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Working Smarter

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Steve Cunningham

It's safe to say that if you're reading this, then you're in favor of using technology in our classrooms. If you're like me, you're running as fast as you can to incorporate more of it into your curricula. We're recording and videotaping our lectures, creating audio and video podcasts and posting them online, and providing our PowerPoint presentations as online PDFs. We're setting up fully stocked computer labs, and connecting them to servers for storing students work in progress.

All of this allegedly makes our programs more learner-centric and flexible for students. But can we yet judge the results in terms of outcomes? Overall, I am not certain we can. There are some obvious benefits that can be quantified easily. For example, we would not have distance learning without the advances in highspeed networking and content management systems. And classes that are based on technology must surely benefit from the handson learning to which students are exposed in the course of teaching the technology. But if we look at the traditional lecture hall or discussion group setting, have we reaped measurable benefits from the extra work of preparing these materials? All these new online resources require preparation time - quite a bit of it in some cases.

Like most of you, I don't have a lot of extra time. Most of my classes are technology-based, so they require an update every semester to bring them current with the state-of-the-art, and that takes time. Technology-based classes also tend to be popular, which means that I have a large number of papers and projects to evaluate during the semester. I have teaching assistants to help with that process, but it's still a healthy load of work.

Now add in the newer online technology components, and things can go from busy to ridiculous. Notes and PDFs still have to be posted. Instructional podcasts have to be scripted, recorded, and edited. Videotaped lectures have to be edited. Interactive Flash materials must be constructed and debugged, then posted. If I don't have most of this extra preparation completed before the semester begins, it's simply not going to be completed within that semester. And like many professionals in and out of academia, I'm being asked to do more with less.

Then there's the issue of infrastructure. I have a colleague who is an expert in Internet2 applications [for more about Internet2, see Case Study: Education on page 58]. He is scheduled to give a presentation at a conference on technology-enhanced learning for other faculty members at the university.

His demonstration requires access to a 30 Mb/s internet connection. Unfortunately the conference is scheduled in a conference center that appears to still be wired with Cat-3 cable and 10BaseT switches. The larger room where he usually performs demonstrations is unavailable.

While most universities, including mine, have made substantial investments in smart classrooms over the last few years, the network pipes necessary to support more advanced applications have not been upgraded campus wide. After all, the university is over 125 years old, and we still have a number of historic buildings that remain underserved in terms of technology. As a result, some rooms will simply not support these more demanding applications.

It all costs money, and it all takes time. Meanwhile we all make the best of what we have and are grateful that we have that much.

But technology-enhanced learning applications are becoming more demanding of infrastructure over time, not less. And it's often far more costly to retrofit an old structure than it is to equip a new structure with appropriate wiring and switches.

Our facilities are much improved over what we had just a few years ago. But some faculty are still just learning to use these new technologies, and figuring out how to put them to best use. Technology advances at an stoppable rate, and it often seems that just when we have integrated a new technology into our curricula, another one sings its siren song. Just when we've updated the infrastructure at one end of the campus, the infrastructure at the other end of the campus is heading towards obsolescence.

In the meantime, another semester is rapidly drawing to a close. With that comes another opportunity to re-evaluate the technology enhancements we have integrated into this semester's work, and decide which are keepers and which are not. We have another chance to see if assessments have improved, and if the latest round of additional preparation, both before and during the semester, has paid dividends. We'll perform a post-mortem on this past semester, take a look at our departmental budget, and decide what new enhancements we can afford to implement over the summer months to prepare for fall.

Between my colleagues and me, I'm sure we'll figure it out. All it takes is time.

Steve Cunningham is a senior lecturer in technology in the Thornton School, Music Industry Department at USC. He can be reached atvoicetalent@mac.com.

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