Sakai chair takes stock of educational tech

The words might startle, coming from a world expert in the field, but John Norman thinks "it's a noticeable weakness of educational technology" that it hasn't made a better case for itself.

That's not to say the technology isn't useful--it is, he said, particularly for long-distance learning, to make classroom instruction more engaging, for administrative convenience, in large classes, and to help students of varying skill levels come up to standard.

But there's more work to do, said Norman, director of the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies and "head of e-learning" at the University of Cambridge in England. He also has a background as an engineer and medical devices entrepreneur.

His comment on the image of educational technology, he said, is him "speaking from a Cambridge perspective." Norman also chairs the board of the Sakai Foundation, the international group of colleges and other institutions that created the open-source software undergirding SmartSite, UC Davis' new online course-management system. And in that role, he visited Davis one day in April.

He felt good about the competence and enthusiasm of people at UC Davis involved with SmartSite, and saw significant political and financial commitment by the campus to the program. "I'd be pretty confident you'll be successful," he said.

He is interested that UC Davis has adopted more than one version of Sakai for use here. "We've had that pressure at Cambridge," he said. UC Davis has one version of SmartSite each for the main campus, School of Veterinary Medicine (where it's known as CERE, for Collaborative Educational Research Environment), and the School of Medicine. Norman has made a mental note to see how this setup works, and whether UC Davis will conclude it was the best approach.

He also likes the SmartSite faculty-to-faculty training model, plus the student training.

As for faculty who have looked at SmartSite and decided to pass, Norman said "it's not unreasonable to ask hard questions" about how people use Sakai and what good it does them. "I'm not a technology evangelist in that sense."

Educational technology offers clear benefits for distance learning and large classes, he said. The benefits are less obvious outside those scenarios, but Cambridge has concluded that the right use of technology can:

--Enhance face-to-face instruction. For instance, an impressive digital display of large molecules, one a student could manipulate, can help the student understand the molecules better.

--Make managing a class more convenient, by creating a handy place to store papers, handle communications, and so on.

--Serve "an increasingly variable intake of students." Diagnostic systems coupled with individual self-paced learning, for example, can help students prepare for university entry and start on par with their peers.

Student expectations are also driving the spread of educational technology--and their expectations, Norman said, continue to climb.