Seeking to create a template for lifelong technology learning

September 21, 1999

Imagine that ordinary people--and not just computer specialists--had skills sufficient to tame the widespread fear of computers and information technology (IT). Imagine that, as computer applications continue to expand rapidly at home and in the workplace, people could rely more on themselves and less on the "help desk" to work harder and play better.

While many students leave college with only token computer skills, a trio of Temple University computer and information scientists will use a three-year, $347,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop a framework allowing colleges and universities to design upper-level courses to provide wide-ranging IT education to students who aren't computer science majors. The project is called "Problem Solving and Lifelong Learning: Developing and Assessing a Course in Information Technology."

"What we want to do is take the students' basic computer-literacy skills and demonstrate why it's important to build on them," says Robert Aiken, a professor of computer and information sciences (CIS). "These are attributes they'll need throughout their professional careers, no matter what their careers. These researchers and professors will instill in students an appreciation of the different ways computers can be leveraged in their work."

"We want to change attitudes toward technology," adds Ned Kock, an assistant professor of CIS. "By showing students information technology applications in specific domains, we'll change their attitudes toward IT. We want to move them toward a more positive attitude and more realistic view and understanding of how IT can help specialists--experts in specific fields--do their jobs better."

Kock, Aiken, and Munir Mandviwalla, an associate professor of CIS, will use the experiences of instructors in non-computer-related courses to develop a framework that can be adapted by other schools for a wide variety of academic disciplines. Temple professors David Dalton, in chemistry; David Elesh, in sociology; and Tony Ranere, in anthropology, will be working with the three CIS faculty members to develop and teach these case studies.

The project is unique, says Mandviwalla, because it seeks to foster second-level courses for majors across a wide variety of disciplines. Few, if any, schools have attempted to train non-computer majors beyond the introductory level. "An English major needs to know more about IT, for example," he notes. "Although we don't have any statistics, we have a good feeling that this is a singular effort in this area," adds Aiken.

According to Aiken, this sort of project has never been attempted before because CIS departments "are so overwhelmed by the number of students, they haven't had the time or manpower to offer the number of service courses needed by non-CIS majors."

The team will distribute the results of its work by publishing papers, presenting workshops at conferences, creating a Web site, and possibly authoring a book. "We're focusing on complex and specific applications," Kock says, "to enable students to do something related to their expertise better." For example, Dalton is using computers to examine molecular design, not for word processing.

"It's an academic high-wire act," says Mandviwalla. "On one side is the IT discipline. On the other side are chemistry, anthropology, and the other domains. We're trying to use one discipline to explain the complexities of another discipline and reinforce materials from both disciplines. It's going to be hard to maintain that magical balance."

Temple University

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