Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Connecting Students and Supporting Faculty through Technology at St. Edward’s University

December
2015

St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Texas, is making a renewed commitment to global learning. The university’s Strategic Plan 2015 calls for an increase in the number of international faculty and students, a heightened emphasis on study abroad, and the infusion of global perspectives across the curriculum and cocurriculum. The plan also explicitly connects technology and global learning, calling on faculty and students to “connect with their peers and interact with international experts through an increasingly global and digital classroom and … customize their own learning environments through the power of technology.”

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this priority is a pair of new computer labs equipped with high-definition video conferencing technology, through which St. Edward’s students have conversed in real time with Russian university students about recent events in Ukraine, among other uses. “But you don’t need high-definition video conferences to have global digital learning,” says Rebecca Frost Davis, director of instructional and emerging technology at St. Edward’s. “You can have other ways of connecting online with people. Everywhere our students are is a global digital classroom: we’re not bound to the physical classroom. It’s everywhere students can learn.”

Integrating Technology across the Curriculum

Davis’s primary charge is to integrate technology into curricula across the university. Her strategy: “I sit on a lot of committees.” Davis was inspired to apply for and accept her current position in large part because of its emphasis on working with faculty and facilitating collaboration between the Office of Information Technology and the office of academic affairs, and she currently serves on the General Education Renewal committee and on the Quality Enhancement Plan committee, which is working in support of the university’s upcoming reaccreditation. Sitting in committee meetings may not sound like the most innovative strategy, but it means that Davis is a participant in important conversations about university-wide initiatives and can offer advice about how new technologies and digital tools might help accomplish the broader goals of those initiatives.

“I want to see technology integrated across the curriculum,” she says, “but not for the sake of the technology. It’s for the sake of the learning…. When I talk with people in academic affairs, I try to get that across—not that they should use this particular technology, but to get used to using lots of different technologies.” Technology in the classroom should facilitate “the seven C’s,” Davis says: “We want students to communicate, collaborate, create, and compete in the cloud for their communities and careers.”

To that end, Davis and her colleagues in the Office of Information Technology (OIT) engage in extensive faculty outreach. “We currently are speaking to department chairs across campus about the larger initiatives going on, but also to learn what they are doing, as they may have new courses and initiatives we know nothing about but we need to be prepared to assist them,” says Brenda Adrian, associate director of instructional technology. OIT staff can then share some of those successful examples with other faculty members in different departments.

OIT also recently launched the Innovation Fellows program, which offers stipends to encourage faculty to use technology for teaching and learning. “It’s based on course redesign and pedagogical innovations, which tend to involve technology almost inevitably, but we focus on the learning goals and pedagogies,” Davis says. “Some of these folks come in with interesting technologies that they already use, and they learn to refine it and take it further.”

Michael Wasserman, a professor of environmental science and policy, was one of the first Innovation Fellows. Wasserman has used collaborative digital mapping and blogging with his students to create a “Travis County Almanac” website, inspired by the Aldo Leopold book Sand County Almanac, in which Leopold reflects on his regular encounters with the natural world near his home in Sauk County, Wisconsin. Wasserman’s students visit natural areas in surrounding Travis County, Texas, and document their experiences in writing and photography. Their photos and written reflections are posted to the Travis County Almanac website—essentially a group blog in which each post is tagged to the location that inspired it on a Google Map.

Wasserman is now using a similar exercise with a study abroad course he teaches in France. For this course, he is asking his students to expand their data collection in the natural world to include information about themselves. Using Fitbits to track their personal fitness metrics, and documenting their eating habits and collecting other personal data, the students are testing the hypothesis that interactions with nature make people healthier.

“We have a university learning outcome stating that students should develop skills to maintain their full and physical wellness, and when we talk about it, we’ve always said, ‘oh that will be covered in the cocurriculum,'” Davis says. “But here’s an example where students will do this in their environmental and cultural foundations general education course.”

Wasserman’s project is also interesting because of his “layering of technology on technology gradually” as he helps his students work toward a set of learning outcomes, she says. “Also, they are thinking about data using their own data—and when students make a personal connection to something, they are more likely to learn it.”

Curation and Critical Reading

Chris Micklethwait, another Innovation Fellow, also capitalizes on the collaborative potential of online tools, and the ability to access the most current information available through such tools, in his Modern Middle Eastern Revolutions course, an upper-level general education course in which students learn about globalization and the ways local history and culture influence contemporary events.

“I first proposed this course right after the Arab Spring started in 2011, and for me it was an immediate, mediated experience,” Micklethwait says. “I’d just returned from living in Cairo, Egypt, a year before, and I was witnessing these events secondhand through social media, through what my friends still there were sharing, tapping into those networks of activists creating a digital spectacle of their movement.” But for his students, he realized, “their experience here had been mediated through the twenty-four-hour network news cycle, and that’s a very narrow spectrum of information.”

So Micklethwait began experimenting with digital curation tools that allowed his students to gather and share contemporary online resources and artifacts that improved their understanding of the topic they were studying. After trying a few different platforms, he settled on the social bookmarking platform Diigo. Diigo is a widget that, once installed in a web browser, allows his students to bookmark and annotate online materials by commenting and highlighting, or creating subject tags that aggregate related materials. As members of a connected Diigo group, the students can see each other’s annotations, and the class website has a running ticker showing the latest bookmarks and comments.

Micklethwait also has his students blog weekly about the resources they find online, reflecting on how these materials have changed their previous knowledge and understanding of the subject. After ten weeks of bookmarking, annotating, and blogging, the students look back over all the material they’ve generated and write a final essay that is also posted online, available for the general public to read. “I wanted my students to create something that would exist in that same matrix of information through which it was produced … and it seemed like a more natural medium for this to live, since they were talking about their experience through these mediums.” 

Another effect of having students bookmark, annotate, and reflect on their resources on a public website is that their learning is more visible. With traditional research papers, “99 percent of the work is invisible,” Micklethwait says. “I check in periodically, but you can’t see or track the evolution of their thinking till the final paper arrives. With this new assignment, they post a blog every week, reflecting on some of the artifacts they’ve posted on Diigo that are relevant to their research questions, and they summarize them and talk about the global processes at work; they connect them back to their baseline knowledge and narrate the expansion of their thinking.”

A Gradual Process

Adopting even the most useful tools can require tradeoffs. Micklethwait notes that the more sophisticated the digital tools he introduced, the more class time he spent teaching students to use them. Some of tools he experimented with, such as Tumblr, were familiar or intuitive to students, but many students needed assistance setting up the Diigo widget in their browsers, and a Google Maps annotation tool he introduced (similar to the above-mentioned use by Wasserman) required still more time. Relying on digital resources also can create access issues, as students need a portable device to view the materials during class.

Those time demands and tradeoffs apply at least as much to faculty work. OIT has spent the last year working with faculty on a campus-wide switch to a new learning management system. The OIT staff agree that the new system is an improvement over the university’s previous system, and that it offers a number of tools that could streamline some faculty tasks, but at present, the change is taking up a lot of faculty members’ time, Adrian says. “We couldn’t tell them, 'hey this is easy'—because to be honest, it isn’t; it all takes work. [Most St. Edward’s faculty] have high course loads and serve on many committees, and every time a technology changes, that requires them to learn new things. That’s good, but there’s some fatigue.”

Davis says she and her colleagues try to introduce tools that are useful for the work faculty are already doing. “We ran a faculty-staff learning community last year called One Hundred Percent Digital, and the idea was to change our workflow processes to become more digital and cloud-based,” Davis says. The new learning management system, for instance, includes an auto-population feature that automatically adds any new assignments faculty create to their digital gradebook and to the course syllabus and student assignment calendar, and students receive notifications through e-mail or text messages. Other tools, like the newly adopted Box cloud storage system, are intended to help faculty committees share resources and collaborate on documents. 

But just making the tools available to faculty and staff is not enough—there’s a certain level of training and information that’s required if these tools are to be useful, Adrian says. “We run pilots for everything,” she says, in order to gather information about how faculty and staff will actually use any given tool and then create training documents. The rollout period for a new technology can be up to four semesters, Davis says, in order to provide enough time to sufficiently test the technology, document the way faculty are actually using it, and create appropriate training materials. “We always want to do things quickly in tech,” Adrian adds, “but it takes longer to do it right. You have to take time to test the technology, to get faculty representation, and do your outreach so you understand what they want to do.”

Despite popular perceptions, most faculty are not luddites, Davis says. “Technology has to be something that helps faculty be more productive and efficient,” and, ultimately, to help their students learn. When technology does that, she says, “they see the value.”

 

Read more about digital learning initiatives at St. Edward’s University online. Rebecca Frost Davis is also a member of the Digital Learning Working Group in AAC&U’s General Education Maps and Markers initiative, which was charged with making recommendations about the most effective ways for technological innovations to support and enhance liberal learning for all students. The group’s recommendations are incorporated into a forthcoming AAC&U publication, Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem, by Randy Bass and Bret Eynon, scheduled for release in 2016.

Institution: 
St. Edward's University