Virtual Socrates
A classroom innovator brings web tools to the lecture hall

By Marguerite Rigoglioso


Americ Azevedo

Americ Azevedo
Noah Berger photo

01 May 2002 | When Americ Azevedo needed a replacement lecturer for his “Introduction to Computers” class just before spring break, he settled on an unusual stand-in: his “virtual” self.

Before leaving on vacation, Azevedo created a PowerPoint lecture, complete with slides and voice, using a microphone and laptop computer, and downloaded it to the class web site. Students were then able to “attend” the lecture, from their own computers, at any time of the day or night.

“We’re putting class participation back into large courses,” says Azevedo, who co-taught the popular Engineerng Interdisciplinary Studies computing class, which attracts up to 500 students a year. “The technology enables us to engage in the Socratic method of discussion, despite the size of the class.”

Cyber-lectures represent “the next revolution in computer technology,” Azevedo says.

To enhance the learning experience in his courses on computers and network applications, Azevedo has experimented as well with other web technologies — such as webcasting lectures over the Internet and conversing with teaching assistants and students on the course web site using “web crossing” messaging technology.

I compute, therefore I am
The enterprise allows Azevedo to marry his high-tech skills with his love of — and training in — philosophy. “I was a science whiz kid when I was young, always doing things like building my own computers,” he says. “At the same time, I’ve been interested in philosophical problems since I was 8 years old.”

Philosophy won out early on, leading him to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in philosophy from UC Irvine and San Francisco State in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Soon afterward, Azevedo began doing temp work for Continuing Education of the Bar, at Berkeley, where he was eventually asked to develop computer programs using his understanding of Boolean logic. From there, he segued to a programming job at Standard Oil.

But tinkering with technology wasn’t all fun and games for Azevedo. “By 1980, I was so stressed out that I retired for three to four years,” he says. During that period, he explored Eastern religions, mysticism and consciousness. He calls it “the most valuable time of my life.”

Rested and recuperated, he returned to high-tech — working in the ’80s and early ’90s to help fund and turn around small technology companies and later assisting universities with their online efforts — which led him to Berkeley last year.

His resumé may read “Type A” — but in person Azevedo is low-key, more suited to an ashram than an office, it would seem. “I still consider myself to be a philosopher marooned in the world of technology,” he laughs. In his year-and-a-half on campus, he has developed a reputation as a kind of 21st century Socrates, mixing philosophical erudition with lessons on HTML.

In the process, he’s helping make Berkeley a pioneer in classroom web technology. Capabilities like webcasting and web crossing “are allowing students to grab much more information from lectures and create their own learning community,” he says.

“These technologies are also helping us optimize our physical plant, which will be particularly important as enrollment increases.” Instead of meeting three times a week, he notes, “a class might be able to meet physically two times a week and once in cyber mode, thus freeing up the classroom for other uses.”

Cyber feedback
Many students agree. To find out what those taking “Introduction to Computers” think about the new web technologies, the Berkeleyan turned to none other than the course web site to pose the question. Within 24 hours, 70 students had responded to the query — some in a negative vein, some enthusiastic — and to each other’s messages, underscoring Azevedo’s contention that web technology can enhance community dialogue.

Responses ran the gamut. “When I am sick, I can watch what I missed at home,” wrote Hallina Pohyar. “...This web technology gives us the instant replay that we so often wish we had.”

Said Richie Hawley: “I hate webcast lectures!… Will all human relations eventually be replaced by computers?”

Azevedo says no. “To have a completely online experience is definitely alienating. We all need the human touch, and I don’t think that will ever go away.”


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