North Central College - Naperville, IL

Technology: Finding the Right Balance

As Matt Burden considers his new role at North Central College, he wants to serve the many constituencies that are knocking on his door to discuss their technology needs and wants. The new assistant vice president and chief information officer joined the College in May, after 10 years in a similar role at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. But he also has experience in higher education settings and understands his role in equipping and training the campus community, a popular topic at a faculty retreat in September.

“I don’t want to ever get in the way of what happens in the classroom,” Burden says. “The student-professor relationship is what this College best delivers, with an awesome faculty. Technology should only improve upon those experiences.”

Burden is immersing himself in the challenges of a campus with varying interests and priorities. He and his staff tackled a plan to extend Wi-Fi availability throughout campus, adding 250Mb/s capacity for a total of 500Mb/s.

“In many ways the students are pulling us along,” Burden says. “They want to be able to use their mobile devices to do just about everything. We’re working on mobile apps to allow them to preorder food at the Cage, for example, and indicate when computers are available in the library. They want to use their phones to do things from wherever they are.”

Such apps are attractive to incoming students, he says, and another opportunity lies in having a “tour guide app” for use by prospective students. “In regard to the technologies that our students want, we’re really very competitive with other institutions,” Burden adds.

Technology was a hot topic at a faculty retreat held in early September before classes began. A featured presentation at the conference by José Bowen focused on the premise that too much technology in teaching is not always optimal for learning.
Bowen’s book, “Teaching Naked,” emphasizes the importance of face-to-face contact with teachers; technology is most powerfully used outside the classroom to prepare students for meaningful interactions.

“Many of our faculty were inspired by Bowen’s book,” says Rebecca Clemente, professor of education and director, Center for Teaching and Learning. “We’ve had a growing interest in using technology to engage students in course concepts outside of class, using Blackboard or Facebook groups.”

The Blackboard software allows faculty to post syllabi and links to assigned readings, conduct quizzes, set up threaded discussions and provide resources for different levels of learners. Facebook groups allow for continued discussions in a social media format that is comfortable for students.

Clemente distributed a survey to faculty after the retreat and received a high level of interest in building course content and library resources into Blackboard. Another topic of interest was how to incorporate students’ smart devices into class.

During fall term, technology usage by faculty was up 15 percent with increased use of Blackboard. To support training, Clemente has equipped a conference room in the Center for Teaching and Learning with laptops. Part of the challenge, she notes, is that the use of technology among faculty ranges from minimal to extensive. Clemente also sees a need for an updated strategic plan to bring an institutional focus and resources to the area of technology.

Steve Renk, professor of computer science, also has noticed a change on campus since the retreat. “Faculty are motivated and excited,” he says. “They are talking about the tools they can use. I always remind them that using technology requires an investment in time, but it can make you a better teacher.”

In all technology conversations on campus, questions arise about “distance learning.” All agree that there will be consideration of “blended learning,” particularly at the graduate level, combining work that can be performed off campus with on-campus lectures. Adds Renk: “We can look at making some aspects of learning more convenient for commuters but those efforts will never replace what we value here: class time.”