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Higher ed explores high-tech opportunity

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Posted on November 3, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



GPSclass5626.jpg
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE VISITING Assistant Professor of Geography Zach Christman instructs his Environmental Field Methods students in the proper use of a handheld GPS device Tuesday afternoon outside Bicentennial Hall. Institutions of higher education are incorporating more and more technology into the learning environment. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of articles focusing on the changing role of information technology in various sectors. The series looks beyond the push for universal broadband, asking how Internet access and the advances of technology are changing life in Addison County.

ADDISON COUNTY — College lectures that take place anywhere, any time on YouTube? A history class graded based on student-built electronic games rather than papers? An app that functions as a course textbook?

As Internet technology becomes ubiquitous on college campuses in Vermont and across the nation, those are just some of the ways professors and college administrations are harnessing new technologies to push teaching forward.

What with blogs, videos, podcasts, social media and discussion boards, college instructors and students now have access to a world of learning resources that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago.

The open availability of technology can seem like a mixed blessing, said Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education.

“I could be in the back (of the classroom) playing Angry Birds,” said Alexander, a Ripton resident, referring to a popular game played on smartphones.

Nevertheless, some professors require that students engage with the technology more than ever: for instance, asking them to post questions and comments to a message board during a lecture. And that technology gives students a new ability to fact check and dig deeper into a topic on the web, even as the professor is lecturing.

“In a sense, it tears down the door in the classroom and connects those students to the entire planet,” said Alexander. “The classroom is no longer a closed space, and every classroom teacher now has to think about this.”

Eric Sakai, dean of academic technologies at the Community College of Vermont, said the same technologies that are being used in classrooms have also helped his institution expand online course offerings, a capability the institution has been developing since 1996.

These offerings, said Sakai, have proven important for students who have jobs or are caring for children and prefer to do coursework on their own schedules.

From digital photographs of art projects in online studio art classes to e-tutoring services for all CCV students, new Internet technologies offer a world of new opportunities in the distance learning world. The school is working to implement voice and video conferencing for discussion classes.

BEYOND DIAL-UP

As CCV builds out its online offerings, however, it becomes essential for students to have access to a speedy Internet connection.

“It is possible to do an online course on a dial-up connection,” said Sakai. “But it’s painful.”

Sakai said a recent student survey found that two-thirds of CCV students have access to broadband Internet, either at home or at a nearby library. And CCV advertises that nearly all Vermonters live within 25 miles of one of its 12 locations, where students can access computer labs.

Sakai said it’s logistically more difficult to provide Internet access and digital services to 12 offices across the state, rather than building up resources in one central location. But he said each center has someone on staff with expertise in online learning, so that students and teachers have access to high-speed Internet and accompanying support services.

Middlebury College has faced its own hurdles in this arena, according to Mike Roy, chief information officer at the college. Middlebury recently ran fiberoptic cable all the way to its Bread Loaf campus in Ripton, and it just completed a large network overhaul that now provides wi-fi Internet to all of its dormitories.

On a residential campus, the computer networks face increasing demands for bandwidth to accommodate not just class-related Internet use, but video for entertainment and gaming as well. Roy said Netflix video streaming puts a significant demand on the school’s Internet.

And especially in a rural environment, Roy said, it’s particularly important to ensure a well-connected campus. High-speed Internet throughout the town of Middlebury, he said, is another thing the college pays attention to, as high-speed Internet provides opportunities for businesses, entrepreneurship and, ultimately, jobs.

“Because of our geography, in order to maintain the best faculty and staff, we need to make sure that there are job opportunities for faculty partners,” Roy said. “We’re very interested in ensuring that there’s sufficient broadband in the county to make sure that there are these sorts of opportunities.”

TEACHING LITERACY

Easy as it might be for a first-year to navigate an iPad or share an article on Facebook, there’s a more complex digital knowledge that students need to learn. Roy said the way institutions teach research skills has undergone drastic changes, adapting to incorporate digital literacy.

“People overstate the level of digital literacy that students have,” he said. “Some of the deeper technology skills, like information literacy skills and the ability to think critically about technology — (students) don’t show up uniformly having those sorts of information literacy skills.”

As students migrate from the library stacks to computers for research, the role of the campus library is changing.

“Big campuses are wondering why they have such big libraries and so many librarians,” said Alexander.

At Middlebury, this has meant that the tech support and library departments at the college have merged.

“The core mission hasn’t changed, but one of the interesting challenges for the library is to figure out how to continue to provide the same sort of access … within this changed environment,” Roy said.

Professors, too, make use of the training and support that the technology department offers. For instance, Geography Professor Zach Christman could be found one day this week teaching his Environmental Field Methods students the proper use of a handheld GPS device.

 While many departments also make use of discipline-specific technologies for data analysis, mapping or research, which they tend to already know, Roy said a curricular technology team provides support for professors experimenting with new technologies and teaching methods.

In-class technologies aren’t necessarily glamorous, or particularly new — PowerPoint remains a popular method for presenting slideshows in class. But he said more and more professors and instructors are incorporating YouTube videos and other multimedia resources found across the web. And it’s not uncommon for a class to have a blog or an online discussion board in order to continue the conversation outside of scheduled class times.

James Morrison, an assistant professor of political science at the college, has taken the technology one step further: He makes podcasts of his lectures available on iTunes, uploading accompanying slides to his website. This way, students can review lectures they’ve missed or re-watch lectures for exam review.

The lectures are also accessible to anyone around the world who’s interested in the topic, and Morrison said he’s heard from people across the globe who are following along with his classes.

Making information available for informal learning isn’t a new concept. Morrison cited a series of lectures from The Teaching Company that he listened to as a child, including a series from physicist Rich Wolfson, now his colleague at Middlebury. Bryan Alexander said programs like ones on the History Channel have been offering this sort of informal learning for years, as well.

These days, however, Alexander said many colleges are moving toward making their own course materials available online. It’s about sharing information widely, something most educators, by virtue of their chosen professions, are passionate about. Frontrunners in making college courses available to the public have been the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University and Carnegie Mellon University, all of which offer materials from many of their courses for free online.

“They have a bounty, and they want to share. That’s pretty commendable,” said Alexander.

Morrison said he’s followed these efforts to make learning resources available globally for years, and that so far he’s been the first one to put his lectures online at Middlebury.

“I have this notion that it’s our calling, as educators, to democratize the experience,” said Morrison.

To Morrison, this doesn’t stand in the way of giving students paying for a Middlebury education the best experience possible.

“The first goal is to improve the learning experience for my students enrolled in the course,” he said.

Students following courses from off campus can’t have papers graded, for one, and they can’t attend office hours or sit down and have lunch with a professor. Roy said the open availability of information on the Internet doesn’t cheapen the concept of higher education.

“The kind of education that’s taking place at Middlebury is not about putting content into your head,” said Roy. “It’s really about learning to read, learning to write, learning to think critically. It’s learning core capabilities that will enable our students to continue on to be leaders and professors and citizens of the world.”

Although the traditional notions of a lecture in class and textbook reading at home is very much threatened by technology, higher education itself is not, Alexander said.

“That piece of paper (the diploma) remains unsurpassed,” he said. “But (Internet technology) really changes the notion of the class. The instructor becomes the coach, or the guide.”

This series stems from the discussions of a regional technology plan being worked on by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. We welcome your responses and thoughts on the article or on technology in general, input that will help the team incorporate as many viewpoints as possible into the plan.

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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