Letter from the Vice Provost

Quality matters. That’s actually a very short but complete sentence. It’s also the name of a nationally recognized standards program that you’ll read about in this year’s report, and it’s a philosophy that speaks to the academic culture of NC State.

In addition to my administrative role as senior vice provost, I’m a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NC State and spent the first 18 of my 36 years here in that capacity. I believed (and still do) that our first priority as faculty should be to strive for the most effective transfer of knowledge and understanding to our students that we can achieve. Being a computer engineering professor and somewhat of a computer geek, I spent time developing software that would actively assist in learning and reinforcing concepts I was teaching in my classes on digital systems and microprocessors.

Those efforts led to more ideas and research projects for using technology in education, such as the MBone Virtual Classroom that we built at NC State in the late 1990’s for interactive teaching on the internet, long before the advent of Skype, etc. A few years ago at a conference, I ran into an engineering colleague and friend from Clemson who said, “You know, we still use that quote from the talk you gave when you visited campus years ago.” “What quote?” I asked. “You said that teaching with technology is like using an amplifier—it makes good teaching better and bad teaching worse.”

OK, I had completely forgotten that talk at Clemson and the amplifier analogy that only engineers could fully appreciate. However, I do think it often holds true even today. I remember giving a presentation to the faculty senate a few years ago about NC State’s expansion of online learning opportunities and DELTA’s role in that. One senator adamantly stated that “Distance Education never has been and never will be equal to face-to-face teaching, period.” I personally believe that the senator was greatly oversimplifying a very complex concept in forming his opinion, but at the same time I can appreciate the experiences that may have led him to that conclusion. It’s summed up in a quote from another talk that I gave about why faculty were often reluctant to rely on the use of technology in the classroom: “When the technology breaks, you’ve got nothing. When your chalk breaks, you’ve got two pieces of chalk.”

Regardless of what you believe, I think most of us would agree that effective transfer of knowledge and understanding takes effort. And, effective transfer of knowledge and understanding delivered via technology probably takes even more effort (the amplifier effect). I would argue that there are circumstances where technology-based pedagogies well-conceived and implemented can be more effective than anything I could possibly do with chalk and a blackboard (thinking back to my interactive simulators for teaching digital logic system concepts). Further, I would assert that appropriate combinations of face-to-face and technology-based pedagogies can be much more effective than either alone. (This is the core concept behind the large course redesign projects we’ve supported in DELTA and our assessment results consistently support that assertion.)

To bring this back to relevance with this year’s annual report, what I’m saying is that if you want to use technology effectively in your teaching, quality really does matter. That’s why we launched the new Online Course Improvement Program (OCIP) this year. Through OCIP, we are giving faculty the opportunity to take their online courses through the very rigorous and nationally recognized Quality Matters program and have them certified as meeting those high standards. Through the QM certification of quality, we are making a public statement that NC State takes quality very seriously in our online courses and content. Kudos to the faculty in the inaugural OCIP cohort who undertook the extra effort leading to certification. I hope that many more will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.