Academic Computing Committee
Annual Report for 2011-2012
The Academic Computing Committee met six times during the 2011-2012 academic year to monitor and evaluate Furman’s ability to provide faculty with computing resources they need to meet their teaching, research, and service related goals.
The committee began the year by evaluating competing email clients and keeping track of the transition away from FirstClass. The committee received regular updates from Fred Miller, Dexter Caldwell, and Mike Giffords. Overall, the committee has been satisfied with the transition and found that there have been fewer complications with the transition than previously feared. However, the switchover is not yet complete, and the committee will continue to monitor its progress.
The committee has also overseen the development of a new technology resource guide for faculty. Although technology guides on how to obtain and use the resources at Furman have been made available to incoming faculty, the information contained in them soon becomes outdated. As a result, Susan Dunnavant and Scott Salzman are implementing a new online resource that will be searchable and continuously updated. The committee is satisfied with the basic online framework, but it will take time until all of the information is uploaded into the new system. The committee will continue to monitor it development next year.
This year, the committee investigated the ways that non-standard hardware and software configuration requests are handled and funded across departments. After some investigation, the process whereby new faculty are assigned a computer configuration and replacement cycle appears standardized; however, there is no centralized funding mechanism for faculty to obtain new or upgraded software. The degree to which faculty understand these funding processes and criteria for allocating non-standard configuration requests remains an empirical question. Next year, the committee will work with Fred Miller to revise the annual technology survey to assess the faculty’s awareness and satisfaction of these policies.
Evaluations submitted to the Dean.
At the request of Dean Beckford, the committee met and evaluated three potential computing related products and/or initiatives (Blended learning, The Learning House, and offering iPads to faculty).
On “blended learning”: Recent funding opportunities (most recently through ACS grants) have encouraged faculty to incorporate blended learning into their teaching practices. Although there is still some debate about its definition, blended learning refers to a combination of in-class and online learning. In general, the committee sees the greatest potential benefit of blended learning as the possibility that it would help them fill seats in unique classes that otherwise would not register enough students. These blended courses might also enable students from other countries (including Furman students studying away) to contribute to Furman's learning community. In addition, the opportunity to design and teach blended learning courses could spark innovation among faculty who might otherwise not adopt new technologies into their pedagogical repertoire. While the committee is hesitant to predict exactly how students would embrace new blended learning technologies (video conferencing, synchronous and asynchronous discussion forums, etc), the committee thinks that enough students would seek out such opportunities that a limited number of course offerings would be feasible.
However, the committee is also worried that bringing in students from other institutions might adversely affect the educational atmosphere at Furman. For example, what if students from other schools were not as prepared to cover course material? What if students taking the courses online were doing so only out of convenience or potential savings? Conversely, if Furman students participated online in "blended" classes at other institutions, what if the quality was not up to Furman's standards? Would the same policies for obtaining course credit currently applied by Academic Records still apply?
On The Learning House:
The Learning House is an educational course management software package that is similar to Moodle and Blackboard, but also comes with a large amount of proprietary course material that can be used to develop and supplement online learning. As a resource for Furman faculty, the committee saw The Learning House suite of offerings as a possible supplement to current online modes of educational content delivery and communication. Some members of the committee expressed reservation that an over-reliance on online educational models could inhibit the close relationship between faculty and students. To be clear, no one was under the impression that the administration wanted to go in this direction, either.
In regards to its feasibility, The Learning House package of seemed better suited to evening classes or for the Graduate Education department than for existing daytime courses on campus. Also, some of the information fluency lessons taught by the Library Faculty might fit well with this application. However, even if The Learning House may have some strengths (access to proprietary instructional content and enhanced “usability”) compared to Moodle, the committee does not feel that our current technology is insufficient enough to merit a switch to a new platform.
Perhaps the greatest strength of The Learning House product is its fee schedule. Because institutions are billed according to the amount they use, it would be easy to incorporate The Learning House into a pilot program without incurring substantial costs up front.
In summary, the committee was unanimous in their position that online educational packages in general, and The Learning House in particular, will likely become more useful in the future as faculty see a need to supplement—but not replace—their existing courses due to a perceived deficit of classroom time due to the calendar change or other challenges to meeting face-to-face (snowstorms, study-away, blended learning courses, etc).
The iPad pilot program:
The committee was briefed on the iPad pilot program put together by Fred Miller and Jane Love to foster innovation in the classroom. Considering that many of our peer institutions are already embarking on similar programs, the committee believes this is a wise move. Although not all students currently bring some type of tablet or smart handheld device to class, eventually they will. As a result, it is wise to equip faculty with the resources they need to stay up to date with their students and take advantage of the pedagogical possibilities of such devices. Also, considering that some departments already have purchased these devices for their members, a campus wide initiative could even out the distribution of educational technology across the curriculum.
Although there is some question as to how iPads offer instructional advances that cannot be met by computers currently in the classroom-especially considering some of IPad's keyboard limitations-they still show a lot of promise. As with all efforts to foster innovation, the committee does not know what will happen; but the committee believes that a pilot program is worth pursuing. There is a growing proportion of faculty who already use these devices and new users could benefit from their expertise. CTL has already sponsored forums to disseminate iPad related teaching techniques in the past and could continue to do so in the future.
The financial costs of such a pilot program are not small. Fred Miller outlined a budgetary process to purchase these devices, but the administration would be wise to proceed cautiously. Rational arguments aside, any Chronicle of Higher Education article applauding Furman's innovation by purchasing iPads for faculty will likely be juxtaposed by another lamenting the high costs of college tuition today. Given the political environment, it would be wise to highlight the potential savings that could result from adopting an iPad pilot program. For example, iPads in the hands of faculty might one day replace the computers in classroom workstations (which are costly to update and replace). Also, given the recent news regarding Apple's support for publishing "e-texts," students could reap some of the financial benefits of this program as well.
Overall, the committee supports an iPad pilot program. The committee cannot say conclusively how they will change the classroom learning environment, but that is what makes them exciting. Put in the hands of some savvy faculty, it will be interesting to see what they can do.
I would like to thank Mike Winiski, Jean Childress, Andrea Wright, Dexter Caldwell, Scott Salzman, Maggie Milat, Amy Blackwell, Jason Rawlings, Fred Miller, Marianne Pierce, Mike Gifford, Mike Winiski, Rhett Bryson, Sarah Frick, and Susan Dunnavant for their service to the committee.
Ken Kolb (Chair)