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A Whole New U

Blogs, podcasts, courseware…Teaching and learning in the 21st century will rely more than ever on these tools. Several institutions discuss how educational technology is changing the classroom experience.

By Mike McNamee

“Initially, professors faced a lot of incomprehension when we talked to the administration or IT department about educational technology,” Clayton says. “We had to do a fair amount of work to justify what we wanted or needed. But in the past three or four years, I’ve seen a real attitude shift at all levels of the university. Now, a professor approaches IT and says, ‘Here’s what I’m trying to accomplish,’ and IT makes it happen.”

Chances are, your campus is experimenting with educational technology—be it courseware, podcasts, student Web pages or weblogs, or multimedia. But institutions that don’t embrace the new technology risk being left far behind, warns Susan Metros, deputy chief information officer and executive director for e-learning at The Ohio State University in Columbus. “The majority of students today are visual learners. They absorb images, analyze visuals, and create visual images as a means of expression,” says Metros. “The professor who teaches in a text and auditory mode with lectures isn’t going to reach students—or prepare them for 21st-century literacy.”

Already, the Internet is the No. 1 tool that prospective students use to gather information on which they base their application decisions, says Dennis A. Trinkle, chief information officer at DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana. And students are intensely—if unconsciously—aware of how a college or university uses technology. “No student goes to College X because it has a great network,” Trinkle says. “But students who grow up in a networked world take those resources for granted, and they certainly notice their absence. Good technology is the baseline of their quality judgment.”

So what’s cutting edge in educational technology today? Here’s a look at how campuses are using three new technologies and an answer to the question that always haunts discussions of educational technology: Will students still come to class if they can plug into an education via Ethernet?

A New Kind of Literacy

If the purpose of a liberal arts education is to prepare students for any path they might take after graduation, where does information technology fit in? DePauw University, Greencastle, Indiana, decided that technology has to be treated as the newest liberal art and integrated into every phase of a well-rounded education.

“We have core requirements in writing, mathematical reasoning, and speaking,” says Dennis A. Trinkle, chief information officer and Tenzer University Professor in Instructional Technology at the 2,350-student university. “We’re striving for fluency in technology. It’s another pervasive skill that needs to be taught throughout the curriculum, not as a stand-alone.”

To carry that out, DePauw has embraced a set of principles for using instructional technology. Three key points:

  • Learning comes first. “We don’t buy a new, trendy technology, then ask how we can use it,” Trinkle says. “The pedagogy comes first.” DePauw’s faculty instructional technology support personnel are trained to determine what professors are trying to achieve before looking for a technological solution.
  • Good enough is good enough. “No small liberal arts college could win a technological arms race,” Trinkle wrote recently in EDUCAUSE Quarterly. Instead of reaching for flashy new tools, DePauw concentrates on making the best use of what it has and invests heavily in people to support its programs. When a new program or tool seems to fill an academic need, the instructional technology support personnel will put it in the “sandbox,” trying it in several courses before making a heavy investment.
  • Students must be actively involved. Like most institutions, DePauw has student writing tutors to help peers structure and revise their papers. But the university also has student technology training tutors to do the same for multimedia presentations and Web pages.

At an even higher level, DePauw admits 40 students each year into its Information Technology Associates Program (ITAP). These honor students spend 8 to 10 hours a week in intensive training in technological and leadership skills. By their sophomore year, they’re actively working alongside staff members in developing and supporting IT projects, vastly expanding DePauw’s capabilities at a fraction of the cost, Trinkle says.

The program’s graduates have a 100 percent placement rate, Trinkle continues. “Employers say ITAP students are the equivalent of employees who’ve been on the job five years”—due as much to their project-management and negotiating skills as to their computer savvy.
Not all DePauw students have that intensive experience. But the university’s learning-centered approach ensures that technological literacy is critical to the liberal arts education.

References Galore

At Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, a chemistry student who can’t keep track of which reactions lose or gain heat doesn’t have to seek out a classmate with better note-taking skills. Instead, she can click on Professor Ignacio Ocasio’s Chemistry 105 page in Case’s Western’s MediaVision system. There, a keyword search on “exothermic” will call up a host of references—a clip from the textbook, PowerPoint slides, weblog entries where fellow students shared their comments, and a video clip of last week’s lecture, already cued to the point where Ocasio demonstrates how an exothermic reaction gives off heat.

Many campuses use courseware to distribute class materials and organize everything from quiz schedules to lecture notes. At DePauw University, a computer-science professor developed a system called DyKnow that links a teacher’s electronic whiteboard with students’ tablet computers to share and store notes. But most such courseware is text-based, says Lev Gonick, chief information officer at Case Western. The university has extended the concept by building its system around video—“the key tool for reaching today’s visual learners,” Gonick says.

Each semester, Case Western’s IT team records about 25 large undergraduate classes for MediaVision. A teaching assistant annotates the video in real time, marking cues in the digital recording for key words and concepts. Later, slides and documents are linked to the annotations. If the course has a chat room or allows students to upload their lecture notes, those too are indexed. The same keywords might show up in other courses or in another professor’s version of the same course, all stored in MediaVision.

The result: “A psychology student who really wants to understand Freud’s theory of the id can search across the entire curriculum, watch different professors as they explain it, see how other students understood the concept, and tap into a wealth of materials,” says Gonick.

Academic departments bear the direct cost of recording and annotating the lectures, which runs about $6,000 a course, “down from $50,000 or more a few years ago,” Gonick says. The system uses standard Web tools that most students have mastered long before college. “The main limits are pedagogical,” Gonick says. “How can faculty make best use of this resource to create a high-quality educational experience?”

Professors feared that video-jaded students would tune out their material—if they bothered to come to class at all. Yet even in its early stages, Case Western’s assessments find, MediaVision is improving students’ work habits, engagement with faculty, and recall of course material.

Hear It for Yourself

Think those impossibly tiny music players wired into students’ heads are just another way to wreck the hearing of today’s youth? Think again, says W. Gardner Campbell, professor of English and assistant vice president for teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 2004, when Campbell first started hearing the buzz about “podcasts”—audio recordings designed to take advantage of the ubiquitous Apple iPod and other digital music players—the former radio announcer’s reaction was, “Where have you been all my life?”

Now, Campbell and his students routinely create and publish digital recordings to share lectures, tours, class projects, and interviews. Drama and education students make audio diaries of their intern experiences, capturing the atmosphere of an audition or a classroom with ambient sound. Campbell’s students record the poems they are reading to compare interpretations. Much of their output is posted on the Internet, where students get “the most powerful feedback you can get—a real-world assessment of whether a project or report works or doesn’t,” Campbell says.

Some of Campbell’s fellow professors can’t imagine what they can do with podcasts, beyond recording their lectures. And, of course, they fear that students will skip or sleep through class if they know lectures are readily available on the Internet. But “enhanced podcasts” can synchronize audio with slides and video, creating multimedia presentations that can be played on personal computers or the newest iPod models. Campbell encourages his colleagues to think in terms of National Public Radio-style documentaries: “Audio creates a special environment. It’s theater for the mind.”

For the university, the huge advantage of podcasts is that “they can be done without building out a whole new IT infrastructure,” Campbell says. The software to record and publish podcasts is readily and freely available on the Web. “And you don’t need a new Web server, either, because you can also publish these podcasts on a Web hosting service,” he notes. “For $8 a month, you can get enough storage and bandwidth for enterprise-level podcasting.” New sites are springing up that specialize in educational podcasts, including iTunes U (www.apple.com/education/solutions/itunes_u/). And smart institutions might find a source of revenue—podcasting the famous lectures of a beloved professor, for example.

Fiscally Minded Futurists

By Karla Hignite

When it comes to deploying educational technologies, chief business officers must be fiscally focused and future-minded, says Nim Chinniah, deputy vice chancellor for administration and academic affairs at Vanderbilt University, Nashville.

In light of new whiz-bang technologies that are redefining educational delivery in and out of the classroom, no one knows with certainty the specific methods of communication that faculty and students will employ even five years from now, says Chinniah. While colleges and universities generally consider economies of scale upfront in any technology planning, that model doesn’t always fit an environment of instructional innovation.

For Chinniah, the ideal approach for determining best uses of teaching technologies is when individual faculty members work within their classes to find the most effective ways to communicate with students and how to supplement the educational process through technology. “That will inevitably vary from class to class based on the faculty member, the student composition, and the course topic,” he says.

From an IT cost perspective, that means one ongoing challenge of instructional technology is scalability. “Simply because something works for one class in one department doesn’t mean it can be scaled to fit the needs of all professors and students in all classes,” says Chinniah. And that may spell higher costs associated with individualized solutions. “You may need to first determine what makes sense for your institution by testing a particular technology, and then come back later and try to create efficiencies.”

The threshold for tolerating costs associated with introducing cutting-edge instructional technologies can vary widely among institutions, he admits. “At Vanderbilt, we see it as our job to make the infrastructure available and to then rely on faculty and students to determine the need for specific technologies. In the end, students will always tell you what is viable. Their very habits and behaviors indicate what works or does not work.”

While Vanderbilt faculty are encouraged to innovate, IT staff work closely with faculty members to discuss specific delivery and storage needs and to make sure they are aware of measures to safeguard data and ensure operational efficiency and continuity. Chinniah believes that implementation of any new technology must be a consultative process. “You still have to justify the investments in light of all the other things your institution could do with that money.”

That’s why strong partnerships among academic, IT, and finance colleagues are imperative, he notes. “We all have to put our heads together to consider how to bring to life the best approaches in the most cost-effective manner possible."

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer.

Any Wiki Way You Can

When Vanderbilt’s Clayton turns his students loose in class to blog (write comments on a shared weblog), the results are often surprising. “Students are willing to say things on a screen that they will not say aloud, even though their comments are immediately available to the rest of the class and even to the entire world,” says Clayton.

But that’s a typical effect of Internet tools, Clayton points out. He finds that unlimited bandwidth has changed his own approach to teaching, even in such mundane matters as commenting on students’ essays. Now that students submit their papers electronically, “I write more comments, longer comments, and much more useful comments than I ever did when I was trying to scrawl in the margins,” he explains. “It’s made a huge change in teaching.”

In 1996, when he first started teaching students how cyberspace changes communication, Clayton focused on hypertext, the now-common links that let writers digress, expand, expound, and draw references right into their papers. Today’s favored tools are blogs, wikis, and multimedia papers—combining text, audio, and video. On blogs, readers react directly to an author’s postings. A wiki is a set of Web pages where any user can react to, say, a book by adding a page or editing other users’ entries. Both forms “open students’ eyes to the power of revision. They quickly help undergraduates overcome that sense that once they’ve written something, it’s final,” says Clayton.

Now that he’s chairing the English department, Clayton is on the other side of the desk when faculty want more resources for educational technology. Making the case is easier, he says, at an institution whose medical school wants to be known as a leader in medical IT. “That’s probably changed the climate,” he says, “but in fact, I think the whole university sees what we can gain with new technology. We’re making great strides.”

A Captive Audience No More?

What’s Your Take on Tech?
We want to hear about your experiences with introducing educational technology on campus. E-mail gerry.romano@nacubo.org.

But what about that ever-lingering question: Will students bother to come to class when their courses are all on the Internet? More importantly, will anyone bother to go to college?

At Case Western, where MediaVision preserves the sights and sounds of class as well as the content, students say they’d still rather attend. “Well over 70 percent of students say their attendance hasn’t been affected by MediaVision,” Gonick says. Indeed, Case Western’s research shows that students’ personal interactions with classmates and faculty improve.

That only makes sense, says Campbell, of Mary Washington. “You can’t replace the experience of being in the actual classroom,” he says. “The people who get the richest results from educational material get it from contact, community, and immediate live feedback.” That’s something that even the best educational technology doesn’t yet offer.

MIKE McNAMEE, Washington, D.C., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.