Academic technology dreams

While thinking about the stack of 34 laboratory reports that sat at home waiting to marked for data tables, graphs, analysis, quality of conclusion, format, grammar, vocabulary, organization, and cohesion, I was explaining the capabilities of Turnitin.com to a colleague.

I run a writing intensive physical science course. As any expository instructor knows, marking essays is a long process. And at full capacity I have 32 essays to mark each and every weekend of the term. I believe that the ferocious turn around pace that I demand of the students provides both lots of opportunities to write, and an immediate opportunity to correct in the next lab the errors of the previous lab. A lab is handed back on Monday, the next lab is due that same Thursday.

I see concrete improvement in the writing capabilities during the term. I see fewer sentence level errors, more consistent use of tense, and better vocabulary choices as the term progresses. The students also expose their thinking and reasoning about science in a way that I would never see on multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank test.

While I strongly believe in the writing centered core at the heart of the physical science course, I am more than reticent to advocate that other laboratory science instructors trod the path I have taken. I essentially give up every weekend to mark essays, a fairly atypical schedule for a science instructor. No complaints, I designed the course, I created the load for myself.

That is where the capabilities that a service such as Turnitin.com comes into play. The site provides the ability to rapidly mark-up electronically submitted copy while simultaneously supporting marking the document against a custom designed rubric. Instructors report tremendous gains in efficiency with such a system. The system also checks text for uncited material taken from elsewhere and flags this material.

My vision, however, is not of a single software package. Without other pieces, writing across the curriculum would remain an elusive dream. Turnitin.com provides for electronic return to the student with links from the marked-up issues to on-line documents that explain the nature of the error to the student. The student can then make the necessary changes and turn it back in to the instructor. Turnitin.com is designed for an environment in which both the instructor and the student have continuous connectivity to a network and ongoing access to a computer. In other words, the system really only works if every student has a laptop of their own and a campus-wide wireless network is in place and student accessible.

Envisioning the academic future of information system technologies is familiar ground for me. In 1993 I wrote a vision document for the future of the LRC. In 1993 the LRC had no computers. I envisioned a mix of shelves and computers operating off of a CD-ROM collection. In 1993 there was no off-island connectivity, and though I was already an early adopter I had not yet grasped the potential academic promise that a global network such as the Internet would one day fulfill.

I did the first informal studies on the potential academic impact of computing technologies in student laboratories at the college. I would later note that a computer is like a microscope. Both are tools. Microscopes do not improve learning per se. Microscopes fundamentally change what can be taught, what can be directly apprehended by a student. Microscopes change the curricular landscape of the biological and life sciences. Computers too have a greater impact on changing what is learned rather than a direct impact on learning. In the distant past geography students might have memorized countries and capitals from a printed atlas. Today students can learn the ethnography of a nation, listen to the music of a place, and see videos of events there through a geographic information portal such as Google Earth.

The college has a superb information technology team that pushes our technical capacities steadily forward. In terms of hardware - of servers, routers, cables, and networks - the IT team is simply the best in this nation. IT has driven forward into wireless networks, VOIP telephony, and support for SMART board technologies. Operating on an island run on a couple diesel generators with only satellite connectivity to the world is challenging, and the IT team has risen to that challenge.

The IT division, however, is placed within the command and control chain that includes facilities, maintenance, the cafeteria, and business office. IT is seen as a provider of services in support of learning. IT has no mission to envision the academic future and then take the college to that place. Nor should IT have such a mission, their job would be to support the academic direction that the college chooses to take. The content area experts - the faculty - would be the drivers of an academic technology plan.

As an early adopter, I am aware of some of the future IT plans at the college in terms of hardware capabilities. I am, however, unaware of any academic information systems plan. There might be one, but if so then I am unaware of the plan other than the planned hiring of a distance education coordinator to support faculty who might offer courses using distance education models. Here I am speaking of a five to ten year plan that paints a picture of what the college will look like from an academic IT standpoint.

The academic plan would include statements such as "Students will supported in their acquisition of English writing skills through system-wide uses of software such as Turnitin.com. Each course will have a course home page with, at a minimum, the course outline. While Microsoft Word, Excel and OpenOffice.org will be supported on desktops, Google docs will be the recommended student office software package will be Google docs in order to provide for security against loss of documents for students."

Other statements would characterize faculty capacities, "Within ten years a half of the faculty will have web sites that support learning in their courses. The college will provide support for both traditional static web page based course web sites and Moodle based courses. The capacity of faculty to utilize these tools will be built up through faculty development, training, and support."

Along with the above statements would be the hardware specifications necessary to support the software future envisioned, "Every student will have a computing device, potentially a laptop computer, which is connected to the campus network by a high-speed wireless network. By 2015 all campuses will have sufficient off-island bandwidth to functionally support the use of Google docs by students. By 2016 all 100 level and above writing courses will have paperless workflows."

The above statements are just examples of the sort of material that I think and suspect is likely missing from whatever technology plan we might have - I am not purporting that the above is the academic technology plan.

The plan I am advocating be developed cannot be developed by the IT division, academic content area knowledge is not their expertise. The academic technology plan has to be generated by the faculty. And yet here is a true catch-22. Except for newer faculty, many faculty have been out here so long that they are unaware of software developments in their field. Many faculty may not be able to make recommendations on what to adopt and train faculty to use because there is a peculiar isolation to teaching in Micronesia.

Writing such plans can be scary. I knew in 1993 that with sufficient funding, my vision for the LRC could be realized. I did not know, however, whether my vision would be supportive of learning, would prove to be appropriate. Ultimately the computers were placed in the library, but events overtook the original plan. The Internet rapidly became a vastly larger information resource than any CD-ROM collection. Fortunately the plan had the necessary hardware already in place to support the shift to providing Internet access.

I am not faulting anyone, and I apologize if anyone feels slighted. I spent the years 1996 to 2000 dreaming, planning, acquiring, and deploying technology for the math science division at the college. My sense is that I have pretty much the same set of tech tools inside the classroom that I had in 2000, with the notable exception this past week of a SMART board that replaced a large screen monitor which had turned ten years old just last Thursday. The monitor first failed on 16 January 2008 but "recovered" a couple days later. A second failure that September had me trying to get IT to buy a plasma screen on island for my next class that was 48 hours away. The monitor recovered yet again, but was clearly signaling that the end was near. That said, my students have little additional in the way of learning technology at their disposal than their predecessors had nine years earlier.

None of the above has gotten a single of my awaiting essays marked. Time to haul out my set of different colored pens and get marking.

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