As technology continues to change rapidly, colleges and universities are trying to figure out what these changes mean for education.
"People need a way to be able to think about and participate in this enormously complex and rapidly changing computing environment, a way that's going to be productive, a way that's going to be satisfying, a way that's going to be inspiring," said Gardner Campbell, director of professional development and innovative initiatives at Virginia Tech.
Students increasingly expect to use mobile devices, social networking sites and other tools to find information in class. And faculty have to look for different ways to incorporate these powerful computing tools into educational discussions.
"If we insist on using old techniques to teach them, we'll lose them," said Doug Rowlett, instructional design coordinator at Houston Community College Southwest.
If you're going to be effective, you have to adapt instead of trying to force students into a mold that they don't fit in, he said.
In new media seminars across the country, faculty, staff and graduate students are starting conversations about what they're doing in the classroom and how technology is changing education in their colleges.
When he was at Baylor University in Texas, Campbell started a seminar with a small group of faculty and staff in spring 2010. He put together a syllabus that included the book "The New Media Reader" and documents about what computers are.
For an hour and a half each Wednesday, graduate students, faculty from different disciplines and staff, including librarians, met to talk about what they read. These seminars provided a space where faculty, staff and grad students could share their thoughts and help facilitate discussions.
"At the heart of every faculty member is a curious kid who's a little geeky and really fascinated by the world around him or her," Campbell said.
After talking about the seminars at different conferences, he piqued the interest of other colleges and universities. Alan Levine from the New Media Consortium helped him come up with the idea to have a number of schools participate in the seminars. They would have a common syllabus, work through it at the same time, and blog about what they learned.
Tom Haymes from Houston Community College Northwest also helped him think through how the network piece of it would go. During the 2010-11 academic year, about 12 others created local groups.
Through these seminars, people realize that others struggle with the same core issues they're grappling with, Campbell said. They can take on leadership opportunities by being a facilitator of a seminar. And their individual contributions can scale up to the national network.
Houston Community College Northwest
At Houston Community College Northwest, group discussions are designed to get faculty thinking, said Tom Haymes, director of technology and instructional computing and government professor.
"The seminar's not about answers, it's about questions, and it's about getting people to ask the right questions."
They think about things like the nature of copyright, the nature of students today and what technology's here for in the first place.
But a few challenges make it difficult for faculty to open their minds about technology. Colleges have a long tradition of making technology difficult, and a lot of faculty have been forced to use bad technology platforms, he said.
So most faculty resist new technology to a point because it doesn't make sense to them, and on top of that, it can be badly designed. If you put those two things together, people run away, Haymes said.
The seminar is helping people learn how to advocate for good technology and develop a comfort level with it. Because it's designed to be a deep learning experience, most of the seminar's effects happened months after it was over.
This last spring, a faculty member participated in Apple's Challenge-Based Learning project, something she probably wouldn't have done without the seminar. That's one of his success stories.
Houston Community College Southwest
Most of the time, faculty members only have time to say hi when they see each other in the hallway or committee meetings. So when sociology professor Ruth Dunn had the chance to talk about big ideas and relate them to her classroom, she jumped at it.
"The biggest thing that I got out of it was being able to sit in a room with my colleagues and to really discuss in-depth ideas."
At Houston Community College Southwest, between 10 and 12 college faculty and staff came to the seminars each week in spring 2011. The participants came from different disciplines and generations, and that brought a variety of perspectives to the conversation.
Many of the faculty at the college are afraid of technology and view it as a distraction. In one seminar session, someone said he makes students turn off their mobile devices so they won't play games.
But an English professor spoke up and gave an example of how those devices can be used in powerful ways. Her students had read a long treatise on the vindication of the rights of women written by Mary Wollstonecraft.
One of the students said she thought the writer was mad about how women were treated because the writer lacked self-confidence in her own appearance. But another student pulled out her smartphone and found a portrait of the writer. She was pretty, and this fact changed the course of the discussion.
"That's an example of how that technology can be used in just amazingly strong and powerful and different ways, ways that we don't even think of," Dunn said.
Before focusing on pedagogy and strategy, we need to understand what technology is doing to us fundamentally as a society and how it's changing us, Rowlett said.
And we also need to realize that the learning process is never finished. Once you learn something, you're going to have to relearn it multiple times, and that's hard for faculty to accept.
The six regional colleges in the Houston Community College system have been pushing technology at faculty, urging them to modernize, and only hiring people with computer skills. The faculty don't understand why that's necessary, and they've been wanting someone to sit down and open a dialogue about it.
At Tulane University, a small group of faculty and staff members met every Friday for lunch in fall 2010. They sat around, munched on food and talked about theory, said Mike Griffith, instructional technology specialist and adjunct professor of English.
They used the standard syllabus that Campbell created in the fall, and at the last session, the faculty members told Griffith that they wanted the session to continue in the spring.
So on a week by week basis, they devised their own syllabus that delved into more contemporary issues in emerging media. They talked about WikiLeaks, the upheaval in the Middle East and other events as they happened.
If they hadn't gone through the historical readings in the fall, they wouldn't have been as productive with the reactive style in the spring, he said. The historical readings gave them a nice foundation to ground their discussions in.
During the second semester, they talked about the narrative of gaming and how gaming has changed over the last five years. They brought in a PlayStation 3 and a Wii as well as some PCs for everyone to play together.
"We had a couple cinema theorists in the group who through that interaction were beginning to see that games had a little bit more of a narrative than they had given them credit for," Griffith said.
The interdisciplinary nature of the seminar was its strength. Faculty brought differing perspectives as professors of English, communications, philosophy and other subjects. And staff, including science librarians, graphic designers and instructional technologists, brought their perspectives as well.
Griffith teaches new media theory and said it was fantastic to see how each of the disciplines approached emerging media and have a space to talk about the readings.
In the fall, the original Tulane group will continue on for a third semester, and Griffith will start another group with the Campbell syllabus. Both HCC campuses will also have another seminar.
So far, 13 colleges and universities have started seminars locally, including Penn State, the University of Central Florida and Rice University. And this fall, Georgetown, UC Berkeley and Virginia Tech will participate along with a few others.
But they won't find any answers because there aren't any, Rowlett said. And that's the good thing about these new media seminars, as well as one of the things that people are scared of.
"We're all kind of groping around here, not in the dark so much, but in the twilight trying to figure out what the right direction is and find some way of coping with this."
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