Albert & Charlotte Anderson’s Gift of Long Distance Learning

by Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder 

Albert Anderson stumbled into the world of computers and technology, which underpinned his life’s work, nearly by accident. As a member of the sociology faculty at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Anderson was first introduced to computer analysis. “The business school got a computer that no one knew how to run, and I happened to have a chance to sit down and play with it, and I found that I had a pretty good aptitude for working with computers,” says Anderson. “It all grew from there; I became a computer nerd.” He went on for postdoctoral training at the University of Michigan (U-M) in mathematical sociology and became familiar with the Population Studies Center (PSC), and was invited to join the research staff in 1972. As a result of his capability with computers, he co-headed the data processing unit at PSC with Mike Coble for 26 years, before retiring in 1996.

During his time at PSC, Anderson, along with colleagues Ren Farley and Lisa Neidert, regularly presented workshops on how to use U.S. Census Bureau data to poverty researchers, journalists and other researchers. “By 1970, the Bureau began to release files of data at the individual level, rather than aggregated files,” says Farley. “This was a tremendous resource, since we could test hypotheses, such as who lived in which neighborhoods and whether the financial pay-offs for investments in education were identical for men and women or for blacks and whites. But most scholars did not have the requisite knowledge of modern computers that would allow them to access and analyze the massive files of data available annually from the Bureau and other federal agencies. Albert knew what was needed. He developed innovative strategies that were highly effective, including his Public Data Queries software for the analysis of these massive data files. It remains the premier such software in existence.”

Anderson says, “We became fairly proficient presenting these workshops over the nearly 12 years we did them. But as time went on, the workshops became nearly cost-prohibitive, as we were bringing people to Ann Arbor and typically spending a week with them. The funding ran out in the early 2000s.” That’s when the idea for a distance-learning option began to emerge. “I became interested in finding a way to present the ideas that we were using in the face-to-face workshops and somehow apply them over the internet to bring people together virtually,” says Anderson. He started to explore the idea, but found it was an idea ahead of its time, and that he didn’t have access to the tools needed to execute a virtual workshop.

Charlotte and Albert Anderson, standing.

Charlotte and Albert Anderson

In the process of this exploration, Anderson and his wife Charlotte began discussing the possibility of philanthropy to support technology, and ultimately virtual workshops. “We decided that we would rather have this happen while we were living so that we could see what would come of our gift, rather than waiting until we were gone,” says Anderson. “We made an initial commitment to the Population Studies Center to support a high-tech conference room that could potentially be the hub for a virtual workshop.” PSC created the special conference room – it is Room 2443 in the ISR building on Thompson Street, the Albert and Charlotte Anderson Conference Room.

The next step for creating a high-tech distance learning center evolved organically when Anderson met with PSC research professor Bill Axinn and learned of the need for such a space in Nepal. Axinn says, “Jeff Morenoff, the PSC Director, brought to my attention the possibility that Al was interested in making a gift to the Center, but it wasn’t clear what kind of work would be most useful. We set up a meeting, and I heard Al explain the kinds of things that he had accomplished with PSC, especially his engagement in methods of teaching people how to use computer analysis of population data to evaluate policy or consider programs or even how businesses might use some of the information. And I thought, wow, we’re in this situation today right now in South Asia where there’s tremendous demand for data to guide public policy, to guide program implementation. We’re creating the data but there are not enough people in those places who are equipped to analyze it and use it for those kinds of purposes. I was really impressed by how Al’s original work in the United States applied to the situation that we’re in right now in South Asia.”

Axinn had first encountered Anderson when he was a student at PSC from 1986-1990 and Anderson was a senior member of the faculty. Patrick Shields, the ISR Director of Development, got them together again. “At that meeting, we talked through some of the ideas and wondered if they would work over the ocean to make contact with a similar facility in Nepal,” says Anderson. “So we ended up using some of the money that Charlotte and I had contributed to PSC to support a similar facility at ISR in Nepal, and that’s where it all started.”

Created in 2015, the Albert and Charlotte Anderson Distance Learning Center (ACADLC) resides within the main building for the Institute for Social and Environmental Research – Nepal (ISER-N). The room features a state-of-the-art video conference technology system using a Polycom server. It remains the most technologically advanced space in Nepal, creating a one-of-kind destination to support research and training, while remaining an economical option, because instructors can teach and engage students virtually. “The academic world already respects ISR in South Asia, but it is stunning how well designed the Distance Learning Center is and what a draw it has become,” says Axinn. ”People are flying in from Pakistan and Bangladesh to take these courses, it’s incredible.”

Students watching their instructors on a monitor.

The Distance Learning Center in use. Courtesy ISER-N.

As ACADLC has evolved, the match between Anderson and the project in Nepal has turned out to be an even better fit than perhaps Axinn or Anderson even initially realized. “Al is more experienced at teaching new users how to use statistical analysis of population data than I am, and he had a bunch of good insight in how to run a distance learning center to accomplish that,” says Axinn. “Al’s ideas are every bit as important as his financial support and we could not have constructed the room or built the facility without him. It was something we wanted to do, and Al knew how to do it.”

One example of this collaboration is the incorporation of Anderson’s over-the-shoulder technique to see how a student is completing their work. For years, Anderson had used the concept in his workshops and understood its value. To add this capability to the ACADLC, cameras were added to the facility in the back and front of the classroom that can zoom in over the shoulder to allow instructors in Ann Arbor to closely observe students in Nepal.

As the team looks ahead, one challenge the center faces is time. Nepal remains 11 hours and 45 minutes ahead of Ann Arbor. That means students in Nepal often take classes before breakfast or after dinner, which translate to usual class times in Michigan. One possible solution is creating a residential program for ACADLC students, which could then more conveniently offer longer hours.

Anderson says that other plans and the future of ACADLC may depend on where Axinn wants to take it next. “I just like sit back and watch it happen,” says Anderson. “I’m past the point of being able to be actively involved, so I intend to continue to financially support it, and we will see how it develops and where it goes. Much of it will depend on Bill and his ideas. We are very much in accord with what he hopes to do, and we agree completely on how we would like to see this develop.”

Axinn has lots of plans for ACADLC. He first sees an expansion of the frequency and variety of content of courses that are currently offered. “There’s no doubt that the demand for a basic ‘how do you analyze data’ course is high, but we’d like to offer it more often,” says Axinn. “And also to expand content to other topics that are related to the use and creation of data. My colleague, Dirgha Ghimire, traveled there in May 2018 to review curriculum and offerings of the Center. Our long-term goal is that every week there’s something going on in the ACADLC.”

Other long-term goals include using the facility to train local government statisticians and field teams in how to create a computer-assisted-interview survey and how to execute a panel study and use various tools to implement that kind of data collection. There’s also interest in expanding the number of rooms to include some locations in India and possibility replicating the ACADLC. “My version of the future would involve not only the use of the Anderson Center in Nepal but a family of centers sprinkled around South Asia,” says Axinn.

“As a kid, I was lucky enough to get to live in Nepal for a couple of years, and it had a huge effect on me,” says Axinn. “I knew I wanted a big part of my career to be about Nepal, and I wanted to do something to give back to the people of Nepal for all that they have given me. So I’m very personally grateful to Al for the financial support and the ideas to make this happen. I think it’s very important for social research in South Asia, and certainly a very important gift to the people of Nepal.”