live inside of technology," he states.
When educators started using technology, they mimicked the traditional educational system. "We allowed computers into the classroom and then we used them as electronic books," said Hinrichs.
The lonely lecturer behind the podium was replaced by a digitized image of a lonely lecturer behind a podium. Students tune out, just as they did in the movie "Real Genius." And computerized tests haven't added any value to an already flawed assessment process. Most computer tests are only read and click multiple choice. The only advantage they have is that students can mindlessly click the "c" radio button a lot faster then laboriously darkening Scantron bubbles with a yellow, low-tech, chewed on number two pencil.
"Computers have an incredible capability to deconstruct objects; you can build a bridge, look inside of a molecule, and recreate the human body digitally," notes Hinrichs. He wants to find out how technology could improve education, how it could create a different paradigm. "We started thinking about emerging issues of learning using activity-based learning and games. We realized that kids really like game environments and will spend up to 25 hours a week inside of them doing stuff."
Hinrichs and his partners at MIT started wondering if games could help students learn advanced subjects. In the process they're reinventing education. Henry Jenkins, a professor at MIT, has studied the ability of games to teach for many years. iCampus is helping to fund his vision, aptly called Games to Teach.
MIT was also having trouble getting students to understand the basic principles of physics. "They just didn't see it, they couldn't experiment with things," explains Hinrichs. Professor John Belcher at MIT designed simulations to help illustrate some physics principles, such as Faraday's Law. Students could actually see the forces that were imposed on the experiments they had sitting on their tables. One of the iCampus funded projects, TEAL, is a physics lecture room/lab designed around some of the new ideas in educational technology. In addition to standard physics labs they have access to computer simulations. There are electronic whiteboards around the room so that students can work in groups, save their whiteboard scribbles, and get input from professors either locally or remotely in real-time.
The former program manager for iCampus, Dave Mitchell, worked on the MIT campus alongside the professors who are building the iCampus technology — including Hal Abelson, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who runs the iCampus Framework project built on .NET architecture. Paul Oka is the current program manager.
"We're not about replacing the university with computers," said Mitchell. "It's more than that. Take physics as an example. Using 3D animation you can see the physical properties of magnetic fields, something you can't see or touch. We're looking at a different paradigm of teaching. In a mechanical engineering classroom at MIT they've changed the way they've taught for the last one hundred years. Instead of just a lecture format they give a 15-minute talk followed by interactive hands-on experiments, followed by a component that's online and simulated."
This has led to another dream: How do you take MIT and give it to the world?
"We can't bring everybody to MIT, or Berkeley or Stanford or Carnegie Mellon. That's why Microsoft invested in iCampus. MIT is already doing a lot to offer its materials online, but this goes beyond that to create human-based technologies," said Hinrichs. The iLab project puts state-of-the-art instrumentation online so that students from anywhere in the world can access machines not available at their local college. They can get real-time data fed to them and incorporate that into other projects that they're working on.
"One of the things we're interested in doing is building an infrastructure similar to the ideas behind .NET services," said Mitchell. "We find an example where we can take scarce resources such as laboratories and make them available on the Web. We'd like to bring this to other universities as well as to stimulate collaboration and sharing. I might be at MIT and allow someone to use my lab in the evenings or over the summer when I'm not using it. In return, my students and I have access to other consortiums of laboratories that are doing the same thing. That becomes really powerful. We've got about seven of these labs that we're setting up at MIT."
"The high-level vision for iCampus is to make a fundamental impact on education by developing new pedagogies and ways of teaching that use the kind of software and technology we have," said Mitchell.
Hinrichs adds, "When students jump out and go out into the real world they should be ready. They should know more than just how to listen to what the teacher says and then spit it back."