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Dave-Melone

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Saved by Dave M
on December 13, 2008 at 12:38:25 pm
 

Higher education is unique in that institutions are expected to set the standards in the self-guided pursuit of learning.  Students come to college to gain further preparation that they will need to become leaders in their chosen fields.  Trade schools, community colleges, and universities all aspire to be centers of knowledge, research, and innovation in their specialties.  Students come to these institutions to build on the skills learned in their previous years in the educational system, and eventually to prepare for careers and the rest of their lives.

 

Technology Abundance

This private secondary design school in California in particular is no different from its peers in higher education.  With four campuses and 16 majors covering fashion, beauty, apparel manufacturing, and merchandising; you would expect to find industry standard computer labs, technology training, state of the art industry software and hardware.  Indeed they are there and available for its 7500 students.  On the Los Angeles campus, there are four computer labs for general or classroom use, in addition to high end Apple computer labs and Avid workstations.  Students wander to and from class with laptops in hand, listening to digital audio players, sending text messages on cell phones, and carting their books and workshop materials in a cart.  They communicate with each other in different channels, often holding different conversations with multiple people simultaneously, strolling to class in groups chatting verbally while texting other friends.  A stroll through the Library will show half of the students working on PowerPoint projects, and the other half browsing over to Facebook to chat.

 

Of course at a design school, many courses are focused on using and learning technology, the tools of the trade for their chosen career paths.  A common scene in the labs and computer classrooms are students working on Adobe Illustrator or Autodesk design programs with a teacher roaming from row to row looking over shoulders and inspecting their work.  The newly reconverted "multipurpose" classrooms offers instructors a podium with a flat-panel Windows PC built-in, while the student tables have hideaway drawers that open up to extend a monitor and keyboard set for students to use at each seat.  Multiple T1 lines service different labs in school and fiber connections knit the spaces in between so the graphic design major students can post files to a shared drive while the students in the apparel manufacturing courses send hundreds of spec sheet files to the large format color printers.  The main server room in the Information Technology department hosts multiple business class servers on the IBM System i platform which runs two different internal intranets, staff email, the student portal, and the main student information databases.  A staff of over 60 IT specialists work in tight coordination with the rest of the college's business units such as marketing and fiscal operations to write programs to generate new reports, reach compliance with new financial aid laws, or cull lead information from various different marketing web sites built by the college for high school students, the public, or industry partners.

 

computer lab

Downtown LA real estate is being snatched up quickly by condos and smaller retail stores in a recent revitalization project.  Enrollment has been growing and new programs and new classrooms are being set up in empty floors and office space in adjacent buildings as the college readily expands its network and services into new spaces, transforming them in beautiful computer labs and additional classrooms. 

 

Students work on files collaboratively and individually from a shared network drive in a new classroom that has been recently recabled to finally take advantage of the gigabit ethernet pipe running under the street. Older, slower cables that had been choking off the high speed data were just recently removed.  This school spares no expense with student technology, realizing in part that it is going to be with them he rest of their lives, and it must keep pace with the industry as far as hardware, software, and network infrastructure is concerned.  In fact the mission statement even touches on this.  Graduates are expected to…”value ethical choice, demonstrate an awareness of cultural diversity, communicate effectively, think critically, and possess the knowledge of technology essential to their professions.” (FIDM, 2008 emphasis added). 

The Means Versus The Ends

Computer classes with high end design equipment and industry-level technology all are designed to prepare the students for their coming jobs.  A pattern-maker and dress designer will need to know how to use Gerber Technologies' plotters and cutting machines as well as have a handle on advanced design techniques in Illustrator or even CAD.  In the less specialized General Education foundation courses, there is a new call to focus on digital literacy and learning to navigate today’s modern business environment.  But standard instruction is yet to be provided to students yet on how to navigate the digital landscape.  The computer is often used as a substitute for the overhead projector or a visual aid, despite the college’s attempts to make classroom response systems, or “Clickers” available, or the recent posting of screencast-recorded trainings on the school’s intranet for instructors.  Communication between the school’s leadership and its teaching community is inconsistent at best.  Many instructors support their income with teaching while they work in the industry, and often don’t have the extra time to learn to use a complex intranet or attend extra training or professional workshops.  This makes it difficult to get company communication out to them.  On the flip side of this, some of the Education department's requests for more technology are met with budget delays or get caught up in a lengthy project management cycle.  Both sides need to meet each other half way.

 

This school is on a tipping point with technology. There is much of the technology needed for industry applications but not enough meaningful technology use is woven in to the teachers’ curriculum at every level.  If you walk in to any number of classrooms you will see classrooms with portable “Educarts” or wheeled carts that house a wired or wirelessly connected PC and projector.  Instructors or students typically will be flipping through PowerPoint slideshows projected onto the wall or giving a demonstration on how to fill out a costing spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel in the introductory math courses.  Instructors struggle to navigate to web sites and download large email attachments from their already overly full email accounts.  Many instructors express frustration with the existing technology resources at FIDM, citing that technical difficulties get in the way of them utilizing the school's own digital communication tools to effectively teach.  “I have to resort to using my own Gmail account and Google Docs to store my lesson files since the internal email is just to slow,” comments one frustrated marketing professor.  Managing all of the students different email addresses is problematic for teachers as well since many consider it a necessity to keep open the lines of communication with their class, but the school does not currently provide internal email accounts for its students, so teachers and lecturers make do with their lists of their students' personal email addresses, which often have cryptic spellings and are "hit and miss" in how often they are checked.

Asking "Digital Natives" To Become Tourists

Marc Prensky cited that the influx of new technology and video games were creating a cast system of digital natives and digital immigrants.  Digital natives can easily navigate the landscape of the computer and networks, taking to computers and interface technologies naturally.  He commented in 2001 that we as educators are set in our ways and teaching in the "old method" asking students to turn down their technology when entering the classroom.  They weren't learning in a context to which they can relate and ”…unless we want to just forget about educating Digital Natives until they grow up and do it themselves, we had better confront this issue. And in so doing we need to reconsider both our methodology and our content.” (Prensky, 2001).  Seven years later, the game has changed somewhat.  Rather than being addicted to gaming as Prensky originally thought, they are walking communications terminals, in touch with everyone in their network either personally and electronically through smartphones and laptop computers that have become a fashion accessory.  Yet when they enter they classroom, the rule is "cellphones silent and eyes up to the front of the classroom."  We are asking our students to be tourists, take pictures, and retell the story of their journey to school later during a test or exam.

The Future of Education

While students are taking full advantage of new digital communication tools and web applications in their personal lives for communication with peers on a social level, instructors grapple with less than adequate resources or experience with these technologies to meet the students on their turf.  College policies prohibit use of some web 2.0 collaboration tools since it would place proprietary digital information and assets about the college on “outside servers.”  Contemporary Business Strategies is a new capstone course at othat explores the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking applications in a marketing context, but how can this be demonstrated in a classroom with these practices in place?  In higher education, more responsibility is placed on students to be in charge of their own academic performance.  But who is deciding for the students as to what technology resources they need to succeed, what should be made available to them, and how they will ultimately use the precious resources that are offered to them?

Effective Training and Business Practices

What of learning how to use these new technologies?  While most frustrated adults claim that kids are running circles around them in technology, recent findings actually demonstrate that while students are using technology more, they are not necessarily better at it.  A survey of university students in Glasgow, UK revealed that students utilized advanced ICT only as far as the instructor really required.  While most all students had cellphones and reliable access to a computer, consistent use was shallow.  The majority of them were using text messaging on cellphones to chat with friends, and students also used learning management systems when required.  Often cited as a barrier to more widespread acceptance of new technology tools was the inconsistent use of these technologies between different classes.  Some of the technologies only are used by the enthusiasts on the faculty.  But if other faculty does not realize the value, and the lone teacher continues on without adequate notice or support then what good is it?  While students did appreciate the availability of a system like WebCT to post questions and get answers after class (Margaryan, A., & Littlejohn, A., 2008).  We so often assume the NetGeneration will lead the way, but when left to use technology without guidance or assistance, how can we expect them to learn how to utilize new tools as they become available in the workplace, to create and communicate with them?

 

At our example college, steering committees of Education department representatives and the informational technology department regularly meet and share ideas, brainstorm, and decide to move on initiatives or amend policies.  More recently the student portal was completely redesigned to provide a more dynamic but not yet quite social experience.  Various features such as campus news, study tours, and regular student activities updates via podcast audio have bridged much of the communication gaps with students.  However, teachers do not have full access yet to review what students see.  While department administrators are usually in communication with each other on the business side, this doesn't extend fully out to instructors yet.  Sometimes, instructors don't know who to complain to for help and decide to make do with an issue can be easily resolved.

 

online class resources

That isn't to say the situation is not improving.  All school experience communication difficulties, and this one in particular is made worse by the geographical separation between the four campuses and the investment in time and money to train already time-poor instructors who may not be exactly pleased with the encroachment of technology on their jobs.  In the spirit of increasing communication channels between educators, the distance-learning program at our school recently deployed collaboration sites within their open-source course management system, Sakai.  These collaboration sites are by lead instructors and department chairs.  They include a document repository and discussion tools for all instructors within a given subject areas to access and download curriculum, syllabi, and common rubrics to use in their classes.  As new tools and software is released into the curriculum, screencast trainings are created and posted in these spaces and triggers an email notification to the enrolled instructors with a direct link to the training material.  This practice has spread into linking up smaller individual online workspaces for instructors to manage with their students.  Students now have access to download course modules and homework from their homes.  This initiative was implemented without a lot of rules from IT or Administration and offered as an additional resource for any on-campus class.  Over the last 3 semesters this program has been offered, web-enabled course requests have tripled to be over 100.

 

Borrowing from successful business practices to promote innovation can work too.  Companies like IBM and Google promote innovation time where employees can dedicate company to brainstorming together on new ideas and working on pet projects.  The notion ebraced by leadership at IBM for example is "...that business has changed fundamentally in the post-Internet world, and that in this global environment an enterprise must dissolve the boundaries that defined it before while intentionally empowering its employees to think of themselves as creative contributors to an ongoing and transparent endeavor" (Carey, 2008).

 

What would schools be like if districts officially mandated this sort of philosophy with their faculty?  We could sandbox curriculum, perform software demonstrations of new tools as they pop up, and have a level-playing field discussion about whether these ideas can be implemented in schools and curriculum, and that's just for starters.  Assuming the intranets, document repositories, smartboards, chat rooms, smart classrooms, etc., were all there already, then teaching 21st century skills like collaboration and utilizing all facets of communication can occur.  Teachers will all have stake on their curriculum, the process would be transparent to parents, and students can take pride in their work as it would be seen as something they learned and created with the teacher and peers and weren't just told to memorize facts. If schools encourage this kind of innovative and exciting atmosphere for their faculty, then the benefits will be passed on to the students as we prepare them the become the next knowledge workers and move into the job market.  Why shouldn't students be learning in this type of environment?  Watch this video to explore some of the business ideals that drive Google today:

 

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Cooperation and Knowledge Sharing

What enterprise technologies are we providing our students to promote higher orders of communication and collaboration? Instead of trying to replace functionality of social networking, chat, and email; we should be reaching out to the services that students are utilizing. Interoperability of services today make of possible to enable syndication and aggregation of data between systems. With the right technology (with the low to negligible open source licensing costs) institutions can leverage Facebook's API to display Facebook updates on their own student portal gateways. Many of our design school's own students use Facebook in lieu of email to arrange class meetings and study sessions since they are, according to one student, "just easier...and it's already there, and we're on it all the time anyway."

 

Open Education Resources is a fairly recent repository of open content, open copyright learning assets that were made available for free online to all educators to use within their classrooms.  This is the same material that is used in many top-level universities such as MIT, Harvard, and Yale and they are built to be integrated into most learning management systems, or even to be printed out and taught from a lecture podium.  With this level of openness, much can be said for preparing incoming college students for the college experience by sharing best practices and knowledge that works between faculty at the university and high school levels. Smaller professional netowrking sites such as Classroom 2.0 and WebQuest.org offer faculty an immersive opportunity to connect with peers with social networking.  While WebQuest.org shares curriculum units that are self-contained mini-websites that can be used in classrooms that don't have network connectivity available for all students.

 

Communication Technologies as a School Supply

Communication is a necessity in all forms of education from K through 16, not only as a medium for teaching and learning, but also in regards to keeping business processes running smoothly. So why hasn't higher education embraced some of the innovations that enable higher orders of workflow and learning?  Virtual meetings, different modes of synchronous and asynchronous communication, social networking and new taxonomies for filtering content were all originated to hone the transfer of information, to sift out unwanted "noise," and to ultimately bring communication to a more productive and meaningful level.

 

In bringing these techniques to our own business and teaching methodologies, we must utilize them to their fullest potential so that we can also in turn teach our students how to communicate effectively in this new territory.  In fact, as this video from Michael Wesch shows, our students may end up showing us the way instead.

 

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The future of education here lies in the proper use of communication mediums to promote collaboration and digital literacy.  While technology has been usually focused on the end goal of completing tasks (i.e., building a planning and allocation spreadsheet or marketing presentation) there is a strong desire to utilize technology more as a means to an end.  Instructors are increasingly turning to the internet and available electronic textbook resources to teach in the classroom.  More and more student assignments require internet use as well.  The exercising of teaching and learning happens both ways, and faculty need to take advantage of opportunities to learn about and work with the latest and greatest technology tools if they are expected to lead by example.

 

Paper textbooks don't cut it anymore especially if the books are over 2 years old.  Need new tools and greater cooperation with publishers and content providers as needs change.  We already have course management systems, but how many of these are just used as an online folder?  I you link over to the discussion board it is easy to see the tumbleweeds blow across the screen.  Why is this, students are already chatting elsewhere with a better (or more entertaining tool).  We can bring this to our students and integrate these two system to allow for Facebook chat in our course management system perhaps?  Then students can jump from their profile to the chat, and seamlessly wander over to the online course with a single username and password.  Instead of forcing to the students to stay within our box, we can open up our box to them.

 

Conclusion

Digital communication for the college student means more than sending emails or SMS messages to friends, but it is a means of expression in their growth as professionals, a means of presenting themselves to future employers, and for some, a catalyst to evoke emotion.  Students are accomplishing these tasks already in ways that some faculty haven't even been prepared for.  Innovations in digital creation and publishing has spawned videos and digital presentations in place of written papers.  Students are determining the structure of curriculum and the path of their own education.  Students live in this space already and demand that education is compatible with their own lives.  As educators, we must meet them in this space and not ask them to become tourists in our own comfortable space. We must also act together as educators to promote the growth and research of this profession, evaluating new digital communication technologies as they emerge and create an environment that supports open communication, collaboration, and innovation in teaching regardless of what tools come along.

 

References

 

Google, Inc. (2008). Life at Google (video) Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://www.youtube.com/lifeatgoogle

Carey, R. (2008). The Corporate Newsletter Goes Social: IBM And Employee-centered Social Media.  Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://www.scribd.com/doc/2898918/Social-media-IBM-study

Margaryan, A., & Littlejohn, A. (2008). The myth of the digital native: Students’ use of technologies. Retrieved December 7, 2008 from http://www.slideshare.net/anoush/myth-of-digital-native-students-use-of-technologies-presentation

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants -- A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids. Retrieved December 1, 2008 from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.

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