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April 9, 2001

A new role for IT at Emory

Don Harris is vice provost for information technology and chief information officer of the University.


Every profession has its passions, and in higher education these most certainly include the discovery and communication of knowledge. For those of us who have spent our careers in the academy there is nothing more exciting than examining something new, knowing you are on the edge, finding a relationship no one has ever seen, and sharing this knowledge with others. This is what brought us to the university and what keeps us engaged throughout our lives.

The university at its best is a vibrant learning community. Scholars stimulate and encourage one another, seek to discover interdisciplinary aspects of their work, and communicate discoveries and insights for the common good. Certainly students are a critical part of that community, and we seek to bring them into the process of discovery not only so they may benefit from our work, but also so they may one day join us at the edge in the process of discovery.

For many the teaching and learning process is more than the communication of knowledge; it is where human beings connect in a very special relationship. Teachers convey information, a dialog begins, new information is brought to the process, and applications to our daily reality are sought. In the end all parties benefit and are richer for the experience. It is exciting to play a role in the development of another life through this process. After only a few such experiences you begin to think about how to become more effective as a teacher so that you may relive the thrill of intellectual discovery with others.

While some are exploring how to become more skilled as educators using traditional approaches to teaching and learning, others are examining the role that information technology (IT) resources can play in this process. At Emory this focus is on making use of IT tools to enhance the educational experience of our students. This is very different than what is happening at some institutions where the focus seems to be on lowering the cost of instruction by using IT as a mass media tool; or on expanding the student population through distance education approaches.

There are a number of ways that IT is being used at Emory to enhance the educational experience. Some faculty use IT to allow easier access to materials that enrich the traditional classroom experience. These materials may be in the form of traditional texts, data sets, images, multimedia, materials from class meetings, or links to Internet sites. Others are using IT as a communication tool and exploring “virtual” conferences and discussion groups, interacting with scholars at other institutions, and making use of international resources via the web. Through Internet 2, broadcast quality videoconferencing offers even more opportunities for collaborative partnerships with educators at other institutions. Faculty find that by using these resources they can strengthen the learning community and reignite the passion for learning in both students and faculty.

Yet an introduction of IT to the educational process does not come without some challenges, chief among them the need to reexamine pedagogical processes. Using resources like Internet web sites, virtual discussions, and digital multimedia changes a student’s perspective toward education and instruction. Faculty who effectively use technology have learned how to move away from the “sage on the stage” approach to one of facilitator and guide. They create environments for their students where exploration may take place, and where students can experience the thrill of discovery on their own or with teams of other students. Faculty who use IT to enhance traditional class meetings often find that those classes are never quite the same. When traditional and IT approaches are mixed, one often finds a different group dynamic at work as students engage with the course materials in a variety of ways, both inside and outside of class. Effective teachers know how to relate these environments for the benefit of both. For faculty and students this can indeed be an exciting dynamic.

The use of IT resources in teaching at Emory started with a small group of innovative faculty. With easy-to-use resources like LearnLink for virtual conferences and Black-board for the development of resources on the web, as well as training and support programs, more faculty are beginning to integrate IT resources to enhance their courses.

Yet if Emory is to compete with leading universities in the progressive use of IT much more needs to be done. We need to begin to see IT not as a cost saving tool but as a strategic resource that allows us to improve the quality of the educational process. In this endeavor we need to build an academic IT infrastructure that supports not just a few innovative faculty, but the majority of our faculty using a variety of IT resources.

We need to examine pedagogical issues to see how to be most effective when using IT resources. This includes identifying ways to better address institutional priorities of teaching excellence, collaboration, interdisciplinary studies and internationalization. In addition, we also need to seek to define ways that we can provide leadership in the higher education community through the use of Internet 2 and other emerging technologies.

The use of IT resources by skillful educators not only assists in the discovery and communication of knowledge, but it also may actually allow us to move to another level of discovery.

It may not just assist in communicating that knowledge with others but may strengthen the learning community as well as expand it to include scholars from other institutions, both within this country and beyond. It indeed may be what helps to take Emory from a national university to a world-class university. I for one find that prospect very exciting and look forward to being part of that journey.


Back to Emory Report April 9, 2001