The Pew Learning and Technology Program Initiative in Using Technology to Enhance Education: An Interview with Carol Twigg  

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The Pew Learning and Technology Program is an $8.8-million, four-year effort to place the national discussion about the impact of new technologies on the nation’s campuses in the context of student learning and to suggest ways to achieve this learning in a cost-effective way. Carol Twigg is the executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation, which received funding from the Pew Program to implement a course redesign project, implement symposia on learning and technology, and publish a newsletter on the problems, issues, and challenges of using information technology tools to enhance teaching and learning.

James Morrison (JM): How did the Pew Learning and Technology Program get started?

Carol Twigg (CW): Russ Edgerton, the past president of the American Association for Higher Education, became the educational director of Pew Charitable Trusts about three years ago. He asked me what I thought Pew could do to assist education in making better use of technology. I suggested that Pew could help by funding institutions in efforts to redesign large-enrollment courses by using information technology tools to demonstrate both the quality enhancements and cost savings that could be achieved.

JM: What have you accomplished so far?

CT: We have made 20 grant awards and given away four million dollars to 20 institutions. We are in the midst of the third round of the program, during which we intend to fund ten additional institutions. Our intent is to develop a body of practice and information about the use of technology tools that can be used to enhance large classes while also lowering costs that can be shared with the higher education community. We have moved beyond the theories behind effecting this change to more concrete examples of ways in which faculty members, students, and institutions are engaged in implementing these theories. In addition, we run an elaborate workshop component through which we have educated hundreds of additional people on the methodology. We also hold two national symposia per year on larger issues related to higher education and technology. Since our founding, we have held four such symposia, from which we have produced two monographs: Improving Learning & Reducing Costs: Redesigning Large-Enrollment Courses and Who Owns Online Courses and Course Materials? Intellectual Property Policies for a New Learning Environment. Two additional monographs are currently being written and should be available, one in early spring and the other in late summer.

JM: What do you hope to see the program accomplish in the next three years?

CT: Our main goal is to use these 30 concrete examples of new ways to conduct introductory courses to disseminate the redesign methodology to the larger educational community so that more institutions can learn how to improve learning while reducing costs. We will also describe how institutions implemented these major changes in their approach to using technology tools to enhance education.

JM: What obstacles do you see hindering educators from realizing the opportunities afforded by infusing information technology tools into educational programs?

CT: As noted futurist Joel Barker says, we are blinded by our paradigms, our assumptions about the world. Barker coined the term "paradigm effect," which causes people to be blind to what is happening around them and makes them unable to see the potential in new applications of technology. As Jim Wetherbe put it in a speech I heard some years back and have never forgotten, "The biggest obstacle to innovation is thinking it can be done the old way." For example, faced with the invention of the telegraph, the first reaction of the Pony Express was to buy faster horses. When that idea failed, they tried to hire better riders. They did not realize that the world had changed, and they eventually went out of business. Another example: The first ATM was located inside a bank and was available only during banking hours. Bankers viewed this technological innovation as an automated teller that merely supplemented human tellers during banking hours. Real innovation did not occur until ATMs were placed outside the bank, as well as in malls, grocery stores, and airports, and became available 24 hours a day.

Colleges and universities are currently offering thousands of online courses, thus moving beyond the time-and-place-specific campus paradigm of the eighties and early nineties, as well as offering constant access to courses and degree programs. Because they may not need to go to campus as frequently or at all, students also value the flexibility offered by such online programs. However, the vast majority of online courses are organized much like their on-campus equivalents: They are developed by individual faculty members with some support from the information technology staff and offered within the timeframe of an academic semester or quarter. Most follow traditional academic practices (e.g., "Here's the syllabus, go off and read or do research, come back and discuss.") and are evaluated by using traditional student-satisfaction methods. For the most part, in other words, we are using information technology tools simply to enhance our traditional way of doing business. 

We are resistant to change and rarely look for creative, innovative approaches to new opportunities. In much the same way as Thomas Kuhn, who first called our attention to the idea of paradigm shifts, observed scientists trying to "save the theory," we see many educators who are comfortable with the classroom lecture method that often focus their efforts on finding old solutions to new problems. 

JM: What’s wrong with using technology tools to conduct education the way we have been doing it successfully for centuries?

CT: The problem with applying old solutions to new problems in the world of online learning is that they tend to produce results that are only "as good as" what we have accomplished in the past. Because these courses emulate face-to-face pedagogies and organizational frameworks, few of them lead to significant improvements in either the cost or quality aspects of student learning. As long as we continue to replicate traditional approaches online, we will once again find "no significant difference" with respect to quality, and we will make only a negligible dent in the access problem as we fail to take full advantage of the networked environment. Joel Barker and others have observed that the "paradigm shifters," those who create the new rules, are almost always outsiders to the old paradigm community. Since they lack personal investment in the prevailing paradigm, they are often more successful in finding innovative ways to solve problems. 

JM: Can you point to examples of how innovators are using the Web to increase access, reduce costs, and improve quality?

CT: Some institutions are moving the ATMs outside the bank, so to speak, improving access to higher education in the process. For example, entering students at Rio Salado College (Phoenix, AZ) never have to wait more than two weeks to start a class. In addition, although each course is advertised as a 14-week class, students are allowed to accelerate or decelerate their pace as needed. The University of Phoenix uses a cohort model, which allows a course to begin as soon as 8-13 students are ready to start a particular course of study. Students at New York's Excelsior College (formerly known as Regents College) combine on-campus courses, online courses, test preparation, and independent study to individualize the time and place of study while also producing common learning-outcomes as validated by Excelsior’s standardized examinations. 

With respect to reducing costs, a number of institutions are breaking through the 1:20 teacher/student ratio model and creating new paradigms that are both high quality and cost effective. For example, the British Open University piloted in 1999 their most successful online course, "You, Your Computer, and the Net," with 800 students. In 2000, the course had a total cohort of some 12,000 students. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) tripled enrollment in its foreign language courses by relying heavily on Mallard, a UIUC-developed intelligent assessment software program that automates grading of homework exercises and quizzes. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has created cohorts of 1,500 students in the mathematics courses of their Math Emporium initiative. Organized around computer-based assignments, with on-demand tutorial assistance provided as needed, VPI has reduced both student-failure rates and instructional costs. 

With respect to improving quality, has created an interactive, intuitive, and accessible environment based on John Dewey’s philosophy of "learning by doing" and current social constructivist views of learning. Instead of reading texts and studying for a test, business students use learning resources to work on real-world business problems. At the conclusion of a course, in addition to being assessed on their competency in applying concepts to real-world problems, students are debriefed with several questions: What did they learn? What might help them to gain a better understanding of the course? Where else can they apply the concepts taught in the course? What improvements can be made in the process for working on such real-world problems? This reflective activity is critical to students' process of abstracting and indexing their learning. We need to move beyond online education that is "as good as" traditional education. We need to find ways to take advantage of communications technologies and the Internet to create new designs that can surpass our traditional modes of instruction.

JM: We are impressed with the scope and magnitude of your effort and applaud it. Any last comment?

CT: It's a lot of fun, trying to help people change their approach to education in ways that benefit students, faculty, and institutions. Once they understand how they can improve their educational methods by using technology, they are more than willing to work hard and accomplish a good deal, and their level of enthusiasm is catching.


Critical Reviews

Critic VV

Excellent interview. Well written and generates good questions, as well as some concrete examples. I was particularly interested in the looking to new paradigms section and breaking the 1:20 barrier. That is both controversial and exciting.

Critic QQQ

I loved the article!  It was wonderful and the answers that Carol gave were just fantastic.  She really provided the reader with some wonderful insights into how we need to think about teaching and learning and how technology can transform the process.  Please publish the article just as it is!

Critic AA

The article/interview provides a good overview of the program. It is clearly written and will be of interest not only to those unfamiliar with the program, but will
provide an update to those who may already know something about it.

More links would be very useful. I suspect after reading the interview, many readers would like to obtain more information. The following are some suggestions:

The Pew Learning and Technology Program Newsletter

Funded Projects

Rio Salado College (Maricopa Community College District): Introductory Algebra

Virginia Tech Linear Algebra  (choose class 1114)

In trying to track down a link to the UIUC foreign language program that utilized Mallard I grew somewhat confused. I scanned through the funded projects lists at and and the only UIUC link I found was for a statistics course. I did a Web search for University of Illinois and Mallard and found the following which is at Illinois State University. This needs to be clarified.

I recommend the article for publication with the suggested changes.

Critic AJ

My overall response is that it is a pretty general overview of the Pew funded program. I'm not necessarily saying that as a critique because I don't know what the purpose of the "vision" section is of TS specifically. If someone knows anything about the Pew Program, then he or she would learn nothing new from this interview. If you knew nothing, then I suppose you would get a broad acquaintance.

For me the responses interview stops short of any moments that I would have found interesting and evocative. The examples tell me a little, but only a little, about the payoff of the experiments. How much could be said in an interview? Hard to say. For example, when she says "With respect to reducing costs, a number of institutions are breaking through the 1:20 teacher/student ratio model and creating new paradigms that are both high quality and cost effective." I wanted to know a little more about the standards being used there. Does that mean that these new programs are "high quality" despite being "cost effective"? Or are they demonstrably higher quality than the current model, and cost effective?

I also kept wondering throughout how the project defines the "old paradigm(s)"? Would she say that most of their funded projects were improving on a problematic delivery paradigm? Or a really good, but just expensive one?

Similarly, when she talks about UNEXT's programs that are based on "interactive, intuitive, and accessible environment based on John Dewey's philosophy of "learning by doing" and current social constructivist views of learning" I wanted to know what the evidence was in that program of effectiveness relative to the vast array of pedagogical approaches in conventional classrooms that hold the same views? It is not as if there aren't a lot of people across the country who have been working for years and years on constructivist approaches to education. What's the site of impact here? The successful application of them to an online environment? If that is the case, then are the online versions better? No worse, but much cheaper? Different? Or is it that an online course built around constructivist principles is demonstrably better than a lousy giant lecture course in a face to face environment. That is an improvement I can be excited about, but I want to know what the claim is.

Also, what are we learning from this or other examples about tradeoffs? Are there no tradeoffs? Is it all just a matter of thinking outside the box, absorbing their method and being committed to change? Is their approach to information technology making the impossible possible? Is that the extent of the story?

All in all the generality makes me feel that it is a little boosterish. The news may all be good, but the piece is too vague to assuage my skepticism. Again, if it is meant only to be an introduction, then it is fine enough. If you want it to have a little more depth, I'd like to see a couple of follow-up questions about claims and tradeoffs at least.