An Interview with David Levin

By: Bill Buchanan

E-textbooks. Hybrid and online courses. Using learner analytics to assess experiments that involve academic technology. The future of SmartSite.

These are a few of the areas that David Levin intends to discuss, and address, as director of Academic Technology Services for Information and Educational Technology.

Levin is relatively new to UC Davis, but not to his field. He came to campus in April 2012 after terms as director of academic technology for California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and California State University, Northridge, and as director of distance learning at DePaul University. Earlier, he was a philosophy professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside for 15 years.

Levin didn’t begin as a technologist, but as his career advanced he saw its potential to support higher education and research. “Technology, especially modern Internet-based technology, seems to have so many possibilities,” he said, and the possibilities drew him in.

He engages several of those opportunities in this interview from fall 2012.

What does Academic Technology Services do?

We help faculty use technology in their teaching, learning and research, both on campus and online. We also help students and other staff, through faculty. I’ll summarize what we do:

  • Our media production group produces video, graphic content, animations, simulations, photography, and things like that, for faculty to use in their teaching and learning.
  • Our AV Engineering group takes care of classroom-based technology—all of the technology, projectors, document cameras, computer hookups, and the like, in our 128 general assignment classrooms. We also install and sometimes manage technology for another 40 to 50 classrooms for professional schools on campus that have been turning to AV Engineering for support.
  • The computer classroom and open-access lab group manages open-access labs all around campus, plus computer classrooms. Faculty members may want to reserve a computer classroom for a workshop on a particular tool. Or, the class may meet the entire quarter there. The unit also has a virtual computer lab service, in which students can remotely access software on the lab computer when the labs are closed.
  • Our academic programming group basically builds Web applications, often for research activities, but sometimes for teaching and learning as well.
  • And of course we support our learning management system, SmartSite, and other learning applications like clickers. Our faculty support and training group supports faculty in the use of those technologies.



As director, you make sure these services are working, set a vision, and incorporate the technology into the campus?

A director position has two branches: management, and leadership, or vision. In terms of management, I manage this area and these services, and work with other managers in IET to make sure our fit of services works well with others.

It doesn’t work in isolation. For example, with SmartSite, we manage the user interface and a lot of the testing, to make sure it works well, and meets faculty and student needs. On the other hand, as a back-end service, it’s managed by the applications group within IET’s Enterprise Applications and Infrastructure Services unit. And within the classroom, some of our technology, in a sense, is an end-point service for the university network. Because to make it all work, it has to attach to the network.

And on the leadership side?

The whole management team within ATS is the leadership group there. We manage our services, and think strategically about where we’re going to be in a few years.

Some areas are rapidly changing in academic technology, such as the idea of e-learning, or online learning. There are more online courses. We’ve got different initiatives, locally and through the system, to offer more hybrid and online courses. The University of California Online Education Initiative supports the development of online courses across the UC. We participate with the other campuses, and have six faculty members working on online courses. On campus the provost has supported the Provost Hybrid Course Award, and we have partnered with the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to offer this program to faculty, so faculty can develop hybrid courses.

We need to think about where we are going with online learning. If there is an interest on our campus to offer more online and hybrid courses, what’s our capacity to do that? Where do we need to build, what partnerships do we need, and what are the holes here?

For example, if we want to help faculty develop online courses, and we want to have more than our UC Davis students taking our courses, how do we offer resources to those non-UC Davis students? They would need access to our technology. But they don’t have UC Davis accounts. How can we assure that they have access to the resources they need?

Take software. Right now we can have our students using various software packages in our computer lab. But the gating mechanism is that they are UC Davis students. We can’t say to anyone in the universe, ‘Oh, come and use SPSS [an expensive software] on our campus.’ That would violate our licensing agreement. Our site license doesn’t mean the world. It means the UC Davis student. How do we work around that?

Managing all those resources is a complicated issue.

You need vision to see where conditions are headed, and the ability to manage details the campus has not had to think about before.

Many of the issues and initiatives we work on go far beyond the scope of ATS or IET. We need to forge the right partnerships so we can get these discussions going.

On another side of it, we have faculty who are creating all kinds of great content for their online courses. How do we help them manage that content so that it remains their content? In the past, content that a faculty member presented in a class was unlikely to go elsewhere, other than through the notes of students. Now, if a faculty member creates a video and puts that video in SmartSite, a student can grab it and put it out on the Web for the world to see. That’s violating the intellectual property of the faculty member.



How do you make sure that technology supports good education, as opposed to intruding on education?

Great question. We want to understand how we can we assess the effect of any change.

As we build our tools to help faculty, we also want to build up what I call ‘learner analytics.’ As we develop our online courses, introduce a new technology, or make changes to SmartSite, what data can we collect to see the effect in teaching and learning?

I’ll give an example. We’re beginning to test a set of lecture-capture technologies. We have long offered services to record faculty when they present their lectures. This is not new. When I was a student, we individually brought devices to record lectures. But now faculty members are more likely to record their content, and then put it online.

What’s the effect? There are many, but many of us hope that if we introduce various lecture-capture techniques, we might see that students will spend less time in class trying to write down what the instructor is saying, and spend more time engaged in real listening and participation in the class.

The data you collect would tell you if the technology is helping or not.

We want to examine at least two or three things. One, are students more engaged—and then we have to figure out how to measure engagement. Second, faculty members are often worried that if we introduce lecture-capture, then students won’t show up. Why show up if I can get to it all later? Can we measure those things?

Third, what’s the effect on learning outcomes?

Do you have data sets that would tell you?

We don’t now, because we haven’t been doing this enough, but we want to. The data would be student performance. In an ideal situation, we might look at students who:

  • Come to class, but do not have access to, or use, the recorded lecture.
  • Don’t come to class, but listen to the recorded lecture.
  • Come to class, and listen to the recorded lecture.

We’ve got three different sets of students. Which perform better? Is there any difference?

The same kind of measures ought to go on with online learning. In our engagements with faculty who are developing online courses, we are building in measures of student success in different modes of learning.

Ideally, one would want to look at a fully on-campus student experience, a hybrid student experience, and a fully online student experience. What can we do to collect data on student learning outcomes in these different modes of learning?



How does the lecture-capture experiment work?

It introduces different tools, so that faculty can experiment, and we can ask ourselves whether this is something we would like to make available to any faculty member who wants to record their lecture in a learning space.

We’re in pilot phase now. Then we will ask different campus groups to see if this is a direction we want to go, based on our early results.

Lecture-capture is a point in a process. It can have great effect on student learning. I’ve seen early results from other places. Some results are surprising.

How so?

One expects lecture-capture to be used, for example, to allow students, who can’t come to class, to participate anyway.

In some experiments, where people have played with a ‘hy-flex’ model of lecture-capture—it’s ‘hybrid’ because it mixes online and in-class experiences, and ‘flexible,’ because students choose which mode to engage.

Many people thought students would either come to class or view the lecture-capture. We certainly had students in those two categories, but some sets of students did both. They came to class, and reviewed the lectures online. In some cases, they outperformed the others.

The results are early, but two distinct sets of students come to class and review the lectures online. One, as you might expect, is the very, very motivated students who want to do absolutely well, and will do everything they can. The other group is non-native speakers of English. They find they can’t do without being there in class, but they do not come out of the class understanding the lecture fully all the time, and so their ability to review the recorded lecture is critical.

Another very interesting result: If you show students, who aren’t necessarily achieving the results they’d like, that other students are increasing their achievement based on some change—in this case by rewinding the lecture, using lecture-capture—then the students who want to do that are likely to follow them.

They’re drawn to the success.

Collecting data for learner analytics can help decision-makers and administrators see what interventions work; it can help faculty see what works; and it can be used by students as ways to motivate themselves.



Let’s talk more about hybrid and online classes.

These are the questions as I see them: What are we doing now with online learning at UC Davis? What’s the state of online learning within California and higher education more broadly? And, where are we going with it?

UC Davis is heavily involved. We have a good number of experiments and programs. I’ve already mentioned the UC Online Education Initiative. We have faculty members who have been developing courses for the systemwide online program. More than a dozen courses have been fully developed UC-wide.

Right now, they’re offered largely to the home campus that originates the course, but eventually they will be marketed to non-UC students and to students across the UC campuses. For example, a student at UC Irvine could take a UC Davis online course for Irvine credit.

That experiment is quite successful.

I’ve also already mentioned the Provost Hybrid Course Award here at UC Davis. Four faculty have been developing courses within that, funded by the Provost’s Office. Participants for the second round of this will be named toward the end of 2012. These courses use online technology, but are not fully online. Typically, they would meet half the time on campus, half the time online.

A number of other faculty have been offering hybrid or online courses in various ways, just because they have an interest, or their department wants to push it. So there are other experiments. One over the summer was with Nutrition 10.

Liz Applegate’s course.

She used lecture-capture. Of the 250 to 300 students who were taking the course, 70 signed up for the online version. The lectures were streamed, so they could watch them in real time from anywhere, and send a chat message with their questions to a TA who would read them out loud in class. Or, they could watch the recorded lecture. That’s the hy-flex model.

In addition to these experiments I have just mentioned, UC Davis Extension has professional programs and courses offered online, mostly certificate programs. The Medical School has a rich history of telemedicine, using technology to offer instruction and professional development at a distance.

There many online offerings now, and there will be more?

Yes. Online learning has existed since the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web took off. That provided a rich graphical user interface for the Internet, which made fairly rich online learning engagements possible. Online learning is an extension of much older distance-learning initiatives, using TV, radio, and all kinds of things. It has a rich, long history.

The history has not always been accepted as great education, so a lot of faculty, and others, have a healthy skepticism. As a learning tool, is online learning as effective as being on campus in class? How can we be sure the person taking the exam is who they say they are, and not a friend, or someone they’ve hired? We’ve got issues involving quality, honesty and integrity to overcome. There has been a worry that online learning is second-class, in terms of how good it is.

But some things over the past few years have pushed in a different direction. First, more than 10 years ago, MIT had its open-course initiative. It committed to putting all of its course content online, so it would be freely available to anyone. That’s a great asset for the world.

At the time I was doing some consulting for a group in South Africa. A lot of educators and even whole universities in the developing world used this content as their source for the courses they were offering in South Africa, or Kenya, or other places. This open content was a great asset—and who can argue that the content from MIT is low quality?

So, we certainly have the ability, using the Internet, to put a lot of really rich high-quality content online.



But there’s more to it than putting the material online.

Yes. What can we do to make it a rich learning experience? It isn’t just ‘do what you want with it, we don’t have any learning resources, any advising for the students, any interaction with the instructors,’ and the like.

One huge change in online learning happened about a year and a half ago. A few instructors in computer science at Stanford opened their regular courses to anyone who wanted to sign up. Sebastian Thrun and a colleague from Google offered a course in artificial intelligence on campus. They put the course online. They figured they’d get a few thousand students.

Over 160,000 people signed up! Somewhere over 20,000 students completed the course—they did all the work. The students who performed best were not the ones at Stanford. They were some of the students online.

So, yes, there are questions about integrity of online education. But Stanford was not offering college credit, other than to the students on campus. They were just taking the course. There was no skin in the game for anyone to cheat, because they didn’t get any credit. But it appears there was some serious learning going on.

This leads us to MOOCs.

The term means Massive Open Online Course. A few years before the experiments at Stanford, some folks at other universities started this, on the scale of thousands of students.

In MOOCs, students seem to organize themselves into groups. They rely on each other to create a certain amount of interactivity. They would form ad hoc learning study groups, which often became very rich. The learning community that came out of one early MOOC is still ongoing.

All these things show that online learning is not just a flash in the pan.

Yes, and they seem to show that serious learning can happen online. Now, how can we properly assess it and credential the person to say, ‘you’ve learned this’?

To bring the subject back to UC Davis: A lot of universities are beginning to ask themselves how they can play in this game of new motivations and new options for online learning.

Some providers of these MOOCs are companies, such as Coursera and Udacity, which grew out of the Stanford experiments. Another group, edX, started as a partnership between Harvard and MIT to create online courses, and Berkeley has now joined that group. More than two dozen universities are affiliated with Coursera, and offer Coursera courses. Coursera offers nearly 200 courses to anyone who wants to learn from them.

We at Davis should ask ourselves, do we play in this? Would it be helpful for us to help our instructors, our faculty members, our great departments, get some of the content online, so we can help teach the world?

The MOOCs are an extension of what was going on with the MIT open-courseware movement, but rather than just putting the content out there, is it possible to put a whole mediated course out there, where I’m teaching as an instructor, and teach the world?

And at UC Davis?

At UC Davis, we should explore this. A small group on campus has talked with the fellow from Udacity, and will be talking with a founder of Coursera, because it is a very useful way for us to do a number of things.

First, if we have this great learning, and we can offer some of this so we teach the world, isn’t that one of the missions of a great public land-grant institution, that we should be doing what we can to teach the world?

It also lets people know what we offer. Maybe, by offering some courses in this fashion, a group of students in China see it, and want to come to us.

Also, if we develop content that we put into the UC online or hybrid courses, that content can move from one teaching modality to another. We could offer the content for credit within the UC online program. We could then offer a version through a massively open online course available worldwide—perhaps taught in a slightly different way, because we wouldn’t offer the same level of credentialing or anything like that.



You have said you also want to look at strategy.

Over the next couple of years, we should think about the strategy, vision, and where we want to go as a university with online learning.

Clayton Christensen, a Harvard faculty member who wrote the book The Innovators’ Dilemma, has developed a theory of disruptive innovation. In many industries, as things change, it looks like good economic sense for a leader to continue what they’re doing, and to make a little bit more profit on their current line of business.

Then along comes some other company that says, ‘Well, I can tweak this a little bit more and sell something at much lower cost to a much larger group, and make a whole lot of money, and maybe put the other company out of business.’

A common example is American auto manufacturers of the 1980s. They were building SUVs and the like. They made more profit by building fancier, bigger SUVs. Along comes Toyota, which says, ‘Forget about the big SUV, I’m going to build the inexpensive car.’ Toyota almost put the big U.S. manufacturers out of business, until the U.S. manufacturers got the idea and changed things.

It seemed to work just fine, continuing your model of how you produced your goods, but then somebody innovates and changes the landscape, and disrupts the whole situation.

Has education reached a similar moment?

Christensen and others have suggested that online education might be similar. I’m not going to advocate that I agree with this, but the idea that online education might be a disruptive force in higher education is very interesting.

And if it is?

Right now, the cost of higher education is rising higher than the cost of health care. That’s leading to financial problems with higher education; it’s leading us within the public sector to require more private funding. Tuition goes up. There are all the financial problems.

Some groups might come along that can provide education with a much cheaper, different model. Will that disrupt us?

When this theory first came out, the models of who might disrupt higher education were for-profit firms, like University of Phoenix. They offered education in a very different model. They maybe took some market share from higher education. There were questions about credibility, and all kinds of things. Now companies like Coursera are offering these massive courses from the same instructors who teach at our elite institutions—it’s the same course.

This isn’t the model of a for-profit, questionable-quality institution. It’s the model of these same instructors, teaching in a different mode.

Is online education going to disrupt higher education, and if so, how will we play with that? By disruptive, I don’t mean it will mean the end of great universities. But this new model seems to offer a new way of offering possibly high-quality education.

Should we look at that as a model of how we grow? This would be in addition to the model of attracting more students, from out of state or overseas, who would pay a full tuition. How can we use online learning to grow, and to provide good, high-quality education to more people, and still be financially viable? Another model is to offer online education to a small number of additional students at a very high cost.

Online learning is an area of growth, and most institutions are beginning to look at what the future is for them. I think we need to do that, and with our eyes open.



You’re very enthusiastic about academic technology.

I love it. I’ve done a lot of different things. I didn’t start out as someone who was bitten by teaching and learning technology. I was a professor, I was interested in my research, like so many others. Technology, especially modern Internet-based technology, seems to have so many possibilities. It bit me and I didn’t stop.

What would you tell faculty who are reluctant, or aren’t sure how, to use some of this technology?

If they really don’t want it, I’m not one for trying to force it. We also have a certain number of faculty who, I guess like me, are so passionate about it, they’re going to fly on their own. If anything, we in technology want to learn from them. They’re going to find out new stuff that we can hopefully help them show to their colleagues.

For the somewhat skeptical: I like to help them look at issues or problems or stumbling blocks they have in their teaching and research, and help design something that might work. I don’t think we go into that discussion thinking, ‘this is the panacea’ and ‘this is going to solve your problem.’ No. Let’s sit down with them and design an experiment.

That approach might help a skeptic think about technology, not as an external imposition, but as a tool that might help them solve a problem.

Absolutely. I don’t want faculty to think of technology as something that anyone is imposing on them. I would love to start with, ‘What’s a problem you have?’ and let’s see if we can design an experiment that would work. I like to look for new experiments and new ideas about how we can make things change.

To some extent, in this time of change in higher education, it’s a good thing technology is changing fast. We want to do lots of different experiments, not try to find a cookie cutter that fits every problem. We need a tool chest, rather than a hammer.

That’s a good summary.

Well, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I’d rather have the toolchest, and let’s open up and see which tool works.

I always say, with any of these ideas: Don’t start something without starting an experiment. There are many good reasons to experiment. We don’t want to make changes that don’t have success. Also, it builds excitement among the faculty and staff who are doing the experiment, because then you’ve got a story to tell at the end of the day.



SmartSite has been on campus for several years. What’s ahead for that?

This year, we want to begin a discussion of where we’re going with SmartSite.

The current version that we use is based on an open-source software product, Sakai. It’s based on version 2 of Sakai, or CLE, for Collaborative Learning Environment. We’re on version 8 of that, so we’re on version 2.8 of Sakai—the “2” is for Sakai, and “8” is for the 8th sub-version of CLE.

The Sakai community is committed to continuing the CLE line through version 10, but the Sakai community is thinking this architecture is getting a little long in the tooth. Another version of Sakai has been under development—Sakai 3, called OAE, for Open Academic Environment. The whole community is figuring out the future of OAE. [Editor’s note: Subsequent to this interview, important developments occurred within the Sakai community related to OAE. The Wheel will continue to follow these developments, including their impact on the SmartSite roadmap.]

We’ve got time before we have to decide—but over the next two years, at UC Davis we need to think about more than where we’re going with SmartSite.

And you want to look at more than SmartSite?

If the question is what application are we going to use, or when are we going to move to OAE, I’d like to broaden the discussion to ask ourselves, what do we want out of a learning management system or, more broadly, a virtual learning environment?

Others have developed many great tools for collaboration, and for creating content. To what extent do we want our systems to integrate with those systems?

For example, Google and others have developed wonderful tools for collaboration, and for content creation. Should our learning environment take advantage of some of those? When we want students to work on projects together, should we take advantage of the fact that our students already have a Google presence within their DavisMail environment? Can we leverage that, and do things there?

Other tools also allow faculty and students to post content, and then interact, discuss and critique that content. A number of faculty use a tool called VoiceThread. With VoiceThread, a faculty member, or students, can post content—an image, a document, a video, an audio file—and then students can critique it, using audio and other documents. It has collaboration and peer critiquing built into it.

Many faculty want to build peer review into their courses. Can we build on something like that existing tool, to build our peer-learning environment?



This will be a broad discussion.

For the first part of the year at least—rather than get into the weeds of ‘should we use this tool or that tool,’ or ‘what should the screen look like’—I would rather sit down with a group, with our mission being ‘let’s imagine together.’

Let’s imagine what we want, which is really a functional question, and then we can begin to back up from that. That can help inform, maybe, a requirements list, or a desires list, that we can then use to start thinking about where we should go.

We’re currently committed to using the version of Sakai that we have for the next couple of years, and it’s fine, it’s being developed. But can we use this time to carefully think out what we want?

Part of that will be informed, I hope, by other discussions and initiatives. Our discussion of where we’re going with online and hybrid courses should inform our decision of what this learning environment ought to look like.

We mentioned lecture-capture. We’re going to be creating and using content within the classroom, and I would hate to see us build two different universities, a virtual university and a physical university. We should build a learning environment that incorporates both, so that what we do in the classroom, and the technology that we imbed in the classroom, should fit nicely with our online learning environment.

I hope we can move away from looking at it as e-learning and physical learning. It’s just learning. I would hope that in our early discussion, we’re talking about learning, not about technology.



Another important initiative we’re going to think about this year, and the next year or so, is e-text and e-content.

E-books have taken off. Some publishers announced last year that their e-sales had outpaced their physical sales. In other cases it’s well over 30 percent. On the other hand, e-textbook sales are lingering around 1 or 2 percent of the sales of textbooks.

What can we do about that here?

Good question. I think that’s going to change. We need to think about whether we want to change that, how we can change that, what are the stumbling blocks, and what are the models to make it work.

One reason why it hasn’t changed yet, maybe, is that it’s not high stakes. If I read my latest novel or something online, rather than in print, it’s easier for me to access, it isn’t necessarily tied to a particular device—there are all kinds of advantages.

Now look at the learning space. A lot of work has been done on understanding how students read a textbook. It involves teaching people how to find, highlight and annotate the important parts of a textbook.

How well people read things is important to how well they do.

We’ve done a lot with the textbook, to help students read textbooks well, with images and tables put on a page so that they can understand the concepts. We’ve designed our physical textbooks really well. Maybe a problem in moving to an e-textbook world is, how do we make sure we design the e-textbook for learning success?

The point is, we’re very good at showing people how to use physical textbooks, and maybe that format doesn’t translate easily to e-text?

I’m not sure. I guess I’m saying yes. We have to be very cognizant—as we think how to move to an e-textbook world, and why it’s going slowly—that we are very, very concerned that our students succeed in their learning. The move to an e-text world is a cultural shift, and we have to design things so they will lead to student success.

I believe that e-texts actually hold the promise for greater learning than physical textbooks, but we have to think carefully about it.

Some of the early results are mixed. At California State University, Northridge, we started some studies with e-texts, and frankly, in the early data, the students who were engaging the e-text were not doing as well as the students were engaging with the physical text.

If you open a well-designed textbook, it’s so different from a novel. A novel is a bunch of words in an order. A textbook has tables, inserts about cases, and all kinds of things. I think you could make an e-textbook even better.

In a physical textbook, you can imbed an image, even a beautiful glossy image. In an e-textbook, you can imbed a video, or a link to the author explaining something. And it can be designed so that the student can dig down as deep as they want, or where they want. You can almost make it a find-your-own-textbook, or find-your-own-adventure-through-the-textbook, or things like that.

There lots of ways that it can be better, but we haven’t found them yet. We need to work on finding them.



The textbook, like any text in a sense, is a very individual and isolating thing. As I’m reading this chemistry text, I need to learn the important points. There are all kinds of clues. I have to figure out what is worth that yellow highlighter, and what annotations are valuable.

With an e-text, especially a network-based e-text, you can make it a social environment, so that I can ask people in my class what the problems are. It can be designed so the instructor can look in and see, if the students are willing, what problems the students are having.

It could take on the qualities of a wiki.

A wiki, a discussion board, all kinds of different things. It can take on ‘phone-a-friend’—you could have a tool so that a student who is having problems with a particular portion can ask the instructor or a TA. They can send a question to anyone in the class, anyone in the university, anyone reading the book. If the textbook is being used enough, chances are other people are reading this very passage at this very time. Can I send out a message to all of them, saying, ‘I didn’t get this’?

That not only helps the person who is asking the question—the other student in New York who is reading that, and believes they understand it well, will understand it even better if they explain it to somebody else.

Is this discussion about e-texts one you want to have on campus?

Oh yeah. It’s tied in to so many of the areas we’ve been talking about. I think where we want to go with e-text is critical. We’ve got to learn how to do it, and there are significant challenges in our thinking about how to do it.

I imagine you welcome faculty who want to talk with you about all this?


What’s the best way for them to contact you?

Send me an email ( or call me (530-752-2133). Even better, as much as I live in the virtual world, I want to get together and talk with you. So, set up an appointment. Drop by.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *