SENATE From the Senate Office

1998-99 Report of the Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy

April 26, 1999

The Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy met throughout the academic year. In this report, we review each of our charges and briefly report our main findings and the recommendations that follow from them.

Charge #1: to study the potentials and challenges of distributed learning and identify the issues that it presents, with special reference to the interests of the faculty.

We met with many individuals centrally concerned with these issues, including: Interim Provost Michael Wachter, Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing James O'Donnell, Dean of the College Richard Beeman, Director of Institutional Research and Analysis Bernard Lentz, Professor of Mathematics Dennis DeTurck, Professor of Classical Studies Joseph Farrell, Professor of Anthropology Alan Mann, Professor of Nursing Joyce Thompson, and Director for the Mellon Writing Group Peshe Kuriloff. We are grateful for the open and informative discussions these guests provided for our study of the issues.

The faculty members who participated in distributed learning reviewed the many challenges that this developing technology poses to the way we teach. Faculty experience has made it clear that the time to adapt all courses to the electronic environment is not yet at hand: bells and whistles can be distracting rather than supportive of intellectual engagement. A wide range of experiences was described to us; our faculty guests all strongly recommended that some type of forum be arranged for faculty to share their experiences and innovations in improving educational practices through technology.

In addition, the following general points emerged:

a. The impact of information technology on the intellectual lives of students and the teaching practices of faculty is already being felt and cannot be ignored. New technologies are arising faster than current ones can be assimilated into the educational mission of this or any other university. The question is not whether to adapt but when to adopt: what are the essential academic principles to preserve, and how is the process of adaptation to be managed? What traditional roles can administration and faculty continue to play, and what innovations are needed?

b. There is no uniform nomenclature to distinguish the many new possibilities springing into operation. The following usages are typical:

  • Distributed learning is a technical term, used where multiple servers and/or active student stations are involved.
  • Distance learning refers to circumstances where interaction between students and faculty occurs via electronic media. The phrase is used for both off-campus and on-campus arrangements.
  • Synchronous means that participants--normally faculty and students--engage each other simultaneously. The "chat room" and "electronic classroom" formats are synchronous.
  • Asynchronous means that replies to communications are formulated and sent after significant delays. Writing courses, which involve extended reading time and commentary based on a document as a whole typically function in this mode.
  • Interactive is frequently used in a variety of disparate and confusing ways.

c. The administration has adopted several overarching policies to guide our response to the new technologies. These include focusing on residential undergraduate programs aimed at the most able students, on off-campus efforts consistent with our internal excellence, and on the maintenance of first-class electronic infrastructure. The administration has promised to honor fully Penn's tradition of faculty control over courses, curricula, academic standards, and degree requirements. The various schools will continue to be responsible for formulating their educational policies: the various schools, on both graduate and undergraduate levels, have unique interests and responsibilities.

d. Within these boundaries, there is considerable administration interest in responding creatively to the possibilities of the new electronic learning environment, both on-campus and off, serving both our traditional undergraduate and graduate populations as well as others who can benefit from the quality of educational experience our faculty can provide.

e. The Committee believes these policy directions are clear and appropriate for the rapidly-changing educational environment that confronts us. We found many constructive partnerships between faculty and administration responding to the challenge that confronts us. To be sure, not everything that has been tried has been successful, and we appreciate the forthrightness of our consultants in discussing problems as well as successes. Their views underlie our further comments and recommendations.

f. Faculty participation in educational initiatives is strongly influenced by the reward structure offered to encourage it. Incentives, which provide a meaningful gauge of administrative interest in faculty participation, are not often publicized. We also believe that widespread faculty participation in discussions of intellectual property rights encourages faculty enthusiasm. The necessary strong partnership between those providing electronic resources and those developing their academic application raises an emerging issue of ownership and control of content that demands clarification and strong voices representing faculty interests.

g. We found that participation in distributed-learning activities is universally regarded as time-consuming, even with first-class technical support. The work involved in organizing a web-based course for the first time is particularly onerous because it requires learning a new technology as well as reshaping traditional ideas to fit it. In addition, synchronous learning arrangements--especially those tailored to student schedules--make significant new demands on faculty time and effort. We note that there is as yet no policy recognizing these burdens, even those involved in startup, as a significant part of a normal teaching load. As with the intellectual property issue, the lack of policy in this area diminishes faculty interest in participation, and constitutes an emerging issue of significant faculty concern across schools.

h. There is much to applaud in the admin-istration's efforts to develop electronic infrastructure; there has not, to date, been an equally vigorous effort to guide its implementation in ways that take the needs of faculty into account. The pace and magnitude of technological change complicate the process of implementation. However, the electronic tools available for teaching will profoundly influence the way we teach, and it is essential that faculty play a central role in the implementation process. The development of mechanisms supporting faculty involvement in the process is another important emerging issue.

i. Distance Learning, even now, offers great opportunities for proactive faculty outreach to new student clientele, including students well past their College careers whose interest in the intellectual offerings of the liberal arts and social sciences has matured with post-baccalaureate experience.

Conclusion: Despite many scattered examples of excellent faculty involvement and administrative support, the faculty as a whole has not been effectively involved in the radical shifts in educational practice and possibility that are fast developing.

Recommendation: That in the coming academic year, the Faculty Senate organize a series of regular Colloquia supported by the administration and aimed at informing faculty across the schools of the current status of teaching technologies and faculty experience with them. We recommend a cumulatively structured program with regularly scheduled events rotating among the schools. The goal of this program is to alert all faculty to what is happening, at Penn and nationally, and to indicate areas of opportunity for proactive faculty involvement both on-campus and beyond. We believe this essential first step will prepare faculty to contribute to the formulation of educational policy and the development of academically sound implementations of the unavoidable changes we confront. Because the challenges and opportunities of the electronic learning environment do not respect traditional boundaries of disciplines and schools, we believe it is appropriate for the Faculty Senate to oversee this initiative.

Charge #2: to examine the current status of plans to offer courses in the new College House system for which academic credit will be given.

We interviewed the Director of College Houses and Academic Services, David Brownlee, who is also Master of Harnwell College House. We learned that efforts to teach courses within the College House system are just beginning, that there are no plans to depart in any way from current policies involving undergraduate education, that problems of admittance to courses and the logistics of staffing them have not yet been addressed, nor have the possibilities and pitfalls of peer-supported distance learning initiatives yet been explored. We believe the educational issues and problems are well recognized, and that they are being approached with caution and academic good sense.

Recommendation: Because this matter involves undergraduates from the four schools, it is appropriate that this Committee be cognizant of developments. We recommend continuing this charge to the Committee for another year, with the expectation that it will be fulfilled by "watchful waiting" until more concrete developments merit detailed examination.

Charge #3: to continue work begun last year monitoring nontraditional degree and certificate programs.

Last year's Committee found that all degree programs were carried out under normal faculty auspices and were not a matter of concern. We are also aware of many certificate programs, implemented for a variety of purposes; here, the mechanisms for faculty control are less certain. We did not have the resources to launch a full inquiry into current practices, but are not at this time concerned with present practices. We do, however, believe the role of faculty in governing certificate programs is not clearly defined, and are particularly concerned about their proliferation in an electronic learning environment.

Recommendation: That the Committee on Students and Educational Policy undertake an inquiry into this matter next year.

Charge #4: that this Committee be available for consultation with the Faculty Senate ad hoc Committee developing general principles for an Educational Impact Statement.

We received an overview of progress to date from Professor Stephen Gale, a member of this Committee and Chair of the ad hoc Committee. The ad hoc committee is basing its work on the Agenda for Excellence, the recently adopted policy on consultation, and the new campus development plan process. We are satisfied that the ad hoc committee's work is well under way and being carried out in an effective manner, with due sensitivity to the institutional issues involved.

Stephen N. Dunning (religious studies)
Stephen Gale (regional science)
Joan Gluch (dental medicine)
Holly Pittman (history of art)
Jorge Santiago-Aviles (electrical engineering)
David R. Williams (psychology), Chair
Ex officio:
Peter Conn (English)
John C. Keene (city & regional planning)

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 31, May 4, 1999


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