University begins initiative to improve campus technology

December 6, 2012

On Tuesday, Provost Robert Groves announced to the University community an $8 million investment in an initiative on technology enhanced learning aimed at three areas: faculty-designed classroom innovation, improving the information technology structure, and exploring ways to partner with other universities.

“Georgetown in a way has been working on things like this for many years,” Groves said. “We were poised to address how to take that work to a new level.” Georgetown’s position to start exploring new approaches combined with the sudden availability of new software capabilities made the initiative a timely move. “Those things sort of came together,” Groves said, “[The announcement] is saying to all of us the University is serious about this initiative. We’re making an investment.”

The investment is $8 million coming directly from the University’s budget. Grant proposals will fit into three categories along the lines of small, medium, and large. “It’s intended to be both broad and deep,” said Randy Bass, associate Provost and Director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship. “We’re trying to go deeply in a few places, imagining what we will get out of those deeper projects are transferable innovations.”

Smaller proposals would focus on developing classroom technologies such as iClickers or Smart Boards, while some of the larger proposals aim at completely rethinking certain classes. “What comes out of those [larger proposals] is a substantial shift in how time is spent, where people are studying, how people are engaging the material,” Bass said. “I think what will look most different at the end of three to five years will be the introductory, lower division part of the curriculum.”

It is still unclear how these changes would look, and some students are concerned with the unintended consequences. “I’m not sure how an intro Microeconomics class can really be changed so there are more interactions between students and the professor,” said Craig MacFarlane (SFS ‘15). “I’m afraid the only interaction that will increase will be between me and a TA.”

The grant program is meant to be open to all departments and programs. “It is designed in a way that everybody has an equal shot,” Groves said. “It would be disappointing to me personally if we did a great set of innovations on [just] one department or one program. That would be sad.” Professors and department chairs are already expressing interest and discussing proposals.

A working group composed of faculty and students will determine which proposals get funding. “It will be primarily faculty vetting the proposals,” said Bass, “although we would certainly include students in the vetting process.” Groves seemed unsure how students were appointed to the working group. “GUSA and GSO [Graduate Student Organization] were probably involved in that,” said Groves.

Still, students will be an important part of the process. “We have a suspicion that students working with faculty on these grants for innovation might be a cool thing,” Groves said. “We’re encouraging proposals that would be collaborations between students and faculty.”

For enhancing the Georgetown’s network capacity, the focus will be on areas with high student use. “There are other IT investments that are in the queue,” Groves said. “The investment we’re making from ITEL is not going to solve all the IT infrastructure; it’ll help us get to the level we think we need.”

The consortium is perhaps the least far along in terms of design. “We’re working on that. We’re talking and evaluating really aggressively,” Groves said. “We’re quite hopeful that announcement could be made soon.” The partnerships would be aimed at enhancing the mix of learning techniques across campus and increasing Georgetown’s tools, including the potential for massive online courses.

This potential comes with risks. The possibilities “require careful discussion, debate, about what kind of course offering we would offer in that space,” Groves said. “Is there a danger? Yes, [but] you avoid the danger through leadership and dialogue among the faculty about what’s true to our mission.”

Groves is quick to assert that despite changes in technology, the student experience will always be important at Georgetown. “We’ve made the decision there will be a Georgetown here 100 years from now where students will come and interact with faculty regardless of what technology is,” Groves said. “We think we are at the beginning of learning how to use new technology in ways that apply to all departments, and we’d love to test that.”

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