Professors ponder role of technology in curriculum

Hu, Sc, QR: A new alphabet soup has replaced Groups I through IV. But not everything has changed — Yale students still have no technology proficiency requirement.

University administrators said there are no plans to change the year-old distributional requirements instituted for the classes of 2009 and on, but two members of the staff are participating in a nationwide working group to study the need for technology literacy. Some faculty and staff said a renewed emphasis on technology education in place of a formal requirement would suffice.

Douglas Kankel, the director of undergraduate studies for biology, and Charles Powell, the director of academic media and technology, are representing Yale at a series of meetings discussing the importance of understanding technology within a liberal arts curriculum. They are among delegates from 11 research universities and liberal arts colleges attending the meetings, sponsored by the Teagle Foundation and hosted by Washington and Lee University, which has a technology requirement for some of its undergraduate programs.

The group’s work will end by December 2006, said Donna Heiland GRD ’88, vice president of the foundation, which is dedicated to strengthening liberal arts education nationally. One meeting of the Teagle Technology Fluency Project was already held in early November 2005.

The first obstacle to a formal requirement is defining what the requirement would entail. Yale professors involved in the field, including Kankel and computer science professor Stanley Eisenstat, said technology education ranges from basic computing skills to discussions of the role of technology in society as a whole.

Kankel, who attended the November 2005 meeting, said the working group’s meetings have prompted discussions at the University.

“I think [the working group] was productive in terms of framing the issues,” he said. “It led to some discussion here at Yale about the general issue and specific possibilities. Everyone’s aware of this issue.”

The working group is sponsored by an $80,000 grant from the Teagle Foundation, but Heiland said the foundation has no stance on the issue.

“We did not lay out technology education as an agenda,” she said. “One of the surprises for us was that the proposal for this was fresh. Some people think technology has been around so long that it’s stale. We look for something that has resonance for liberal education as a whole.”

But Kankel said that despite the working group’s progress, Yale will not see a formal technology literacy requirement. In fact, he and other professors said they were still unsure what a technology requirement would entail.

“I certainly don’t think any requirement will come out of this,” he said.

The Committee on Yale College Education, which proposed the new distributional requirements in its 2003 report and included Kankel among its members, did not count a technology requirement among its priorities in 2003 either, he said.

Some said a specific technology fluency requirement would be unnecessary given what the University already offers.

“I’m not sure it should be a requirement,” said Edward Kairiss, the director of instructional technology for Information and Technology Services. “I think there are resources available in peers, student computing and [ITS].”

But he admitted that not all students are necessarily exposed to technology over the course of their four years if the classes they take lack any emphasis in it.

“To a large extent it depends on the curriculum,” Kairiss said. “If professors want to include technology in the classroom, we will offer training sessions to students. It’s difficult to say that there’s a single level of education we offer.”

But Eisenstat, who teaches an introductory computer science course intended for non-majors, said technology education at Yale is lacking.

“I don’t think the high schools or the University do a good job,” he said.

Eisenstat said he was not sure a requirement is necessary and said technology is a broad field.

“There’s much more to technology than computing,” he said. “It’s not specific technologies but an awareness of what it can and cannot do.”

Some students said a requirement is unnecessary, but others said they were intrigued by the idea. Economics and music double major Glenton Davis ’07 said a technology requirement would give Elis skills they otherwise lack.

“Often a Yale education is grounded in abstraction,” he said. “It’d be good leaving with something more applicable. Having a proficiency requirement could help that. I think [technology] is both practical and vocational, something Yale often doesn’t have.”

But computing assistant Henry Karongo ’08 said technology literacy should not be required from every student.

“If you’re talking about technology proficiency in the sense of word processing, I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “You have student computing to help you with the technical aspects of working with your computer at Yale.”

Beyond the computer, Karongo said, technology education should be an option, not a requirement.

“I really don’t think it’s that important,” Karongo said. “I’m sure there are courses you can take here that can expose you to that. You could enrich yourself.”

Besides Yale and Washington and Lee, the group includes representatives from Drew, Lafayette, Princeton, Rutgers and Stanford universities, Dartmouth and Swarthmore colleges, and the universities of Maryland and Pennsylvania. Kankel said the mix of liberal arts colleges and research universities has been beneficial since each institution has to deal with the problem and has different approaches. The next meeting of the working group is scheduled for this May at Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va.

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