Ideas for innovative uses of technology in higher education?
April 11, 2007 7:57 AM   Subscribe

For many years our university has touted itself as being "cutting-edge" with technology by requiring students to buy laptops. Obviously we need to be doing more and I'd like some ideas for ways we can be innovative in this sector and reach out to the students, faculty, and staff with new resources that will actually be used. Bonus points for ideas that go against the grain, defend easily for funding, and generally rock.

To get things started my boss mentioned the possibility of sponsoring lan parties for the students and dedicating the bandwidth and resources to really help them work. Possibly inviting outside high school students and things of the sort to make it a community effort.

So in other words, if you were still in college or worked in a university, what kind of things would you have wanted to see get implemented if no one was standing over you saying "We can't possibly do that, we've never done that before."
posted by genial to Technology (31 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yesterday on "Talk of the Nation", they interviewed a Professor who Banished Laptops to Engage Students
posted by growabrain at 8:03 AM on April 11, 2007

Beer volcano?

Seriously though, wi-fi the campus. Or offer course work online for free like MIT. Or create a student-run web cafe/gaming place that uses lcd projectors for monitors.

Create flyers for the student housing that spotlight student discounted computer specials.

Make should give you some ideas, too.

Finally, have you thought of asking students at your school?
posted by YoBananaBoy at 8:10 AM on April 11, 2007

Put every single thing on the internet. Everything. Every facet of college life, every aspect of college enrollment.

Offer internet classes to students in lieu of classes they must attend in person. Implement a metafilter-like virtual classroom for each internet class. Hire guest professers from other schools/countries to teach internet classes using this system. Make student's written work for these classes available to all students via intranet.
posted by ewkpates at 8:11 AM on April 11, 2007

Best answer: Collaborative notetaking - students have the opportunity to append notes, wiki-style, to professor's lectures (which are available on the web - either outlines or ppt slides). If you require a certain amount of input from students (ie, they have to contribute to the notes of 15 lectures) by the end of the semester the students have created a note-based study guide. Likewise, this could be useful with aricles and chapters (though probably not for entire books) in a seminar setting.

Open forums and ubiquitous surveys could provide meaningful involvement in student government and the development and enacting of university policy.
posted by jmgorman at 8:13 AM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

Really, I think the best "cutting edge" to be on right now is in (choose your buzzword) hands-on, project-based, experienetial learning. I *love* working with and being in classes where projects are done for real clients - if you put 100 hours into a project, it's nice to know it's for someone who really wanted your opinion. (Clearly this doesn't apply to all fields). Technology can be a powerful enabler for this type of work.

Beyond that, I'm with growabrain on the laptops-in-class issue, and am horribly guilty of the distractions cited in the interview. (This is also a serious problem in MIT's flagship freshman-physics-on-computers class, but I didn't say it here!!) Other than that, some cool objectives that come to mind that I've seen done or would love to see done::

  • Put more effort into creation with digital stuff rather than simple research and processing: digital photography, video editing, etc. Transform "10 page response paper" into "4 minute dramatization" for example.
  • Get in touch with people you couldn't otherwise interact with directly: video-conference with partners in far-away places, collaborate on projects with partner universities, etc.
  • Join the mobile phone revolution! I haven't joined it yet, but there has to be a lot of opportunity here. Being able to subscribe to event reminders, or the take-a-picture-of-the-bar-code-and-get-information-back system, things like that.
  • Make software available through SITE LICENSING and make it possible for students to learn, through the university, how to use it effectively. This could be serious stuff (CAD modeling) or fun stuff (Photoshop).
  • Some of our big lecture classes (the type that are 3 lectures of 200 people and 2 recitations of 20 per week) have recorded lectures that can be watched on campus cable stations or online. This is useful, but what about podcasts, especially for the ones that don't require visuals??

    Just a few thoughts.

  • posted by whatzit at 8:14 AM on April 11, 2007

    (After reading the things posted while I wrote: Seconding the wireless everywhere and put everything on line. But that should be considered a MINIMUM by now, and if you haven't already done that, you've already lost the game.)
    posted by whatzit at 8:15 AM on April 11, 2007

    Response by poster: I should probably clarify a few things.

    1. I'm not a professor so curriculum-specific things are not something I can control directly (though the possibility of influence is certainly there).

    2. We don't see this as a game to win against MIT or any other school. We have 4200 students, we're not large, but the benefit of that is that we are large enough to have the resources without the requirement of building large-scale projects to accommodate a larger campus.

    3. Suggestions that require lots of money will probably never work. In absence of getting grant money theres little hope I'd be able to push relatively mainstream ideas against a corporate mindset if I had the added problem of it costing over $50,000.

    All these ideas are great though and we have already implemented a few. Wireless is already cross-campus (although sometimes spotty thanks to this cold-war era construction), Video-conferencing classes across the state, and virtual classrooms via Horizon Wimba built into Blackboard are being rolled out soon.
    posted by genial at 8:33 AM on April 11, 2007

    I am about to leave graduate school frustrated with the amount of software I am not an expert in. I know my way around Office through years of trial and error mostly, but really have strived to have people show me everything about these apps I don't know. Not cutting edge as in look at me on the new frontier!, but cutting edge as in most places seem to expect people just to figure this stuff out for themselves. I see whatzit said that but I given the chance I would want to make sure every student knows even basic software.

    I really like the wiki collaborative notetaking idea. I would also suggest a straight-up class in what is the cutting edge in technology - for every person that can tell you whether or not his wiki has RSS there's a dozen that have NO IDEA what either of those are, although maybe less in college than in grad school? Either way I think a "here's what's possible now and here's what's becoming possible in the near future class" could be valuable.
    posted by andifsohow at 8:37 AM on April 11, 2007

    Given your clarifications, another thought: Do you have any programs related to implementing high-tech stuff? Or students who do it anyway?

    There's a lot of press (and money) to be had for opening these goals to proposals from your students, and letting them run the projects. Small competitive grants can get student projects going that, if this fits your school, can turn into theses and even real jobs.

    Voila student input, projects, leadership, PR.
    okay i'm really going back to work now...
    posted by whatzit at 8:39 AM on April 11, 2007

    Best answer: I work in a college, on staff in the art and design department. Laptops aren't required, but more and more students have them, and there's more demand for wireless access. (Right now students and faculty sniff out connections from other building downtown, including another nearby college.) Wireless printing would be fantastic.

    We have a robust online student administration system that was despised for the first few years but now seems to work really well. It's now possible to have an entirely paperless class and do the collaboration that jmgorman mentioned, but that level of integration hasn't really taken off. I'd like to see some dedicated memory for each student's account.

    There are free tech workshops for faculty and staff. Part-time faculty actually gets compensation for attending. There are cash awards for creating online resources as part of one's curriculum.

    The campus portfoio center offers a lot of help for students who want to get their work online, and will host their stuff for a year after they graduate.
    posted by hydrophonic at 8:44 AM on April 11, 2007

    Requiring a laptop wasn't cutting edge.

    Have every class recorded in video and audio and make them available for download and viewing by any student and maybe the general public too.

    Develop a working teleportation system.

    Give every student a digital camera that's capable of recording still and moving pictures and audio. Then give them a couple gigs of free server space to upload that stuff they record. Don't let IT be assholes and put a bunch of limits on what they can and can't do. Give'em an iPod too, for moving big files around easily.

    Find really inventive/creative pro's and invite them to come with all the expensive fancy toys you're going to buy.

    Make every student get a bluetooth phone and then put in the infrastructure so they can synce data from their computer to their phone, such as schedules and appointments. Install bluetooth goodness so that when they have their phone on their person and use a computer in labs, it automatically signs them on into their account.

    Of course, wifi the entire damn campus so their shiny laptops can be used anywhere.

    I'm not sure how you'd do it, but create a special techclub or some such, where the really cutting edge students can sign on, hang out and really push the limits of the technology on the campus. Let them be the guides to what's hot and where tech is going.
    posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:45 AM on April 11, 2007

    Would that I could get away with it, I would scan my library's Core collection and put it up online behind a firewall. Of course, the lawyers would eat me alive, so that's just a pipe dream.

    One toy we picked up recently is a copier that can scan documents and send them to email as PDFs. This has been a pretty big hit with our students. Schools still develop a lot of paper, so it would be nice to have a way to digitize as much as possible as it's created.
    posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:49 AM on April 11, 2007

    My first OS was Windows, and though I'm an "expert" computer user (good with many complex apps, knows how to program, etc.), I've always felt crippled by my lack of knowledge about networking and what my PC is doing under-the-hood. This lack has hurt me in two ways. My code of pure (as opposed to applied) understanding of PC technology has a gaping hole in it; and I'm unable to do all sorts of practical things without help (write a web app that uses ports, create a home network that includes my Tivo...)

    I recently switched to a Mac, and I'm getting the hang of OSX, but I'm still cripped, because I rarely open a terminal and don't know what to do when I do open one. I feel really stupid that I can program in 10 languages and don't understand command-line work and networking. I'm working on correcting this flaw, but I wish it had been corrected for me in school.

    In school, you generally learn specific applications. And books on networking, shells and the like are usually written for experts.

    So, my recommendation is this: while you're making everyone buy a laptop, make them buy one with linux on it and use linux apps for all school projects.

    The people I know who started out on command-line linux and didn't rely on a sophisticated GUI-based OS have always had advantages over me. And they've had no problems picking up the GUI stuff (since it's just a front-end to the command-line stuff, anyway) when they've needed to.

    This goes a small way towards curing the problems I've brought up. It would be great if you also hired some teachers to give seminars on assembly language, networking, etc. People don't necessarily need to know everything (e.g. they're not, for the most part, going to become low-level programmers), but it's so useful, if you've going to spend much of your life working with computers, to have some level of understanding about how they work.
    posted by grumblebee at 9:06 AM on April 11, 2007

    Podcast and Videocast lectures, definitely.

    Campus-wide WiFi is all but a given these days.

    Often overlooked but super simple is make the Library's card catalog easily searchable online, too many school totally miss this.

    Seconding free tech workshops and collaborative work.

    Not a solution but my biggest gripe in higher education is the absolute resistance to technology from so many of the professors (especially those in the humanities for some reason). Have a 100% technologically informed faculty and you're batting a thousand.
    posted by 1f2frfbf at 9:31 AM on April 11, 2007

    Reading through this thread here's what came to mind:

    Let the students teach technology. They do it anyway, just not officially. Make it official.

    Find some way to open up a series of student led, student taught, student developed technology curriculum so that every year new students can take on a teaching role.

    They will be the ones with the interest in new technology and how they are being used in creative and collaborative ways.

    Give them academic credit for the classes they teach.

    Give other students academic credit for attending these courses.

    Develop an incentive plan for the faculty and professors to attend these student led technology initiatives. Academic credit not being applicable, you would need to find some other way to make it worth their time and effort.

    Mind you, you don't have to leave it up to 18 year olds to teach, but any students, including those in the 20s, 30s, 40s, etc. that have a rich knowledge or interest in a particular sub-genre of technology.

    If you read through this thread you find that there are students struggling to keep up with changes in technology, not just the set in their ways professors, faculty and administration.

    When I discuss technology with my clients I explain to them something in very pragmatic terms. Classes about computing are fine if that's what you need, but whatever you learn about computing today will be obsolete in two years and forgotten in four years. Computing isn't learning to tie your shoes. It may seem important to learn the "how to do it" but it isn't. It's significantly more important to learn how to learn on the fly.

    Think to yourself about which classes you enjoy the most? The ones that the teachers are enthusiastic about. Which members of your campus are going to be most enthusiastic about technology? The ones that are using it for new creative ideas and collaboration. Make it worth everyone's while to encourage that and exploit it.
    posted by smallerdemon at 10:17 AM on April 11, 2007 [1 favorite]

    Encourage professors to use "textbooks" that are available online. MIT has quite a few of them, I think.

    Students who want to, could still go to the bookstore and get a printed version (maybe in a choice of bindings?), but other students could just use the online versions or print sections on demand. Bonus if the 'books' used are in a format that allows for editing, so problems can be changed/added, and corrections made by faculty from year to year without having to write to the publisher.

    Also, I'd consider grants or other incentives to encourage faculty to write (and freely release, online) books and course materials. I think the proliferation of material online that can be freely used and modified/corrected by anyone is one of the more exciting things going on in education.

    Efforts can range from huge (actually writing a textbook) to pretty minimal. I had professors -- and this was not that recently -- who used to give bonus points in upper-level physics classes if you turned in typeset versions of homework problems and gave them permission to use them. They'd assemble the best typed solutions into a manual that they could use in subsequent classes as a teaching aid. It was a great resource to have around; you'd end up with a giant binder basically containing solutions to all the various types of problems you might encounter, solved out by other students with lots of explanatory notes.

    Plus ... paper textbooks from the big publishing houses are nothing but a giant scam to rob students anyway. Any decent university probably has more than enough brainpower on staff to do better than 90% of the available textbooks, for a fraction of the cost.
    posted by Kadin2048 at 10:26 AM on April 11, 2007

    An Online OCRing cluster would be really nice - submit a image file (by email, web page or copier) and get a .txt mailed back to you.

    Standardize the class websites, and autogenerate them as required. There's no reason anybody should have to go on an administration safari to find out who's teaching PSY-220-04 next semester, or what textbook they're using: It should be on the page at /Fall07/PSY-220-04/, along with all the contact information for everybody involved. Hell, even put a link to appropriate vCal and vCard files right there. Consisitancy is the key here - The further you move from 'My Teacher's Flash-addled Geocities webpage' and the closer you get to 'Information relevant to facilitating My College Experience', the more useful things will be. Take the burden of maintaining them completely off of the individual faculty.

    (on preview) Nth-ing podcasting, but I'd rather have a good high-quality camera taking snapshots of the board/overhead every few minutes. Make getting the resulting data as easy as pointing the browser at and clicking on files. Automate everything humanly possible. DO NOT require the faculty to become AV savvy - Hell, don't even involve them. Put a [Report problems with this room's equipment] form button right on the download page.

    Use carrot/stick approaches to put some real incentive into forcing faculty to make their material available online. Automate it to lead-pipe, my-afraid-of-AOL-grandma-can-do-this simplicity and put the fear of godzilla into them to do it.
    posted by Orb2069 at 10:33 AM on April 11, 2007

    Idea for above: Remove the chalk tray at the bottom of the board, and put a holder for the eraser on one side. Every time the eraser is lifted out of the holder, the camera takes a snapshot.
    posted by Orb2069 at 10:35 AM on April 11, 2007

    Requiring a laptop wasn't cutting edge.

    Here, here. I have a brick of a laptop still sitting in a closet somewhere that I've been meaning to donate to charity. My uni (GCC - perhaps you work there), made me buy it and its about the most backwards thing I can think of. Why not instead focus on cool network functionality - everything mentioned here and more (one of my thoughts would be set up wiki functionality by major, classes, student groups, etc.). Maybe a remote second focus would be providing some sort of general discount with a Dell or HP or someone if the students wanted to buy their product, but forcing everyone to get the same thing is kind of dumb - it limits the power users from getting the machines they might have otherwise, and as a natural by-product limits the creativity and production they would be contributing were they to have better machines.
    posted by allkindsoftime at 11:11 AM on April 11, 2007

    Seconding Kadin2048's suggestion for online textbooks. It'd be really nice if students could highlight sections of the text, add notes, and have the option to share those with other students.
    posted by hoppytoad at 11:19 AM on April 11, 2007

    Response by poster: Requiring a laptop wasn't cutting edge.

    To be fair this was circa 1998 and at the time it wasn't being done by most universities. We could argue whether or not it's a good thing but they don't technically "force" a student to buy a laptop. We have a program with Dell (also one of the first of its kind) that specially prices a low end and high end latitude for purchase by students. Of course we still see desktops from gamers and macs from the art students, but the initiative is there.

    I do wish I had the ability to control the amount of use much of these suggestions would get. Much like 1f2frfbf I have to deal with faculty that are resistant to any change. The best I can do is put forth tools and make them simple to use. I love the idea of wiki note collaboration and the portfolio center. I also like the idea of free workshops. We currently do "Tech Lunches" for faculty and staff but getting somethinga bit more hands-on and involving students would be great.
    posted by genial at 11:28 AM on April 11, 2007

    Some ideas:
    • A Jabber server integrated with your internal authentication system. So that every student (and professor!) has a known IM name they can be reached by, if they choose.
    • Providing email/calendaring/etc via "google apps for your domain" would also likely be technically superior to and easier to use than whatever system you're using now. College students in particular could benefit from the Google Docs tool, since they write large numbers of documents with simple formatting that they may work on from many computers, and often need to collaborate on.
    • A general-purpose, university wiki (also integrated with your internal authentication system, to discourage vandalism) might also be cool, and (I think) would be superior as an academic tool to blackboard (which I detest).
    • Read (Berkeley econ prof) Brad Delong's weblog for an example of how professors can use blogs as instructional tool.
    • Many schools now have student-run web portals, featuring things like discussion boards, polls, book exchanges, etc.

    posted by gsteff at 11:39 AM on April 11, 2007

    So, my recommendation is this: while you're making everyone buy a laptop, make them buy one with linux on it and use linux apps for all school projects.

    I entirely agree with grumblebee about the educational value of using Linux; people that are going to work with computers their entire lives should have more control over and understanding of these tools than Windows provides. But the resistance to this particular suggestion would be impossible to overcome, and that's probably justifiable.

    Fortunately, because we're talking about Linux, there are alternative ways to accomplish the same goal. With surprisingly little difficulty, you could provide all students with remote access to a Linux desktop via (older, free) VNC or (newer, commercial) NX. Again, this should be integrated with your internal authentication system. Many schools provide students with central disk space so that they can access their files from any public lab machine, but this allows them to access their entire desktops, and even to walk away from one machine, log into another, and see their desktop in the exact state it was when they left it. When you use tools like this over long distances, network latency is sometimes a problem (there's a delay between when you hit a key and when the letter shows up on the screen) but over any decent campus network, it's indistinguishable from local access. Plus, unlike most remote filesystem setups, they could access their desktop from anywhere in the world.

    I'm not actually suggesting you should set this up- it would still be a major undertaking from a human resources perspective, though not a financial one- but if you're swayed by grumblebee's argument for Linux access, this is a technically preferable way to provide that.
    posted by gsteff at 12:06 PM on April 11, 2007

    Publish APIs to school systems (that don't involve confidential data.) The students will come up with something weird and interesting to do with them.
    posted by Zed_Lopez at 1:42 PM on April 11, 2007

    Best answer: Nthing many of the above suggestions, including and in some cases adding:

    - Wifi
    - Online classroom system (not online ed, but an online site for sharing info, i.e. Blackboard)
    - A web portal allowing students to check email remotely, register for classes (online registration is a must if you don't have that yet either), pay their tuition, reload their student id money cards (I hope you have those too, it's basically a stored value card tied to the student's account that they can use at on- (and some off)-campus eateries, stores, etc.)
    - Digital access to the library and databases
    - Podcast special events and lecturers (and classes too, but some think that encourages students to skip)
    - A text emergency alert system (only to be used in an actual emergency, not "hey, the big game is tomorrow!")
    - Sites with video and audio of campus happenings
    - Have training sessions for software like Word, PPT, Excel, etc for faculty, staff, and students. You can get more indepth (Photoshop, Dreamweaver, etc) if people are already familiar with the others but you'd be surprised.
    - A video conferencing facility for students to interview for jobs and internships or faculty to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions
    - Computer kiosks at useful locations
    - Flat panel monitors in strategic locations with information on the days news, events and happenings
    - "Smart" whiteboards that you can put your computer screen on, write on the screen and it shows up on the board, then you can erase the board, etc (I'm not doing a good job of explaining this but we had them at my college and they were very very cool)
    - VOIP

    Honestly, LAN parties cater to a very narrow niche. Spend money on something that everyone can use and something that advances the academics and overall student life, not a "party" for a bunch of people.

    Check out what your "Most Wired" peers are doing
    posted by ml98tu at 1:42 PM on April 11, 2007

    Requiring students to purchase a specific thing so you can say "we're cutting edge!" is ridiculous. A laptop is a huge expenditure for a lot of students. I guess it 'defends easily for funding', since the school does not need to spend any money on it themselves. Did your university actually make use of all the students having laptops?

    Somewhere in your university, there are some students learning about the bleeding edge of tech, who might have some interesting ideas. Find the clubs for things like fire fighting robots, or rube goldberg machine contests. Ask them to submit proposals for how they would spend a hundred bucks. Take the price of just one laptop, and spread that around to the clubs.
    posted by yohko at 1:53 PM on April 11, 2007

    Huge or unlimited quotas on mail and file servers!
    posted by springload at 3:28 PM on April 11, 2007

    The grad institution I was just admitted to uses a branded gmail client. I think that's pretty nifty, after suffering through four years of squirrelmail in undergrad. I hope they implement Google docs/spreadsheets too.

    I like Zed_Lopez's idea of publishing APIs for web services you already make available (where such services don't involve confidential data) so that students can roll their own remixes. It isn't remarkable on its own, but some of what other people generate might be. Come up with sensible rules in terms of who gets access (maybe like the token system google uses for googlemaps) and etc.

    In general, if you implement any technology, make sure the staff and students are trained in its use. A pile of interactive whiteboards does no one good if nobody knows how to use them.

    As an undergrad, I enjoyed several entry-level courses that made the lectures available as streaming video online. Since the lectures already had ~500+ people sitting there, I didn't miss out on any one-on-one attention, and I still had discussion section for small-group feedback with instructors.

    Open up the floor to proposals from students/staff. Sure, you'll have a lot of wheat to separate from chaff, but they'll generate a lot of nifty content too.
    posted by Alterscape at 4:53 PM on April 11, 2007

    The most useful thing to students is to have as much of their classes as possible online. Surely if the OP's school is cutting-edge and all that, they are using WebCT or something of that nature. As I'm sure most people who have used WebCT know, it stinks, but surely it stinks less than having nothing online. I'm sure it wouldn't be too hard to make something much better than WebCT: do that. Ask students what they want and then hire CS students to do it.

    If you asked me, I'd ask for a requirement that all syllabi, assignments, and grades be available online, that it be easy for profs to upload their notes/presentations, and video recordings of lectures. Wiki-style group notes sound pretty good too.

    Wifi should be everywhere and it should be easy to find a place to plug in one's laptop. It should be possible to print from one's laptop.

    Finally, every course should have an email list set up for the prof, so that s/he can quickly email all students (for instance, if a lecture is canceled). Maybe there would be some way to inform students via text message as well if a lecture has been canceled. I can't believe that my school didn't have anything like this.
    posted by ssg at 6:03 PM on April 11, 2007

    How about remote access to applications using something like Citrix? At UCLA, we offer programs like SPSS, STATA, Photoshop and MS Office 2003 to our students so that they can work on their projects from home. Citrix pushes out individual applications as opposed to full desktop environments and does it via Java and a web interface. When connected, the student's home directory and printers are mapped so that they can open files on their home machines, edit them and print to their own printers. All while the program runs on our servers.
    posted by inviolable at 11:23 AM on April 13, 2007

    I recalled this thread today, while talking with my girlfriend about working outside in the sun. There is one major problem with this, and I'm sure it would be thought of as great and innovative if you solved it:

    Install power outlets in nice places outdoors, so people can sit there with their laptops. It would be brilliant if you could take a seat under a tree on campus and find a couple off sockets under a hatch in the grass.
    posted by springload at 3:06 PM on April 25, 2007

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