1998 SITRA Report: Evaluating ICT in the FAST Program (Hopkins)

'Distance Education and Language Learning'
Evaluating the Use of New Information Technologies in the
FAST Area Studies Program

Finnish National Fund for Research and Development (SITRA)
Spring 1998 National Technology Assessment Project: "ICT in Finnish Higher Education"

John D. Hopkins

Overview -- Technology Objectives -- Student Preparation -- Using E-Mail
The FAST Website -- Technology and Change -- International Recognition -- Financing and 'Support'
Structural Problematics -- Student Attitudes and Benefits -- Recommendations from Experience


The implementation of new information technologies in the FAST Area Studies Program at the University of Tampere since 1992 offers a successful model for how:
  • teaching and learning can be enhanced;
  • student motivation and performance can be increased;
  • cooperation between academic study in the classroom and the realities of professional working life can be developed;
  • and life-long learning habits established;
  • while reducing the overall cost of providing instructional materials.

Further, success has been achieved in a Humanities-based program in which over 90% of the students are female, two sectors of Finnish higher education which have often been stereotyped as having least exploited computer-based learning resources.

However, our experience has also revealed certain problematics which may arise when implementing new technologies. These concern the equal opportunity of teaching staff to be able to use and deploy these technologies, and of university students to take advantage of them. They also raise the larger question of how to create a new, positive, supporting environment to encourage the implementation of innovative learning technologies throughout Finnish higher education.

FAST Program Overview — (Top)

The FAST Area Studies Program has provided since 1992 a minor degree option tailored to the needs of translators, interpreters, philologists, social scientists and others who seek competence in intercultural area studies focusing on the national cultures of the United States, United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, and Finland in their international English-language contexts.

The program is based on an examination and comparison of the languages and literatures of the United States and United Kingdom as the cornerstones of world English, the socioeconomic, cultural, political and educational institutions by which the U.S. and U.K. are known, and the mass communications structures and technologies through which the peoples of both nations convey information worldwide in the English language.

The program is primarily for Tampere University students of translation and interpretation, who require expert knowledge in intercultural dynamics of the English language, but it is also open to other Tampere University students who have an interest in the broad interdisciplinary nature and topical appeal of the FAST curriculum.

Objectives for the Program's Technology Orientation — (Top)

The FAST program has had a strong technology orientation since its founding in 1992. The objective was to provide a continuous learning environment in which:
  • an extensive array of teaching and reference materials would be available to students on-demand;
  • selected student papers could be published electronically as benchmarks and models for others to build on, as well as examples of achievement in their own right;
  • telematically-mediated lifelong-learning skills and habits would be ingrained in students through their training for and involvement in the curriculum;
  • interactive connections for greater teaching and research 'realism' would be established via the on-line resources between the students in our Department and our graduates and other professional translators in working life;
  • these same on-line resources and academic-workplace connections would also lead to a growth in continuing education of our former graduates and a recruiting tool for new and better-prepared incoming students, while the on-line materials themselves would become a 'lifelong-learning resource' for our graduates and others elsewhere who found value in their free access to our resources;
  • international cooperation involving the Program and its host department would be expanded, with additional study, research, and training opportunities thus accruing.

The primary technologies used are e-mail (both individual and list-based) and the World-Wide Web (Gopher from 1992-1996). Starting in September 1998 resources will expand to include internet-based videoconferencing for individual, course and project work.

Student Preparation For On-Line Activity — (Top)

Since basic telematic skills are required to fully participate in the FAST curriculum, the PP3D course on "Digital Literacy and and Academic Knowledge Management" is provided for all students in addition to regular FAST courses in American, British, Irish and Finnish area studies. Completion of this course is compulsory for all English Translation students (some FAST courses are required in the English Translation curriculum). PP3D is offered each term; it is recommended that students complete it at the beginning of their studies.

Each student receives a full-service internet account when starting studies at Tampere University. This account is accessible via high-speed LAN connections from all university computers and via modem or other remote login from elsewhere (home, for example). The PP3D course trains students in basic use of the full range of e-mail and telematic skills, including 'survival UNIX', the PINE mailer (the only full-service student option via university computers, though many students use Outlook Express, Eudora and other POP or IMAP mailers from their home computers), FTP, file conversion and transfer procedures, the formatting of electronic documents, 'netiquette', and how to search for, print, download, edit, and otherwise process web-based information. Students also learn the fundamentals of html coding, and how to design and produce their own web documents [NB: the PP3D syllabus evolves with each iteration, corresponding to ICT development and changing expectations for academic users].

The PP3D course is taught as a series of practical, interactive demonstrations during the first six weeks of each term. Detailed reference material is available in the course web directory, and during their learning phase students may consult the instructor extensively, via e-mail and in person. The course is completed via a personal examination with the teacher in which the student demonstrates selected procedures from a list of required telematic skills.

FAST instructors thus have a direct, clear knowledge of student telematics skill levels, the type of connectivity they have at university and home, the type of equipment they use, and the type of problems they have encountered. Details reported in this paper are based on the experience of the PP3D course, combined with the instructor's knowledge of how students have employed their skills in academic courses of the program. The reporting focuses on overall student and teacher experience with the FAST program, as distinct from individual course, student or staff experiences.

E-Mail Lists and Individual E-Mail — (Top)

Most FAST courses have their own class e-mail lists. Presently these lists operate under 'listserv' software via the Tampere University Computer Center [between 1992-1998, 'listproc' was used, before Tampere University installed 'listserv'']. List subscription is also freely available to the public outside Tampere University, and some lists have a sizeable national and international membership.

There is also a list for the FAST program overall (FAST-L); prior to 2000 one also existed for translation terminology questions (TRAN-Q). TRAN-Q was used for the exchange of questions among working translators in Finland and abroad, and was also a link between professional working life and translation students in the Department.

Course list names are in the form "USA1-L@uta.fi" (for the USA-1 'Introduction to American English' course, for example). All students are expected to subscribe to the respective course list while they are taking the course. While there is no compulsion for students to subscribe (they subscribe themselves, as opposed to 'being subscribed' by the instructor), virtually all students join the course lists. Indeed, while they are also free to unsubscribe upon completing the course, many remain on the lists and continue to participate even years later.

Course lists are used by the instructor to relay announcements, updates on class scheduling, exams, and notices of the posting of new instructional materials in the website; to distribute electronic articles relevant to class lectures or discussion, and to respond to issues raised in previous classes where answers required the consultation of outside sources, among other things.

Students may also freely post questions and comments to the list and participate in group discussion on course topics. However, student activity thus far has been minimal, perhaps due to the fact that students are in close daily personal contact with each other in any case, so the class lists are not needed for general group discussion.

However, students also use e-mail extensively with each other on a private basis (even concerning class issues) and there is also a substantial and growing volume of e-mail traffic between individual students and the instructor concerning course issues.

Increased Learning Individualization, But Also Increased Teacher Workloads

Thus, while students have so far not used the class lists for general discussion, they very actively use e-mail to follow up directly with the instructor on class discussion, papers and projects on which they are working, clarification of references in reading materials, etc. While this is resulting in more 'individualization' of the learning experience, and a more 'self-paced mode of learning' (to quote these often-cited 'benefits' of new educational technologies), it also rapidly adds to the work loads of the instructors.

Calculations for one 1998 course showed a fivefold increase in teacher time for e-mail responses to class issues compared to the year previously, and for some of the students the amount of personal counseling was more than tenfold greater, approaching the time requirement of an entire individualized course in its own right.

The reason for this increase would seem to be the ease of communicating with the new technologies, combined with a greater sense of personal involvement with learning via the technologies, and the feeling that student-teacher relationships are somehow more 'personal' as a result of more frequent communication. A further factor may be the relatively small number of students in our department and the fact that we have always known students personally, have used first names with each other, and have encouraged close interactivity between students and staff as the only practical way of learning the profession of translation and interpretation well.

However, despite the learning benefits which may have accrued from this example, there are clearly human limits to the increase of such personal contact between teachers and students, leaving aside such considerations as 'standard work requirements' (what is the definition of teacher 'office hours' when consultations are electronic rather than physical) or union or administrative viewpoints on this issue (do teachers need to be physically present if teaching and consultation can be conducted remotely).

The greatly-larger time requirement of 'personalized continuous learning' which is thus made possible is but one of many issues in the successful employment of new educational technologies where the new type of educational interaction that emerges is beneficial as such, but may ultimately be untenable in human terms.

The FAST Website — (Top)

The Program's most visible and extensively-used resource is the FAST website at <https://www.uta.fi/FAST>. This website includes numerous subdirectories which provide study and research materials for each course in the FAST curriculum. By autumn 1998 the website will comprise nearly 1000 files covering 18 academic courses and related activities. The FAST website has its own search engine (PicoSearch) and a usage statistics tool (Analog), updated nightly. The website is used by both FAST students and a wide international audience; April 1998 statistics reported 1377 average daily successful page requests from 2169 distinct internet hosts (with hundreds of separate accesses daily from Tampere University computers alone, seven days a week, and nearly 24 hours per day).

The website success is perhaps the more remarkable since its present structure will be only one year old in August 1998. From 1992-96 on-line archiving was via gopher technology at the Center for Scientific Computing in Espoo. Starting in 1996 gopher materials were gradually transferred to an initial website at CSC, and in summer 1997 all CSC materials were moved to a new website at Tampere University. With the move came a substantial revision of previous materials and significant expansion of new materials.

There are three main areas of web content:

  1. schedules and instructional and reference materials for different courses;
  2. student project papers under the various courses; and
  3. general reference materials (on-line glossaries, maps, links to other resources)
Additional to these are resources related to conferences and outreach activities, as well as publications and other projects or materials related to the FAST program.

Traditional 'Face-to-Face' Emphasis, But Changing... — (Top)

Although technologies are well-integrated and used by the FAST curriculum, it is important to note that their primary use is presently to supplement traditional lectures, discussions, practical courses (such as AV3F public speaking and AV5B liaison interpreting), and other face-to-face guidance based on human interaction.

However, using new technologies as such may result in structural change. One example in our case [a trival example technologically, but significant both 'as such' and for its abililty to be understood by administrators] is that the budget savings we have achieved on former photocopy costs alone (combined with general university budget reductions that have reduced flexibility in the use of departmental monies) has ironically resulted in a situation where the curriculum could not afford to return to the previous mode of teaching if on-line technologies were not employed. The program depends for its survival, assuming that we wish to expand activity or that budget cutbacks are likely to continue, not only on using technology but on continually increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of our technological implementations.

Also, there may be other expectations for expansion of the program on the basis of the available technologies. For example, while our 'distance-education' technologies have thus far been used mainly to enhance instruction for on-site students, they easily make possible the tuition of remote students, who can already access all on-line course resources. In the present climate of budget reductions and need for more cost-effective student 'processing', the demand to admit 'distance education students' will likely soon emerge as an issue.

International Recognition and Cooperative Partners — (Top)

Another 'issue' which directly follows from the use of on-line technologies is the growing volume of requests from universities and consortia abroad for international partnerships, joint projects, and cooperative efforts. The FAST program is fairly well-known in Europe and North America as a result of its on-line resources — particularly in fields like American vs British English and U.S. Popular Culture — and involvement in various European Humanities and international education organizations.

For example, FAST is one of 102 European members (the only Finnish 'Core-A-1' member) of ACO*HUM, a SOCRATES Thematic Network in 'Advanced Computing in the Humanities'. It also works with the electronic networking and telematics training activities of EAIE, the European Association for International Education.

Active academic websites often attract proposals for cooperative ventures. While this may seem positive and desirable, the issue involved here, just as with the related issue above of the FAST program having become dependent on technology for its survival, is whether the program will have the resources to benefit from these proposals. Currently, although cooperation proposals arrive almost weekly, virtually all must be turned down, no matter how useful their promise may seem to be to the Program, Department, or our larger involvement in the University. There is no staff time to handle the additional work, no room to accommodate extra students or scholars, no money to pay various fees, often no resources to cooperate even in basic ways.

This problem is not limited to the FAST Program. Throughout Finnish higher education, in the current cost-cutting climate, funding does not seem to exist for even basic purchase of updated computer equipment, investment in staff training in the use of this equipment, release time or other credit for the production of on-line teaching and research material, or any of the other fundamental pre-requisites for programs to continue — not to mention improve — high-quality provision of university-level teaching and research.

Financing and 'Support' — (Top)

All FAST telematics activities are currently unbudgeted voluntary work, with the exception of the PP3D course being part of the regular teaching load of one instructor, and an occasional one hour of release time weekly from the 'required teaching load' if one section of a multiple-group course does not form.

While the 'voluntary' nature of the work provides a certain freedom of experimentation, it is also problematic for guaranteed continuation of the activities, as noted above, as the volume of work and its costs (in both financial and human terms) steadily increases.

Within the Department of Translation Studies, FAST telematics activities have been authorized largely by such comments as 'you can do anything you want to do as long as it's your responsibility, it doesn't bother the rest of us, and it doesn't cost us anything'. Such 'support' of educational technology innovation often comes from persons who are aware that these activities may be the main international public relations vehicle for the Department, as well as being popular among current students and a 'recruiting' factor for new students (some of whom are already coming into the Department having used FAST on-line resources while they were in senior secondary school, at work, or at other institutions, and who applied to our Department in part because they found our activity and resources appealing and had not found an equivalent elsewhere).

In the Department's defense, it could be said that such an attitude is not unusual elsewhere either, especially in Humanities or other curricula which have not traditionally had an emphasis on using technology.

According to a 1996 DEPLOY project report commissioned by the Confederation of European Rectors' Associations, throughout Europe university staff attitudes toward new technologies are largely 'unenlightened', ranging from indifference toward what others are doing (as long as it doesn't concern oneself) to fear that the real meaning of ICT in higher education will be yet more work being expected of staff, or worse yet, that staff would be replaced by technology. As such, the 'incentive to learn' the use of new technologies may be seen by many staff rather as an incentive to weave the rope that would be used to hang them.

In sum, the combination of chronic equipment shortages, lack of proper training, and lack of time to invest in software innovation or the production of on-line materials, together with the generally 'unenlightened', indifferent, or even negatively-inclined attitudes of staff toward the employment of new technologies in their teaching and research, results in a less-than-optimum structural foundation on which to innovate or develop. In our case this is perhaps the more remarkable since we are a department in which computers have been used routinely for well over a decade [since 1984], telematics competence having long been required in the professions for which we train students.

Structural Problematics — (Top)

In the emerging transition from traditional to ICT-based teaching, the importance of seemingly-trivial differences between 'the way things have always been done' and how ICT might require them to be done differently must not be underestimated. In other words, how does the emergence of new information technologies conflict with traditional rules and procedures of university bureaucracy and administration?

A simple example is one we encountered with department budgeting. From 1992 through summer 1997, while all FAST on-line resources had been at CSC, we had enjoyed them free of charge. When the website moved to Tampere University, expanded, and added search and statistics tools, charges were levied by the Computer Center for webspace exceeding 10MB. The bill came to me. I took it to the Department for reimbursement. A minor crisis emerged. There had never been such a charge in the Humanities Faculty. Indeed few people in the administration seemed to know what 'webspace' was or how such a thing (if it existed) could be charged for. The entire concept and terminology was foreign, not to mention absent from the budget.

While the bill was less than FIM2000.00 for the whole year, there was no budget line for such an item. Therefore it could not be paid. First it was claimed that I should pay it: if the webspace was for voluntary work for courses individual teachers taught, then those teachers should pay for the webspace they consumed. It should not be a charge the Department should pay, but rather similar to purchasing a book a teacher might use to prepare for a course. Eventually the Department paid the sum from the photocopy budget (there was still a budget line for the copy machine) after it was shown that the savings in photocopy costs for one course alone whose teaching materials were now web-based exceeded the total annual charge for the entire website.

Yet the controversy over 'who should pay for what' still exists in 1998, exacerbated by general technological ignorance of what is being paid for, what it is used for, or why it is important on the one hand; and by the general strains of university budget cuts on the other. Many similar and still more serious problems are likely to occur in the next few years as the transition from old toward the deployment of new technologies expands.

Student Attitudes and General Benefits (in brief) — (Top)

FAST students are positive about the web resources. They appreciate the convenience of having greatly expanded course resources at hand 24 hours, and being able to print or edit only those materials they personally need, vs. the kilos of paper copy they had to deal with in the past.

Students are also positive toward having their own (selected) work archived on-line. They seem to devote more time to projects they know may be selected for the website, and projects are usually completed with more care and detail than previously.

The academic level of FAST course projects is also rising, as students are able to build on the foundation of past work which is easily available via the website. Students also seem to gain increased self-esteem by having their work published on-line, visible for all to see, and receiving compliments on it even from students and instructors from abroad.

Indeed one of the most significant benefits of the website has been the increase in student self-esteem. While the Department has always had outstanding students, gifted in language from the day of admission, the intense cross-cultural linguistic demands of professional translation and interpretation — at levels which exceed the abilities of many university-educated native speakers of English — had frequently resulted in students soon becoming frustrated at what they felt was their own inability in English. Perspective was lacking.

Suddenly, the web provides a perspective. Teachers in higher education institutions in Britain and America have written to congratulate students on their work, and to ask permission to use on-line papers as part of the teaching material for their courses. One wished to publish several papers in a textbook on American English for British students, and inquired about copyright and royalty payments. An Italian publisher wished to use two student short stories from the website in an anthology of young Finnish writers. An educational website in Seoul wrote to ask permission to translate papers into Korean for beginning language students there.

The effect of such feedback — none of it anticipated — has been to give students a tremendous boost in self-confidence, which in turn seems to be resulting in a more ambitious level and higher quality of work.

Further, on-line resources are also used by working translators, whose comments and suggestions provide greater interactivity to course teaching and to student awareness of the practical reality of their future profession than was ever possible before.

Recommendations Based on Our Experience — (Top)

Several recommendations have been noted above, and there is an extensive listing in Reference #1 below. With many of these, it would be easy — and not inaccurate — to say that the answer to the problems of implementing new learning technologies in higher education is money.

Funding is desperately needed to provide adequate computing capability for virtually all university teaching and research staff. More money is needed for software as well. But it is not just hardware and software; much of what has already been purchased is largely wasted, or used inadequately or ineffectively, or simply not used at all by people who don't know how to use it or don't know why they should. Money is also needed to train teachers and researchers in how to use effectively what they already have, and beyond this, how to create their own interactive materials.

Likewise, funding is needed to update and greatly increase the public computer facilities available to university students. Due in part to inadequate funding for such computers, two disparities are already emerging with our students, nearly all of whom have their own computers.

Many of the students' own computers are better (faster processors, multimedia-equipped, newer software) than the public student computers at the university. Pedagogical problems emerge. The PP3D course can only teach software which is available to all students on the public university computers, not the infinite variety of options students may have at home. However, if the university cannot upgrade its computers from Windows 3.1, and students at home almost all have Windows 95 or NT Workstation 4 — and use the newer software which only runs on these systems — issues clearly emerge for the relevance and motivation of instruction.

A related point is the disparity in equal opportunity in a technologically-intensive environment between students who can afford faster computers and newer software at home over students who can only rely on the outdated equipment and limited user time currently available on university computers. The situation is rapidly developing where students who can afford their own (better) equipment are much more advantaged in their study and research. The implications of this situation are profoundly disturbing.

'Digital Literacy' Enlightenment is Desperately Needed

However, money is not the only issue. The immediate, major obstacle to be overcome is the general lack of enlightenment of politicians, administrators, teachers and researchers alike of the urgency and importance of new communications technologies in education. It must be understood why new technologies are so increasingly important. It must come to be self-evident that all academics should be able to use technology effectively in their work. It is essential that an encouraging environment be created to support technological innovation throughout higher education.

With this, great things may be possible. Without it, higher education in Finland will simply not be able to compete in the international arena.

Further Reading

Author Credit: John D. Hopkins is Senior Lecturer in American Language and Culture and Coordinator of the FAST Area Studies Program in the Department of Translation Studies of the University of Tampere.

This report was produced in May 1998 as part of ICT in Education: The [Finnish] National [Higher Education] Technology Assessment Project, conducted by Matti Sinko for SITRA: The Finnish National Fund for Research and Development.

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Original Text from May 1998