Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Thursday, July 5, 2007
From This Issue
Volume 85 • Number 3
Summer 2007

A Custom Fit
Knowledge is not meted out in a one-size-fits-all formula in today's classrooms and libraries.
By Sherri Kimmel

Teaching today requires much more forethought than just selecting the big-name-publisher textbook that best aligns with course content.

“Technology has improved access to resources,” says Neil Weissman, provost and dean of the college. “It’s easy to tailor readings to a course and make them electronically accessible to students.”

One of the main tools in the techie arsenal is the Blackboard Course Management System. Through Blackboard, faculty members enroll their students in a course Web site, which students can use to access course readings any time, day or night. Professors may post discussion questions before class or ask students to pose questions that they can take up in the next class session. 

According to Brenda Landis, a multimedia developer for Library and Information Services (LIS), 75 percent of Dickinson’s professors use Blackboard, some just to post their syllabi or links to relevant Web sites. Others are more elaborate. For instance, she notes that Dan Cozort has a blog through which students may express their reactions to religious services they attend for their What Is Religion? class.

Other professors, like economics’ Ed McPhail, host wikis through Blackboard, which may be accessed and updated by anyone in the class. “The content shines without technology getting in the way,” Landis says.

Another professor effectively employing the new technology is Jim Hoefler. Landis helped the professor of political science launch a podcast this spring for his Policy and Leadership course, using the software Audacity. The 41 students in Hoefler’s class are required to do research and then record two short National Public Radio Writers’ Almanac-type spots for the Unsung Heroes series he developed.

Folks featured in the broadcasts are stalwarts in the nonprofit world who are not well known in that particular arena, explains Hoefler. Among those featured are gridiron great Doug Flutie, honorary doctor of humanitarian service ’07, for his autism foundation, and Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“The students encountered new technology that looked impossible at first but figured it out,” he says. “They’re OK in their comfort zones—MySpace and YouTube and text messaging—but this was something out of the ordinary. It takes an investment in time to learn.”

Hoefler plans to continue Unsung Heroes in next spring’s class, with the eventual goal of having a professional radio announcer rerecord all of the spots, and then syndicating the series. 

Another new audio approach pioneered this academic year through Blackboard benefited the fall musical, Urinetown. David Glasgow, contributing faculty in piano, recorded individual accompaniments for each soprano, alto, tenor and bass part. Students could access the MP3 (compressed audio data) files of the vocals to practice at any hour, in any location. 

Lynn Helding, associate professor of music and musical director of Urinetown, was pleased with the new practice. “Students in their dorm rooms could put on headphones, plug in and learn the score. No longer did we need to spend hours and hours in mass rehearsals crunching notes. We had just as many group rehearsals but came to them further down the path.”

Seniors Joe Ziarko and Ellen Joffred, veterans of 2004’s Merrily We Roll Along, applauded the new approach. Ziarko says he could work on his part “at a rate I was comfortable with. I’m tone deaf, so rehearsals aren’t enough practice time for me.” Over Fall Pause, to and from his Ohio home, Ziarko practiced his part in the car, thanks to the MP3 files.

Joffred, a more experienced singer, still found the access extremely helpful. “I could listen to my part on my iPod walking to and from rehearsal.”

With Urinetown, which had a cast of 30 singers, actors and dancers, “there was a lot going on,” says Joffred. “I can’t imagine what it would have been like without [the singing parts on] Blackboard. There is nothing better than human interaction, but if you don’t have the time or an accompanist all of the time, this is great.”

While technology provides a new educational dimension for students, it also is a boon to faculty scholars, according to Weissman. “Faculty members are often in touch with colleagues from other colleges. They can go back and forth with editing [co-authored articles] and share materials.” Weissman, who taught a Russian history course this spring, surfed the Web for model syllabi that gave him ideas to use when crafting his own.

While the emergence of new technologies has enriched curricula, Weissman cautions that technology must be used with discrimination. “Doing a Google search is easy and immediate, but it doesn’t encourage exploration of sources. It opens doors but doesn’t make students go through those doors with deep reflection.”

A new role for professors is helping students navigate the Web, interpreting “the vast flow of information, much of which is not worthwhile,” says Weissman.

“I taught a course last week,” he adds, “on the Lysenko Affair, which occurred during the Stalin era. As I was talking, a student had his laptop and consulted [the online encyclopedia] Wikipedia. We had a discussion on the spot” about the Wikipedia entry, which Weissman says was inaccurate and weak.

He notes that a new series of 12 research-methods modules, which LIS developed for professors teaching first-year seminars, helps to address the problem.

Eleanor Mitchell, director of library services, says the modules help to develop “information literacy—sets of skills enabling students to use information crucially, ethically, effectively and efficiently. The Google era has transformed what librarians do. We’ve gone from being the gatekeepers to being easily bypassed. We need to be partners with the faculty to help them help the students use information better.”

During her two years at Dickinson, Mitchell has introduced several programs to better serve “the 24/7 campus. Students have high expectations about what technology can deliver. We’ve expanded our hours to 2 a.m., Sunday through Thursday, and added an IM [instant message] reference desk called RushRef. Librarians are here until 10 p.m. to answer questions. A lot of students who wouldn’t walk to the library [or are studying abroad] use RushRef.”

Entries in the online library catalog of more than a half-million books now look like the book descriptions found on Amazon.com. “Why shouldn’t students have as much richness and depth in their catalog as Amazon has?” she wonders.

While much research occurs today from wherever students land with their laptops, Mitchell is working to keep them coming to the physical building as well. “We’re trying to hone the building to give them what they want.”

She’s planning some reconfigurations to further encourage group work and collaboration—bringing greater cohesion to the intellectual community.

“Libraries are becoming more like student centers,” explains Mitchell. “We want to show that this is how educated people interact with their environment—with newspapers, journals, DVDs, faculty presentations of their research, poetry readings. The library is still that essential place for scholarly activities.”


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