Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 1997

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In Distance Learning, Is There a Role?

Nestor Osorio
Associate Professor
Northern Illinois University

Jack Martin, publisher of Scientific Computing and Automation, reported in the August 1996 issue some of the results of a survey done by this magazine to determine the use of computing and automated systems in the workplace of scientists and engineers. (Martin 1996) The report indicates a continued increase in the use of computers, software and peripherals. Most of the respondents expect their use to continue to increase in a significant way with a full integration of activities in the work place, such as collecting, analyzing, modeling, visualization, documentation and transmission of data. Mr. Martin indicates that the use of high technology in the workplace for scientists and engineers is in "the midst of the most revolutionary time this industry has ever seen." Results of selected parts of this survey are in the September issue web site of SC&A at http://www.scamag.com/.

Changes in technology are also having other significant effects. Dr. Ernest T. Smerdon, chair of the National Academy of Engineers Committee on Career-Long Education for Engineers and chair of ASEE's Engineering Deans Council in a column entitled "Last Word," discussed the critical importance of lifelong learning for scientists and engineers. (Smerdon 1996) Dr. Smerdon pointed out the half-life technical knowledge of a mechanical engineer is 7.5 years; five for electrical and 2.5 for software engineers. Changes in job responsibilities, and the need to switch to new fields because the previous one vanished, are some of the other factors forcing what the author calls "a whirlwind of change" within the scientific and engineering community of this country. One way corporate America is responding to this challenge is by the creation of their own continuing education programs. Corporate owned graduate programs established in major companies such as the Boeing Company and Motorola are turning their technical staff into perpetual students with the expectations that their investments will pay back in the forms of higher productivity and quality. For those who do not work at companies like Boeing or Motorola, institutions of higher education are working with industry to train a work force in need of continuing actualization. Dr. Smerdon reiterates the importance of this issue by indicating that the country's economic future depends on its intellectual capital. Not only the technical work force and their employers should be concerned but our society as a whole, the author insists. (An index to ASEE PRISM is found at {http://www.asee.org/pubs2/html/article_index.htm})

Significant changes are not only happening in the work place of scientists and engineers. In higher education, changes are occurring at a fast pace. Universities now have multiple campuses and a number of satellite classroom centers. This is a change in the way higher education was provided even ten years ago. There are many examples in the literature of extended campus instruction, and the support given by libraries to their students and faculty members. One new dimension added to this trend is the creation of virtual classrooms and virtual campuses.

Changes are not only affecting professional or graduate sci-tech education, but the undergraduate programs as well.

In a recent report produced by the National Science Foundation: "Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics and Technology" the importance of new multimedia technology, networking and communications is considered extensibly. (National Science Foundation 1996) How to achieve curricular and pedagogical improvements for undergraduate education of SME&T programs is the central objective of this document which includes a review of the state of undergraduate education for these fields . Among the improvements occurring in the last ten years indicated by faculty, this one is mentioned: "developing curricula that embody some of ...., and that take full advantage of modern technology, particularly personal computers, multimedia materials, digital libraries, hypertext links, and access to vast networked resources, including databases and activities on other campuses."

And, one of the recommendations listed in the executive summary of this report says: "SME&T faculty: Believe and affirm that every student can learn, and model good practices that increase learning; start with student's experiences, but have high expectations within a supportive climate; and build inquiry, a sense of wonder and the excitement of discovery, plus communication and team work, critical thinking, and life-long learning skills into learning experiences."

Distance learning is emerging as a real possibility for undergraduate education. In the NSF report the teaching faculty interviewed made testimony of it, as Dr. Doyle Davis, Jr., Dean of the School of Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute put it: "As the tools of the information, communication, and computing technology become integrated into the educational process, the traditional classroom reliance on the lecture format becomes increasingly anachronistic. The essence of the new technology is the empowerment of the user. Inevitably, in use of computer-based technologies, learning becomes both active and under control of the learner. Similarly, when students are actively engaged in the learning process using multimedia and information technology tools, almost inevitably they work together in groups or teams sharing insights and experiences and, in the process, learn teamwork, communication and organizational skills as well as subject matter."

When talking about distance learning we must recognize the fact that changes are occurring now, universities are embracing the advantages of distance education; incentives are many, shrinking support for education makes universities look for alternative ways to be cost effective; there is a demand for distance learning from the private sector as well as students who prefer to have continuing education near their homes, and the possibility that a new generation of students - the Nintendo-Sega generation - will adapt to new methods of learning.

Vanderbilt University, for example, began offering a course online last year: Engineering Science 130 is a freshman course for students majoring in engineering - J. R. Bourne et al. described the course, and details can also be found at [{http://ciee.vuse.vanderbilt.edu/es130/home130.html}]. (Bourne 1996) ES 130 involved students in lectures and laboratory modules, one of the lectures is on the use of the Internet. This lab activity included access to library information. The course emphasizes the tools needed by students such as Visual Basic, Spreadsheets, Vector, MatLab, and modeling and quality assessment techniques. Furthermore, entire online academic programs are flouri shing both at the graduate and undergraduate levels in the school of sciences and engineering. Just to mention a few are the programs offered at Stanford University, the University of Maine, and Lehigh University. Most sci-tech schools throughout the coun try are experimenting with or teaching online courses.

Purposely, I began this article making reference to a survey about scientists and engineers in their work place, even though I realize most of us work in higher education, and that the university is usually not the property of private-for-profit corporations. However scientists and engineers working in the "real world" are ultimately a very important sector of our own clientele. Most of them are educated in the traditional way - I mean physically going to college - and by doing so they learn from scientists, engineers and librarian-teachers skills essential to handling information. Some of them, after working in industry, become the new faculty members in our schools of science and engineering. Reading between the lines in the recommendation of the NSF report mentioned above, we must recognize the impact that library faculty can contribute to this reform.

The possibilities are wide open, science and engineering librarians working with university administrators must explore the different ways in which advanced computer instructional technology can blend with the skills for collecting, organizing, retrieving and evaluating quality information that will enrich the education and retraining of students of the sciences and engineering. The technology is available, the institutional climate is positive, it is up to us to begin answering the question: In implementing Distance Learning, what will be the role of the science-tech librarians?


Bourne, J.R. A model for on-Line learning networks in engineering education. Journal of Engineering Education July 1996: 253-262.

Martin, Jack. Look in the mirror and what do you see? The Learning Edge in Computing, Scientific Computing & Automation August 1996: 60.

National Science Foundation, Shaping the Future, New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. [{http://www.nsf.gov/pubsys/ods/getpub.cfm?nsf96139}] 1996.

Smerdon, Ernest T. It takes a lifetime. ASEE PRISM December 1996: 56


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