The "Acadia Advantage" and a New Vision for Education in Canada
Go to original submission with critical reviews
Bryant Griffith is director of the School of Education at Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Acadia is regarded as one of the finest undergraduate institutions in Canada, and since 1996 it has been committed to creating the "Acadia Advantage," the full integration of computers and technology into university life. Dr. Griffith has studied and written on the effects of this commitment and what it means for Acadia and Canadian education in the future.
He was interviewed by Marc Cutright, communications director for the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University.
Marc Cutright (MC): What is the Acadia Advantage?
Bryant Griffith (BG): The Acadia Advantage integrates the use of notebook computers into the undergraduate curriculum, making them an integral part of the students learning experience. The Acadia Advantage also includes support for faculty members and students using computers and related technologies.
The Acadia Advantage was designed as an "opt in" program in 1996, with transition to universal use by all four thousand students and their instructors by the year 2000. We are on track to meet that goal through voluntary adoption. The early adopters took advantage of the support and encouragement offered by the university, and as a result, some 85% of courses now use the Web centrally in content delivery, discussion, and the presentation of student work.
MC: A focus of your inquiry has been the more advanced implications for higher education that have come out of broadly ambient technology. What evidence have you seen of transformation?
BG: We have seen considerable interest in writing and fitting computer software for instruction, more than one might expect at a relatively small institution. A program developed here for the study of French, called "Verb Tutor," allows a student at any location to get words sounded out and verbs conjugated; the program speaks aloud. The physics department has created new software for lab support. The early adopters, including students, have seen things applied in one class and have adapted the concepts of interactability to other fields and courses.
In the four years since 1996, the biggest change has been the growing realization among students that they drive the process of developing new ways to think and learn. We have conducted surveys and other institutional research to confirm this, research that we are analyzing for publication. Change is being driven not by administrators or faculty, but by students who realize that they have a part to play in what goes on. It starts with the question "Whats this got to do with my life?" That is not asked in a limiting way. Rather, the question expresses a demand for relevance and connection that knocks down the four walls of the classroom.
MC: Acadia is a well-respected liberal arts institution in Canada. One possible source of resistance to technology in instruction is that it somehow draws emphasis away from classical liberal studies or inquiry.
BG: We have not fully reconciled that dynamic tension, and we do not expect to. It is a classic concern in education. But all of the disciplines have to consider how technology changes instruction and learning. These issues have the attention not only of the humanities faculty, but also of those working in science and engineering and other fields.
The presence of technology has enhanced cross-disciplinary discussion. It is not unusual for me to have a discussion with people from French, physics, and English (I work in the field of education), ostensibly and initially about issues of technology utilization. But this naturally follows into deeper and more fundamental discussions of the purposes of education itself.
MC: A concern about technology is its possible depression of personal interaction with instructors.
BG: Technology-based conversation isnt zero sum vis-à-vis interaction in person. It is just a new ingredient in the mix. It is quite typical for an instructor to receive and respond to thirty or forty student e-mails a day. I sometimes get e-mails composed by students at two in the morning; they have ideas or questions they want to express right then. There is more interaction, not less, and there is more rapid interaction. Just because people are not talking face-to-face does not mean they are not talking in other valuable ways.
MC: And so the Acadia Advantage has basically facilitated conventional instruction?
BG: Yes and no. Yes, it has aided conventional instruction. But it has also forced questions about the educational process itself.
We have tended to envision education as a linear, one-way, cause-and-effect process, with teaching as the cause, learning as the effect. This is the basis of the "sage on the stage" model of collegiate study. But of course the relationships are less tidy, less passive, more cyclical, than that. There is a continuous cycle of inquiry, discovery, and integration, leading to further inquiry. Technology facilitates the exchange of information, not just teacher to student, but student to teacher, student to student, and so on. The result is that the nature of the development of learning, knowledge, and even wisdom becomes more transparent. This presents challenges of method and identity for the professor, but more importantly, it enforces a sense among students of their critical investment in their own education. This, I believe, is the primary conceptual basis of continuous, life-long learning. The idea that one's education is "finished" at graduation is becoming more untenable every day through technology.
MC: Has the Acadia Advantage affected the composition of your student body? In other words, has it shifted the nature of your student market?
BG: We have developed a reputation as a technology-centered university. If a prospective student does not agree with that approach, there are other places to go. But the fact is that students are comfortable with technology before they arrive at Acadia, and they expect to advance their use and applications. Elementary and secondary schools in Nova Scotia and most of Canada are much more wired than those in the United States. We believe that we have facilitated the utilization of technology in Nova Scotia by hosting an exchange of materials and ideas among teachers. Even young students are used to fast advances in technology, and they come to the university with demands for skills, tools, and knowledge that they can use to navigate the future.
MC: Has there been resistance to these changes?
BG: Students are clearly in favor of them, and administrators have been as well, despite the financial investments required, particularly at start-up. But there has been some resistance from faculty, even in the face of 85% utilization. On the one hand, that is the nature of scholarly skepticism and inquiry; we examine each step. But on the other hand, resistance to technological changes by those in charge of the displaced order is nothing new. Such was true of the introduction of books. This change, like some others, takes the academic away from a position of complete, untouchable authority.
MC: Youre an advocate of "mentoring" in the integration of technology in instruction. I take it that you refer to teacher-to-teacher relationships. If so, arent you likely to have circumstances where junior faculty are mentoring more senior faculty? Does that present professional challenges?
BG: The challenges to extant relationships are more profound than that. This mentoring process is not hierarchical. Just as with the instruction of subject content itself, the emergent relationships are more lateral, more webbed.
Traditional mentoring of teachers requires addressing self-doubt and insecurities, establishing professional networks, and resolving other issues that conveniently fit a senior-to-junior structure complementary to that found in other organizational functions. But technology, and its "bottom up" nature, will change the mentoring relationship in ways that we have yet to fully consider and accommodate.
If you look at our Web site at Acadia for the sharing and coordination of instructional materials and practices, youll note that students have constructed much of it. Acadia is not unique or even unusual in that regard. Where there is commitment similar to Acadias, students are leading the rethinking and creation of the technological environment. The students are mentoring the professors in real and meaningful ways. We have always professed to aspire to this: a community of scholars.
We are in the midst of a fundamental redirection of relationships and processes. Tony Adams, a senior scholar in education at Cambridge, visited Acadia University as well as some primary and secondary schools in Nova Scotia. One of his primary interests is technology in education. He observed that the major limitation of most formal computer courses is that faculty insist on running them; the way to go is to take your brightest undergraduates and let them go.
MC: What reactions to the Acadia Advantage have been evidenced among employers?
BG: The response has been nothing short of massive. All of our students get jobs, regardless of field. In education, our students are recruited not only throughout Canada, but also across the United States. Education is the professional field I can best address, and I would hold that this response has been created not just by our technology, but by our approach to technology. Our fundamental question has not been "How do you turn this thing (the computer) on?"; our approach has been to train teachers to ask, "How does technology make learning and teaching more effective?"
The Acadia Advantage, as we have noted, has been a voluntary program in the ramp-up stages. But an interesting finding of our research is that a gap has developed in employment prospects between those students who are opting in and those who are not. We are developing that research and those findings for publication. It has always been our long-term plan to make the Acadia Advantage universal, and those findings strongly support our directions.
MC: Finally, could you speculate on directions for technology at Acadia and more broadly in education in the next decade?
BG: You will see more campuses like Acadia across Canada. But this is key: each university will have to grow its own solutions. We are a small university in a small town with a largely residential student body. We will likely be wireless in coming years, and I believe we will continue to be one of Canada's state of the art institutions. Though our focus is not the mechanical elements of technology, our commitment is to remain near the cutting edge. Consider any of the great inventions of the last millennium: no one realized at the time what profound changes they would catalyze in our thinking and our ways of life. The reshaping of education itself, in dynamic, challenging, and frankly unanticipated ways, is what is exciting about the future.