August 1, 2014

DTLT’s Innovative Work featured in The Blue Review

Leslie Madsen-Brooks featured the long history of innovative work coming out of UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technology in her article “Beyond Disruption” for The Blue Review. Below is a somewhat extensive quote from the article:

Those who have been paying attention only to partnerships among Silicon Valley companies and the Ivies may be surprised that the beating heart of a tremendous amount of academic technology innovation is a small state university in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At theUniversity of Mary Washington, the Division of Teaching and Learning Technology has launched at least four amazing initiatives that should be replicated widely because it’s clear to even casual observers that they advance teaching and learning in myriad ways. For one, evidence of student learning appears on the open web, and I encourage you to check out the current blogs developed for courses. Faculty, too—and I know this from first-hand experience—benefit from knowing what students are thinking (as expressed in blog posts and comments) before they convene for class.

Several years ago, UMW’s DTLT premiered UMW Blogs, termed “the Bluehost experiment” by the DTLT staff because in its first iteration, it was little more than a WordPress Multi-User installation on an inexpensive ($6.95 per month) shared server at Bluehost. Today, any UMW student, faculty, or staff can set up a blog for class or personal use on UMW Blogs—and 500 courses have been brought onto the platform since fall 2008.  Anyone can browse the courses using UMW Blogs or discover all kinds of non-course blogs by exploring the latest posts featured on the home page. The UMW archives, for example, recently put online a series of lectures by the late civil rights leader James Farmer, and Jess Rigelhaupt’s Oral History class has createdRosie the Riveter, an excellent resource that includes “firsthand accounts of what people experienced on the American home front during World War II.”

Next to emerge from this innovation engine was DS 106, an open course on digital storytelling, originally taught by Jim Groom, but since taught by several different instructors, including noted ed tech thought leaders and innovators Martha Burtis and Alan Levine, and recently by instructors at other universities as well. Because of the strong networks of the instructors and students, DS 106 took on a life of its own, with students—both those enrolled at UMW and those following the course from elsewhere—providing daily fun assignments (“the Daily Create”) that stimulate participants’ creativity and stretch their technological savvy. DS 106 spawned ds106 radio, a free-form, streaming broadcast for which anyone could volunteer to provide content.  How popular is DS 106 and its apparently endless stream of creative multimedia content? In spring 2012, Groom launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a better web server for DS 106, and the campaign raised 600% of its goal in just a few days, providing funding for all kinds of course improvements and expansions.  While Kickstarter provided private funds for this project, I’m excited about this kind of crowdsourced funding—although I’d be even more enthusiastic about greater public funding—because it allows project creators greater future freedom than would, say, funding from investors whose motive is more likely to be profit than pedagogical revolution.

Springing next from the mind of the DTLT geniuses was Domain of One’s Own, in which each first-year student at UMW receives a domain name and space on a web server. The project encourages each student  to “reclaim the web” by “taking control of your digital identity,” gathering its artifacts “in a central place that you own and control.” And it’s offered in collaboration with the university’s Office of Information Technology Services,

The pilot gave 400 students and faculty their own domain name and web space to install a portfolio of work or map onto existing systems. In Fall of 2013 every incoming student at UMW will have the opportunity to choose their own domain and receive a web hosting account with the freedom to create subdomains, install any LAMP-compatible software, setup databases, email addresses and carve out their own space on the web that they own and control.

Then, as if granting students this creative freedom and technical autonomy wasn’t enough, this spring UMW launched Thinklab, amakerspace. According to its About page:

ThinkLab is the exciting new makerspace located in the Simpson Library at the University of Mary Washington. As a collaboration between the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, the College of Education, and the Library, ThinkLab hosts a variety of emerging technologies and tools for students and faculty across all disciplines. 3D printing, robotics, and electronics work using Arduinos and simple breadboard kits are just some of the many exciting things happening at ThinkLab.

The innovations and—yes, I’ll say it—disruptions, emerging from UMW exemplify some of the best practices in developing communities of learners, fostering collaboration, encouraging writing and reflection and developing curiosity about the world. Channeling George Kuh, Randall Bass emphasizes that such “high-impact practices” lead to “meaningful learning gains” as well as “high retention and persistence rates” because they encourage these specific behaviors:

  • Investing time and effort
  • Interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters
  • Experiencing diversity
  • Responding to more frequent feedback
  • Reflecting and integrating learning
  • Discovering relevance of learning through real-world application

In an age when universities are pushing faculty ever harder to develop monetizable intellectual property, it’s refreshing to see faculty doubling down on using relatively inexpensive technologies to improve student learning. UMW is a case in point: it’s a modestly funded, small state university that, thanks to all the active minds (and periodic strategic hires) at DTLT and on the faculty, has become a major hub of innovation in higher education.

About Brynn Boyer

Brynn Boyer is assistant director of media and public relations and a 2010 graduate of UMW.

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