Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Ehrmann Contributions

Over forty years, Steve Ehrmann has contributed in several ways to the fields of educational technology, evaluation, and higher learning, through clarifying some counter-intuitive ideas and, as grant-maker and consultant, supporting the creative work of others:

Idea #1: Technology, in and of itself, doesn't directly influence educational outcomes for better or for worse.  (If you doubt that, ask yourself how much paper improves, or interferes with, with learning? How about the printing press?)  What actually matters is what people are enabled to do, and what they then choose to do (and why): the impact of tools and facilities on learning outcomes is indirect, and heavily influenced by those human choices.  Ehrmann helped draw attention to activities, i.e., routine actions by faculty and students that can pervade an academic program (e.g., writing, designing, modeling).  Steve Ehrmann was one of the first to notice that faculty were often using new technology to support those activities most likely to improve learning outcomes. For example, technology was (and is) often used to expand the amount of active learning and to tighten contact between faculty and students.  Technology doesn't directly cause the improvement, but it supports the activities that do.  In a seminal article co-authored with Arthur Chickering, many easy-to-use technology applications were suggested for implementing each of the seven principles. This 1996 article remains one of Ehrmann's most widely-read contributions.

As a funder Dr. Ehrmann helped support pioneering R&D projects that explored ways of using technology to support educationally crucial activities.  One of the most influential: the Hiltz-Turoff work on virtual classrooms at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.  While with the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), Dr. Ehrmann organized the FIPSE Technology Study Group to summarize what was being learned by the pathbreaking innovations of the 1980s.  The Group wrote two books which Dr. Ehrmann co-authored and co-edited, Ivory Towers, Silicon Basements: Learner-Centered Computing in Higher Education and Learning to Design, Designing to Learn: The Role of Technology in Transforming the Curriculum.  Both books explored the kinds of educationally powerful activities for which faculty were beginning to use computers.

Idea #2. Any educational program can be designed, or evaluated, with the goals of the designer in the foreground, or with what the learners (or other players) actually, individually do in the foreground. Each perspective highlights what the other perspective minimizes.   The first perspective focuses on what all students are intended to learn (e.g,. everyone in this degree program needs to master engineering design or translation of French literature).  Ehrmann has called this a "uniform impact" perspective because it generally assumes that (a) all students are intended to learn the same things and (b) even if students enter unmotivated, one of the program's objectives is to motivate them to learn this content or skills.  Applied to assessment, this perspective emphasizes the development of learning objectives and assessment tools that can reveal, sometimes with considerable precision, whether the selected changes in student capability are occurring.

The complementary perspective, "Unique uses," assumes that each student is learning something important but qualitatively (and perhaps unpredictably) different from each other student.  That's partly because each student sees an educational opportunity (but perhaps perceives it differently than other students do), brings different preparation, problems, needs, and motivations to the table, and learns different things.  The more empowering a program is intended to be, the more important is the unique uses perspective for designing it, and for evaluating its outcomes.

For more on these two perspectives and their implications for assessment and program evaluation, see this chapter of Ehrmann's Flashlight Evaluation Handbook.

3. Rethinking degree programs:  if you need to make a visible, meaningful and lasting difference in outcomes, focus on the student's entire course of study, not just an isolated assignment or course.  Dr. Ehrmann's developed perhaps the first grant program specifically targeted at helping colleges and universities create online degree programs.  "New Pathways to a Degree" was a one-time grant program offered by the Annenberg/CPB Project at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1990.

Years later, Dr. Ehrmann summarized many lines of research to make ten recommendations for how to make visible, rewarding improvements in the outcomes of degree programs.  Recommendations ranged from how to find programs where faculty were most likely to be motivated to make changes, to which kinds of technology might provide the most subtle yet powerful support, to how to use evaluation to help attract fresh resources to the slowly evolving program.  Entitled, "“Improving Higher Learning by Taking the Long View: Ten Recommendations about Time, Money, Learning, and Technology," the article appeared initially in Change Magazine (2010) and was then reprinted in slightly revised form in Planning in Higher Education (2011).  Dr. Ehrmann's current work at the George Washington University includes a project to transform selected GW programs along these lines.

4. Steve Ehrmann, working with Paul Morris, led an Educom study of valuable viable software used in education.  During this work, he coined the term "worldware" to describe software and hardware that is developed, marketed and supported mainly for non-instructional purposes but which is also then used for teaching and learning.  Some worldware is comparatively generic (e.g., word processing software) but other tools are quite specialized and may be used by professionals to do research.  Ehrmann's team also noticed a symbiotic relationship between worldware and 'student editions of worldware' (tools that are slight variants of worldware, created or marketed specifically for education and sometimes used by those same students after graduation for professional purposes).

Related to this strand of work are a slew of software development projects that, as a funder, Dr. Ehrmann helped to support, starting with the BioSci videodisc (the first widely used videodisc in education) and including the Perseus Project, perhaps the first big multimedia library used for education and research.