MSU is a university in revolution. Throughout the 21st century, the university has become more interconnected as laptops have multiplied in lecture halls and the resources students use to learn gradually have begun to shift online.
Some experts argue these changes are part of a paradigm shift in education. Others believe although the method of delivery might evolve, the fundamentals of education will remain unchanged. This debate aside, one thing is certain: The digital era is changing the way MSU educates.
In her Bolder by Design- plan slated to be presented at today’s State of the University, President Lou Anna K. Simon has included implementing new ways to use technology in classrooms. It recently was announced the billiard room in the Union, which has been opened since the 1950s, will be transformed into a high-tech classroom after spring break.
Richard Brandenburg is the associate dean for graduate programs and assistant dean for undergraduate programs at the College of Agricultural and Natural Sciences. Brandenburg was an undergraduate at MSU in 1965, later joining the faculty in 1978, and has seen MSU transition to a more digitally-integrated learning environment. Although Brandenburg does not allow laptops or cell phones to be used in his classrooms because they cause distractions, he understands the new avenues for communication technology opens.
“(Technology) certainly has changed communication between students and faculty and students and their instructors,” Brandenburg said. “The changes that have occurred in the last 10 to 20 years are just fantastic. Very, very rapid.”
MSU has a staff of dozens focusing solely on technology issues, such as programming, troubleshooting and day-to-day student help calls. MSU’s Information Technology , or IT Services, staff along with the general faculty at MSU work together to give students the best programming and technological help they can.
Brendan Guenther, director of MSU’s IT Department, said technology is important for the classroom, but more important is ensuring students and faculty alike know what’s at their fingertips.
“People need to believe in the influential effects of technology,” Guenther said. “Technology is only as useful as the ways in which you know you can use it.”
From courses on library management to basic PowerPoint use, the IT staff helps computer-based skills come second nature to interested professors. Not only does MSU encourage staff to take these refresher courses, it supports faculty workshops such as The Explorations in Instructional Technology Brown Bag Seminar, Guenther said.
In reality, many of the older professors are stronger in the field of classroom technology and willing to spend more time learning about it than younger professors are, Guenther said.
A remaining question with students and staff is what the gradual switch between the programs ANGEL and Desire2Learn will hold for MSU. ANGEL will be shut down entirely in 2015, but this closure of MSU’s interactive program for students does not mean every classroom automatically will switch to Desire2Learn. This date solidifies the end of an era for MSU class programming, merging into a better online source for students and staff, Guenther said.
“For now, our focus is helping those get on the new technology services first, so it all looks better than ANGEL,” he said.
From Blackboard to ANGEL to Desire2Learn, MSU IT Services has focused mainly on ensuring these course management systems’ proper performance, but Punya Mishra, a professor of educational psychology and educational technology, said with an increasing number of university courses offered online, MSU must think about what value comes with a traditional education.
“At a time when getting information is becoming cheaper and cheaper, what are we giving so that, when you come in and give us a check for tons of money, that you’re getting value for that?” Mishra said. “That to me is a much more important question to think about rather than whether we are using ANGEL or Desire2Learn.”
Education for all, online
Last December, MSU took the next step in its digital evolution with the introduction of its first massive online open course, or MOOC. MSU students can pay to receive credit in the course, but, outside MSU, the general public will be able to participate in the class — for free. The only required material is an internet connection.
Entitled “Foundations of Science,” MOOC was the product of a team effort, according to assistant zoology professor Stephen Thomas, one of the course’s creators. Partnering with the Office of Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives and associate geological sciences professor Julie Libarkin, MOOC received a $50,000 grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as funding from Desire2Learn, to finance the project.
“It’s very appealing in some ways with the educator in you because I can teach more (people) in this one class than I could in my entire life,” Thomas said.
The course represents MSU testing the waters in education’s latest frontier, an area in which other institutions, such as Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, already have dived in head first, offering dozens of free online courses in a broad range of topics.
What these online courses will do to the traditional university model remains to be seen, but Mishra believes universities offer an experience an online environment cannot replicate.
“I think there’s a fear that it’s going to destroy the economic model of the university, and they better have their feet in the game someway. I don’t think that these massive open online courses are solving the problem of motivation,” Mishra said. “That’s what a good professor does. You have an environment you’re working in where you can interact with faculty and interact with other students. That is something you’re going to pay money for.”
Although online courses offer wider accessibility to users by removing financial and geographic barriers, classes held on campus provide students the opportunity to discuss lectures face-to-face with their professors and they make class discussions and personal interaction within the classroom easier.
“Just like any organism, you adapt to your environment, or you don’t survive,” Brandenburg said. “I don’t think you can stop progress. You cannot stop the proliferation of more and more advanced technology. So, I think we have to figure out how to utilize that to its best advantage.”
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