SNC Learns

At work in the Mulva Studio
At work in the Mulva Studio

More than a decade ago, Hannah Sternig ’15 trudged to the public library as a fourth grader to check out all the books she could find on Ireland. She read up on the country and then handwrote a report. It was the last school project she remembers completing without the use of technology.

Today, the laptop has replaced the No. 2 pencil as her writing instrument of choice, and her public library – no, every library – comes to her in an instant via the internet.

Sternig, an education major, is learning to integrate technology in her own classroom someday. She knows that, more and more, the question is not whether technology should be used in education, but which technology should be used and when.

That’s just as true for her studies – and her classmates’ – at St. Norbert. From Google apps and omnipresent Wi-Fi to “flipped classrooms”and virtual textbooks, St. Norbert faculty and staff are embracing their responsibility to, as their Norbertine mission behooves them, prepare their students for all good works – 21st-century ones.

“If you would ask every faculty member we have, do you have an obligation to use technology to teach, most would say no,” says President Tom Kunkel. “If you asked every one of them, do you have an obligation to be the best instructor you can be, 100 percent of them would say yes.

“The freshmen who are coming in these days have literally been part of the digital world since they were born. The way they process information has been shaped by the tools that are second nature for them. If we don’t meet them halfway, it’s not just a question of convenience. We’re not doing the job we’re supposed to do, which is to provide the best education we can.”

Kunkel’s background as a print journalist motivates him to accelerate digital learning on campus. He has seen what happens when an industry does not keep pace with changes in the way society gathers and digests information.

“Change is not something that colleges are generally good at,” Kunkel says. Nonetheless, he’s encouraged by the rate at which faculty members are incorporating technology in instruction.

The number of courses using SNoodle – St.Norbert’s version of the e-learning platform Moodle – quadrupled in the last year. In early 2012, the Digital Learning Initiative (DLI), a grassroots faculty group, launched a movement to expand digital learning. That same year Raechelle Clemmons, the college’s first chief information officer, joined the president’s cabinet, formalizing the college’s commitment to integrating education and technology.

Like Kunkel, DLI chair Reid Riggle (Teacher Education) admits that shifting the 300-year-old culture of higher education has its challenges. “We’re on a sort of exponential curve here, and we’re just starting to go around the bend,” Riggle says. The good news: Change needn’t be wholesale and immediate to be effective. St. Norbert faculty and students seem aligned in their desire to strike a comfortably progressive balance between traditional and contemporary teaching – an idea Riggle and his DLI colleagues call full-spectrum pedagogy.

“Folks teach in a bunch of different ways using a bunch of different tools. One size doesn’t fit all,”says instructional technologist and DLI member Jay Cook.

“It’s very easy to talk about a technology in isolation. Technology is cool,” Riggle says. “But the tail can’t wag the dog. Technology needs to be used in the service of learning.”

That means keeping the learning audience in mind. “We’re attracting a type of student that wants a high-touch educational experience,” Clemmons says. In that context, technology is used best when it enriches students’ face time with professors rather than diminishing or replacing it.

Eliot Elfner (Business Administration) has accomplished that with his “flipped” seminar in business policy and strategy, in which advanced students run a simulated company. Elfner used Panopto video-capture technology to record his lectures on the course text, then uploaded the lectures to SNoodle so his students could watch them before coming to class.

“I was interested in spending more in-class time working on the business simulation game rather than just elaborating on the book material,” Elfner says. “The increased monitoring and guidance I was able to offer the simulation teams resulted in much better performance.”

He’s not the only classroom-flipper on campus. John Frohliger (Mathematics) – a DLI member – instructs calculus students like Megan Waldoch ’17 in the same way.

Waldoch would fire up her laptop in her residence hall room around 9 p.m. the night before class to watch a voiced-over PowerPoint lecture loaded with sample problems. (She only watched one lecture on her smartphone before nixing that medium. “The screen was just too small,” she says.) If she struggled with a concept, she’d consult a residence hall neighbor.

“You have to trust yourself. It was a good confidence-builder,” Waldoch says. “Learning the best way for me to learn really helped. I’ll remember more because I worked on it so much myself.”

In this way, digital tools facilitate education’s transformation into an “equal participation model,” Clemmons says.“You hear the expression ‘moving from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side.’ Institutions are figuring out how we take this body of knowledge that our faculty are clearly experts at and package it in a way that meets students where they’re at, in the ways that they learn best.”

That certainly applies to students in Latin American Civilization: South America and the Caribbean, taught by John Day (Modern Languages and Literatures). This semester they will create their own virtual textbook, an approach made possible by a DLI course redesign grant. (Day, Elfner and John Pennington [English] were the first recipients of these grants made as part of the DLI Initiative.)

In Day’s course, students assigned to small groups by country use the citation management website Zotero to build a library of online sources that serves as their text. “I wanted to put them in the position of having to make sense of Latin American civilization through their individual searches and collective discussions and evaluations,” Day says.

Selecting and interpreting their own sources will motivate students and deepen their learning, explains Day. “The exposure to a wide range of language styles, vocabulary and usage will be conducive to improving students’ Spanish skills and preparing them for encountering Spanish in their lives and work beyond the classroom.”

As technology becomes more prevalent on campus, faculty and, yes, even those digital-native students need guidance along the way. While most Millennials’ technology skills outstrip those of their professors, results of a 2013 survey (see “Digital Learning by the Numbers,” below) suggest that the majority of St. Norbert students want more technology instruction from faculty and staff than they’re getting.

Faculty seeking assistance on the technology front can turn to instructional technologists like Cook, who has coached the college community through many changes during his 20 years in the role. “When I arrived, Windows 3.1 wasn’t widely deployed yet on campus, so many people didn’t even know how to use a mouse,” he says.

Soon professors also will have a faculty peer as a resource. This fall Kelsy Burke (Sociology) will begin a one-year term as the college’s first digital fellow. She’ll consult one-on-one with faculty on teaching with technology, and collect qualitative data on faculty’s current technology use, and future needs and goals.

Burke, a virtual ethnographer and instructional technophile whose classes incorporate Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and podcasts, says, “I’m already using technology as a tool in my teaching, and because I also study technology as a subject – how people in contemporary America can use digital media to communicate mature ideas – it seemed like a good fit for me to expand on my teaching and also my research.

”Like its faculty members, St. Norbert College itself is looking to share digital learning expertise with regional peers through the BLAISE Alliance, coalesced by Riggle and Clemmons. BLAISE is an acronym of the names of participating colleges and universities: Beloit, Lawrence, Augustana, Illinois Wesleyan, St. Norbert and Elmhurst.

Chaired by Riggle, BLAISE includes faculty development, IT and library staff; faculty members; and college administrators. The collaborative has undertaken three pilot projects; Mulva Library director Kristin Vogel leads one of them, focused on sharing best practices around information literacy and digital literacy competencies.

She says: “We have fantastic work in information literacy by our librarian Anthony Sigismondi. Another institution may have already been doing some work in the area of tutorials, and we’d want to have them talk about their strengths and expertise.

“It’s another way to demonstrate to faculty what technology expertise and building competencies for students can do both immediately in their classes – how well they perform – and also going out into the workplace.”

That, after all, is higher education’s end: to equip students to contribute to society. Digital tools, beyond just being cool, can amplify that end, to the benefit of St. Norbert students and the world.

Digital learning by the numbers
Does tech-centric learning leave some students behind? “When you start talking about technology in the classroom, one of the common concerns is that not everyone will have a device,” says chief information officer Raechelle Clemmons.

To explore that concern and others, the college in 2013 participated for the first time in the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research’s National Study of Undergraduate Students and Education. About 10 percent of St. Norbert students answered questions about their technology ownership, usage, skills and preferences. Results suggest that the college is headed in the right direction with digital learning.

  • 99% of St. Norbert students surveyed own laptops
  • 50% say "most" or "all" of their professors use technology effectively to support student success
  • 11% have taken an online course at SNC or elsewhere
  • 19% own tablets
  • 85% own two or more internet-capable devices
  • 66% own a smart phone
  • 93% classrooms in which smart phone use is not allowed


March 31, 2014