Teaching Drives Technology Choices at St. Thomas

As long as you’re not hungry to the point of distraction, it can be helpful to think of technology that aids learning at St. Thomas like a cafeteria.

People all over the university – from Information Technology Services (ITS) to the Center for Faculty Development (FDC) – work to find and implement technology for faculty to use in support of their teaching. They’re like the chefs developing the menu. Then there’s the faculty themselves, cafeteria patrons who also brown bag their own things in, technology they may have discovered that could be useful for themselves and others.

Throughout this whole cafeteria, people are constantly swapping ideas of what could be on the St. Thomas menu, what they’ve already had that “tastes good” and works well, and what new item they heard about from a different caf that might be nice to have here.

“It’s crucial and part of that cafeteria that we’re always exploring new menu additions,” said ITS instructional systems consultant John Kinsella. “What’s already on the menu? What can we replace with something better? What fills another niche? It’s constantly iterating what we’re offering so it’s up to date, benefits the most people in the best way and allows better teaching.”

A metaphorical location for all this is helpful in part because – on the actual campuses of St. Thomas – the evolution of technology to aid teaching and learning takes place seemingly everywhere: A huge network of formal and informal resources helps make it all happen, from the sizable outfitting of a “smart classroom” with full digital capabilities, to a simple conversation between two faculty discussing what free online tool works for their class.

“Both externally and internally, the need for collaboration is more than it has ever been before. We really do need to work with people and partner with them,” said Peter Weinhold, St. Thomas' associate director for academic technology. “People bring their own technology in, we have our stuff, and we have this conversation about what we’re going to use in a particular class. That requires this great conversation, which can be really hard but really fun. We try to make it more fun.”

Teaching first

The underlying idea that seems to guide conversations about technology and teaching at St. Thomas is that the former is completely about supporting the latter: What you’re trying to teach is what’s important; technology is just there to help.

“The first thing to keep in mind … is you don't use technology for technology's sake,” said Marty Warren, an English professor who has extensively used different technological tools throughout his career. “It's a matter of figuring out which technology is going to work best for your purposes, with regard to an assignment, project, whatever you're looking at.”

“The pedagogy (teaching method) is what we work on first and the technology is folded in to support it,” said Elizabeth Smith, who worked in ITS for six years before her current role as associate director of the FDC. “The pedagogy is the driver and the technology is the means to it.”

Many members of ITS work with faculty and departments across the university to figure out what technology might be best to support the pedagogy they’re looking to implement. Those support roles have become increasingly important as different and more technology becomes more accessible, evidenced by the FDC recently hiring two full-time instructional designers to supplement ITS’s efforts.

“It’s a big deal. We focus quite a bit on technology (support),” said FDC director Ann Johnson, adding that the FDC has had numerous faculty workshops aimed at technology training. “In the coming years you’ll see even more expansion in that area of helping faculty connect with more effective teaching technologies, and moving even more with the (university’s) strategic plan toward curricular growth in the area of online and blended delivery.”

More options, more decisions

Online and blended course delivery is a great example of the shift in teaching technology in recent years because it is so much more accessible than in the past; tools and platforms cost less and are more familiar than they used to be, meaning more people can  and do  use them.

“Technology is no longer for the privileged few who have the money to buy something big,” said ITS instructional systems consultant Eric Larson. “It’s difficult to phrase how truly important and valuable this is, but what we’re seeing is a broader distribution of technology so it gets into more hands for teaching and learning.”

That’s true of webcams and conferencing platforms, but also of all kinds of technological tools more specific to certain topics. “There’s an app for that,” is a known phrase to any technological consumer, and the same ideas hold true for tools faculty can use to support teaching. The trick is figuring out what works well, for what purposes, and sharing that knowledge with others at St. Thomas.

“It's clear at this point that technology comes and goes. It's a matter of learning to discern what technology has the ability to last and evolve,” Warren said.

Some technology is specific to certain fields and may be less sharable across disciplines. Dina Gavrilos of the Communication and Journalism Department pointed out that many COJO courses use multimedia tools (cameras, audio recording, etc.), for journalistic training, but other classroom tools are more common across the university.

"You have general technology that’s accessible for classroom management and experience, and the technology that’s specific to the major, the field, that the student is in," she said. "It’s nice to be able to have both and play with both."

In the past many of the classroom options at St. Thomas were larger-scale tools used across the university (“enterprise level” technology, as Kinsella said). Now, so many “consumer level” products (Google Drive for storing and sharing class projects, for example) are available and widely used, that the mix with thousands of students and faculty is much, much larger than years and decades before.

“That’s the challenge of academic technology: There’s not just one style being used. There’s not just one technology being used. There’s not just one course being offered,” Kinsella said. “The tools we roll out try to suit multiple styles and delivery methods. One of the core challenges is finding that balance with all those differing needs.”

Some technological tools at St. Thomas have struck that balance over time and, while they continue to evolve, seem poised to endure. Practically anyone who has taken or taught a course at St. Thomas in the past decade is familiar with Blackboard, the university’s learning management system, which lets users share a wide range of class content and resources online.

“Blackboard’s one tool that has stood the test of time. We’ve been able to massage it and reflect the change of time here,” said Weinhold, citing that more than half of courses used it last year.

Email is another longstanding tool in a time of constant technological evolution. St. Thomas recently migrated to the Office 365 Suite and the cloud for email and file storage, which expanded the amount of information users can put on the university’s system.

“Email is still remarkably important and a lynchpin here,” Weinhold said.

And so it remains a key option at the cafeteria. Like every other thing on the technological menu, it is guided by a desire to support teaching and learning.

“The focus of overall technology, we’re looking for simplicity and quality of experience for both faculty and the student,” Weinhold said. “We can figure out the technology that works for you and we’ll support you over time.”