Technology is expected but the personal touch still matters
SacSend. MySacState. Blackboard. ScholarWorks.
These words may mean little to those who don’t spend their time posting, tweeting and pinning, but they mean everything to Sac State students and instructors in meeting the challenges of education and communication in the digital age.
Just as the Internet, smartphones, social media and cloud computing have transformed society and business during the past decade, they too have tested higher education leaders to “think different.”
Different in delivering instruction. Different in connecting faculty and students. Different in developing effective, efficient business practices during a time of fiscal constraint.
“Technology is built into everything we do. But even more than that, it’s about what our students expect and what our faculty expect,” says Larry Gilbert, vice president and chief information officer for the University’s Information Resources and Technology division.
Students expect easily accessible, real-time information about their classes, their academic progress and their ability to navigate course requirements toward their degree, to name a few, Gilbert says.
Faculty members want to be able to communicate directly with students, use technology that enhances instruction in the classroom and have well-maintained computer labs and spaces for students. And Sac State administrators want technologies that expand instruction while reducing costs in a time of shrinking state budgets.
“We are constantly looking for ways to be productive and efficient through self-service and innovative practices,” Gilbert says.
Education is a technology priority
Sac State has been proactive in developing a strategic plan for information technology to maintain and embrace technology that fosters teaching and learning excellence, aligns with campus-wide strategic goals and creates efficiencies in teaching and business practices.
The campus enhanced and updated its secure information portal, MySacState. It also acquired licenses for commonly needed web-friendly software like Adobe Pro and Dreamweaver so hundreds of campus websites could be updated directly by faculty and staff. And it integrated ScholarWorks into the Office of Graduate Studies site to provide a catalog of projects and thesis papers for scholarly review.
Sac State has also focused on creating classrooms and informal learning spaces that incorporate new technologies for learning, such as touch-screen smartboards and digital displays that students can plug their laptops into for presentations and information sharing.
The campus also participated in the Educause Study of Undergraduates and Information Technology, the results of which showed that while students seamlessly merge smartphones and tablets into their lives, they don’t necessarily want educational delivery exclusively on them, Gilbert says.
Likewise, while Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram are part of their personal DNA, students don’t want social media integrated into their education.
“The vast majority (of students) want to keep devices and their uses separate,” says Gilbert.
Meeting the mobile challenge
Jeff Dillon, director of Web Services, says that device compatibility is key to delivering information and services. While “apps” have become the rage for iPhone, iPad and Android phone users, “we need to make sure our websites are mobile aware, to ensure that content works properly on mobile devices,” he says.
“We try think about the most highly popular sites we have, and make sure they work really well in the phone environment,” Dillon says.
Sac State has hundreds of websites, ranging from departments and colleges to alumni relations, financial aid, admissions and graduate studies. Dillon and his team have focused on putting all sites on a common platform, and training more than 300 faculty and staff to use web-design applications.
But that didn’t stop him from working with vendors to develop a Sac State mobile app for the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch. The app, available on iTunes, allows users to get contact information, read the latest campus news, view the events calendar and navigate across campus. It also has a campus directory for looking up faculty and staff members.
Dillon, who has spent more than a decade in higher education technology, says the pace of change in hardware and delivery has never been faster.
“There are so many devices, and there’s this trend toward the personalizing of IT,” he says. “It’s a real challenge, and we need to look at what’s critical for the students.”
Leveling the playing field
For Carol Houston, what’s critical for her students is that they have access to the same hardware, software and technology that other students have. Houston serves about 125 students with a range of physical, psychological, developmental and learning disabilities through Services to Students with Disabilities’ innovative High Tech Center, located in the Academic Information Center.
These students might have difficulty accessing and using standard computers. Students might instead need auditory rather than visual feedback, screen magnification, voice recognition, an adapted writing environment, or a combination of any of these.
“My job is to interpret what their needs are, show them the hardware and software and how to use it most effectively,” Houston says. With these assistive technologies, students are able to complete their assignments and stay on track toward graduation, she says.
Candido Servera Jr. is a testament to that. Servera graduated in May with a degree in psychology, and hopes to attend graduate school with career aspirations as a vocational counselor for military veterans.
Blind in his right eye and visually impaired in his left, Servara uses software called Magic to magnify the screen text and images up to 36 times normal size. While the technology has been crucial to his success, Servara adds the center “has a highly trained, capable staff that makes it easier for us. Carol is really involved in seeing that we succeed.”
Michael David Davis also graduated in May, and looks forward to using his business degree to start his own company some day. Blinded by a brain tumor at age 20, the 31-year-old David used JAWS —Job Access With Speech—to read text from a computer screen.
The technology isn’t without its bugs, Davis says. PDF documents tend to provoke occasional “This page is blank” voice-recognition response from JAWS, he says, so whenever possible he had center staff scan his textbooks and instructional materials into the program.
(View a demonstration of assistive software.)
Center employees offer a number of other services, depending on the student’s needs. During the past academic year, the center scanned nearly 900 textbooks for more than 230 students, allowing students to see enlarged text or hear instructional material on the center’s computers. Materials also can be converted to Braille, Houston says.
“They’ve worked so hard to make it here,” Houston says of her students. “If it weren’t for these computers and the assistive technology software, I don’t think they could get through.”
Art and digital design converge
It’s a different story at the Department of Design, where department chair John Forrest Jr. says technology is only an instrument—albeit an important one—for graphic design students hoping to forge art, creativity and communication in their work.
“The computer is the tool to generate the final concept,” Forrest says. “The idea must first start in their mind, and it’s the ideas that fuel the best use of technology and design.”
Graphic design students learn on the software tools that they will use in their careers such as the Adobe Creative Suite of products, to take their ideas from thought and often hand-drawn artwork into completed work.
They learn how to use photography editing software to optimize and stylize photos, illustration programs to create “drawings” that they can manipulate and add shadow, color and other effects, including three-dimensional modeling. They also learn publishing products that take their efforts in to final production, adding typography and other elements and merging it all together. (See Galleries of student work.)
As important as technology is to the final product, the department’s cohort-based approach of grouping students and faculty for two years or longer is critical, Forrest says. Students discover their creative and technological strengths, and working together allows them to sharpen their skills and leverage their passion for potential career paths, whether it be with in traditional design, web design or something as specialized as movie trailers, he says.
“Designers don’t work in a vacuum, and never have. It’s about working in teams,” Forrest says. “They need to speak and understand the language of the industry, and the truth is that industry continues to evolve.”
That team concept has design students putting an interesting twist on the Educause findings Gilbert talked about regarding the use social media in the classroom. Recent graduates Jay Allen and Kevin Swaim say that they value the personal touch of their classroom professors so much that they want to preserve it and often do so using social outlets.
“You see students using their phones to record something a teacher says and then posting it to Facebook,” Allen says.
Swaim notes that there are also Facebook groups within the design program. “There are groups within the cohorts where they will talk about assignments or share things they’ve learned in class.”
Forrest tells students they likely will work with several software upgrades while at Sac State, and that they should keep their eye on how people are viewing design. Students are now thinking of design in multiple formats, including mobile and tablets, he says.
“We can’t begin to predict where technology will take us, but we have to be prepared for that, and think about how that technology will enhance what a student can create,” he says.
Gilbert agrees. Technology is being applied to the academic mission of the university in greater ways every day, and it’s also shaping how administrators manage resources for students, faculty and citizens alike.
Gilbert cites a new wave of graduation-planning software that can collectively calculate students’ required classes, chart those classes over a period of time and establish the types and numbers of classes to meet changing academic trends. This could not only save students and taxpayers untold millions of dollars, but would improve graduation rates over time.
“It’s good for students, for teachers and for the state,” he says. “We’ll move in that direction even if we don’t have the software, but (technology) could move us there faster.”
For more information on technology developments on campus, visit the Academic Information Resource Center.