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Getting Aboard the High-Tech Train

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The last time I wrote in this space, I was arguing the value of a liberal arts education in these highly technological times. I wrote that even with the new emphasis on STEM, the world needs the kinds of integrators, synthesizers, and big and bold thinkers that liberal institutions nurture and groom.

Today, though, I want to take a slightly different tack, and talk about how universities need to embrace technology.

We would be hiding in our ivory towers if we did not recognize the changes that are upon us, especially when it comes to the digital age. We need to understand how technology can enhance coursework and broaden our students' exposure to the world. We need to help our students take command of the web and be active, not passive, digital consumers.

Let's face it: Our students already live in cyberspace. With this in mind, about eight years ago, the University of Mary Washington created a Division of Teaching and Learning Technology and staffed it with the brightest, most creative people we could find. At the time, a lot of schools were investing in software, in learning management systems, programs and platforms. But we invested in people. We wanted them to be our braintrust, to work with our faculty to find interesting and innovative ways to use new and emerging technologies in their classes. The work of this group and its director, Jim Groom, has been lauded in numerous journals.

We all know the days of the PowerPoint are fast fading, and the power of the web is upon us. One of our guiding ideas is to use the web as an ecosystem and a platform for learning. So at Mary Washington, an art history class uses the Google Art Project to "walk" through museums and galleries, to see art in its actual environment. One of our world geography professors travels the globe and conducts his classes from such locations as London, Paris, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and China, and his students -- sitting in a classroom on campus -- respond to his questions through an online chat room.

Another art professor uses technology on multiple levels. One semester her students -- while on our campus -- explored the city of Venice virtually and created an online interactive exhibit built on Google maps. Turning to the blogosphere, her students were complaining about the advertisements placed atop buildings that were being renovated in Venice. Then the students got a response from the agency that placed the ads, which argued that the ads helped fund the renovations. So here were our students discussing art online, and suddenly finding themselves in a discussion with an Italian ad-placement agency over public policy. This is what happens when students work out in the open, and not behind a login.

Six years ago, one of the first ideas to come from the technology braintrust was the creation of a university blogging platform. The idea was to maximize student engagement in the online world. It has exploded. Teachers now use UMW Blogs to share and discuss students' writings. Students use it to create their own personal web spaces, or to share their experiences as they travel abroad. Our clubs use it to share information and postings. It supports 35 original literary journals, student research sites, and alumni blog posting boards. UMW Blogs now has 6,500 sites and 8,500 users and is growing every day.

Next fall, we will open the physical manifestation of our technological efforts, a building we call the Information and Technology Convergence Center. It will contain everything from audio and video equipment to editing and broadcast studios to classrooms wired so that students can project what's on their laptops for all to see. It will support our new Digital Studies minor that integrates digital initiatives with traditional majors.

We also appreciate that In this anxiety-ridden world, where many are concerned about jobs and careers, our students need to start earlier. This fall, we began urging all incoming freshmen to register personal domain names and get to work creating their own websites. Unlike Facebook, this will be a place to present one's professional image. Here they can collect their best papers, discuss what they are learning, archive their data, and exchange ideas with others who share their career interests. This project, which we call Domain of One's Own, is as far as I know unique to our university, but we would not mind if others joined us.

Why are we doing all this?

Way, way back in 2009, Gardner Campbell, one of our gurus of teaching and learning technologies, wrote that learning to build a personal cloud was a life skill every student would need and should be taught. We still believe that today. We want our students to be thinkers and doers, to be analyzers and synthesizers and integrators and coordinators. Working in the digital space fosters that growth. We also want our students to be good citizens of their nation and of the world, and the web is becoming a key place - maybe the place -- to practice such citizenship. When one of our students writes something in a blog about Venice and someone in Italy responds, that's the essence of citizenship.

Says our Martha Burtis, special projects coordinator for teaching and learning technologies: "This notion of community and collaboration and public knowledge and sharing is really the core of a liberal arts education. These are the values we care about." I agree.