Claire McAdams ’10

Vision for NITLE

by W. Joseph King ’93, Ph.D.

Fifty years ago, J.C.R. Licklider, one of the fathers of computer science, observed, “About 85 percent of my ‘thinking’ time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know…in short, my ‘thinking’ time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming…preparing the way for a decision or an insight.” As Licklider predicted, computers have relieved much of the clerical and mechanical burden of thinking. Indeed, computers have changed the nature of thinking and knowledge in fundamental ways.

The ongoing and profound effects of this change can be seen on any college campus. The modern student carries more computing power in her pocket than her parents had in their home 10 years ago. Computing and communication technologies have merged and become ubiquitous. Students are continuously connected via broadband networks that blanket most of the world. More significantly, processor speed continues to double every 18 months. When current SU students retire in 50 years, they will have more computing power at their fingertips than is currently available in the entire United States.

These facts challenge the ability of liberal arts colleges to keep up. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is keenly aware of this challenge and has a longstanding commitment to supporting technology in liberal education. Initially, this support took the form of regional technology centers, one of which was hosted at Southwestern. In 2001, these merged into the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, NITLE (pronounced “nightly”). NITLE serves as a catalyst and resource for these institutions, using technology to facilitate teaching and learning in the great tradition of liberal education.

In accepting the leadership of NITLE, my challenge in addressing new technologies is not reactive but proactive. NITLE’s 138 participating institutions want to use the latest technologies to engage their students and faculty. However, they face significant financial and human resource challenges in doing so. I have spent the first two months of my tenure visiting with our peer institutions and listening to the challenges that they face. They know that technology has become an essential part of their educational experience inside and outside the classroom, but they struggle with what that portends.

We know that students are immersed in a great sea of media. The “millennial” generation has never known a time when the Internet did not deliver immediate access to rich media sources. A recent study at the State University of New York at Fredonia has shown that media (a lecture podcast, in this case) has a positive effect on learning. Specifically, students who listened only to a podcast of class scored an average of 71 percent on their exam, whereas students who only attended the class scored an average of 62 percent. Students who did both scored highest, with a 76 percent on average.

We can measure the positive utility of media, but the realization of a media resource on campus is complicated. Thanks to advancing technology, recording audio and video is no longer a complex and expensive process. However, formatting, editing, archiving and indexing this material is a significant challenge that requires either significant staff time or costly automation. NITLE is uniquely qualified to address this challenge, and it will be one of our first initiatives.

Media is only one of many new technologies that offer great promise and great challenge to liberal arts colleges. Scientific computing now routinely involves the use of large computing clusters, with hundreds or thousands of processors. Few of our peer institutions have computing clusters, beyond a stack of old machines in an overheated closet. Scholarly communication is no longer an arduous process of typesetting but can be a fully automated system. One such system is Connexions (cnx.org), which I had the privilege of leading at Rice University. The Connexions platform supports everything from open (free) textbooks to university presses.

Going forward, NITLE will be focused on these and other challenges and opportunities. The organization will benefit from a newly formed national advisory board, which includes representatives from our participating institutions and nationally recognized leaders in liberal education. The organization will also benefit from the continued support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Finally, NITLE will benefit from being headquartered at Southwestern, an exemplary liberal arts campus that can serve as a testbed for NITLE’s latest endeavors. Indeed, Southwestern will lead the way, enriching the educational environment for students today and in the years to come.