IT review offers insights into ISU learning ecosystem

Better support for faculty during the 10-minute classroom changeover and streamlined access to more electronic learning tools are two likely outcomes from a recent needs assessment of the ISU learning ecosystem. These and other recommendations can be found along with the needs assessment report. Two documents are available:

  • A 29-page report (PDF) from MindWires consulting, a California firm specializing in digital education and planning
  • A four-page summary (PDF) of key findings and action steps prepared by the Iowa State steering committee overseeing the study

Last fall, consultants came to campus to lead focus groups and develop surveys designed to reveal key issues and opportunities for ISU.

"It’s OK to ask faculty and students what technology they want,” said Jim Twetten, co-chair of the steering committee and director of academic technologies in IT services. “But users are rightly focused on their discipline’s content, and often don’t know what’s possible, technology-wise. So this was a chance to engage in dialog on day-to-day teaching and learning activities."

Once those common activities and desires were known, educational technology specialists could begin to work toward new solutions. Some of those solutions could be technological, while others may be more procedural, Twetten said.

The reports point toward the need for greater support in both the physical and electronic learning arenas.

"The study shows a real need for increased support of online and blended learning on campus, and shining a spotlight on teaching innovation so the whole campus can benefit," said Ralph Napolitano, co-chair of the steering committee and associate director for online learning in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT).

The 10-minute classroom changeover period

Faculty concerns about the 10-minute changeover became more apparent during the focus group discussions.

"When instructors meet at the classroom technology podium -- one trying to unplug a laptop and move out, the other connecting and opening an electronic toolkit -- they've got a lot of technical things to do," Twetten said. "Add students peppering them with questions and those 10 minutes roll by fast. We need to find a way to make the technology even more straightforward so that faculty can concentrate on their students."

Twetten said that service providers for classrooms will get together to look for ways to remove some of the hassle from the changeover. Options might include such things as:

  • Putting IT experts in buildings with heavy classroom concentrations for more immediate support
  • Setting up programs in which students in classes are identified as the technology support assistants for faculty members
  • Standardizing more technologies in general assignment classrooms, providing instructors with a more familiar setting
  • Creating a side room near the classroom, where an instructor can set up technology on a wheeled cart while the previous instructor is finishing up (Troxel Hall has such a system)

Learning management systems

Faculty and student opinions about learning management systems (LMS) were a key focus during the review. Iowa State currently uses Blackboard. While support for the use of a learning management system is broad among both faculty and students, the two groups have somewhat different priorities for it.

"For faculty, reliability is No. 1, clearly more important than new features," Twetten said.

Students want reliability as well, but they long for one consistent home for all their online needs, Twetten said. They don't want to have to log into different places -- Blackboard, Moodle, ThinkSpace, faculty pages or cloud-based software -- for different classes.

"The study did confirm some frustration with Blackboard that we’ve heard from students and faculty before," Twetten said "But people also recognized the high cost and commitment needed to change systems, and faculty pointed toward other technology concerns that were a higher priority to them."

Moving forward

The review provides useful information for planning and investing in physical and virtual learning spaces on campus, Twetten said. For example, educational technology planners hope to:

  • Develop a comprehensive classroom technology plan. The plan would include basic features and technologies that every classroom should have, along with add-ons for some rooms. There might be several tiers of classrooms with different levels of equipment and support.
  • Increase the level of user expertise and support in online learning. The more traditional model puts a heavy burden on faculty members who may not receive help from support staff, Napolitano said. For blended or totally online classes, a team with experts in instructional design, pedagogy and technology could provide support not previously available in all areas.
  • Designate a single contact point for classroom troubleshooting. It can be confusing to understand who to call for various classroom issues, ranging from a burned-out light bulb to a malfunctioning touchscreen, Twetten said. A single contact point and dispatch would make for more rapid problem resolution.
  • Develop a strategy for how emerging online electronic tools are provisioned and integrated into the ISU learning ecosystem. Interoperability standards are emerging, nationally, Twetten said, and an organized approach to integrating tools helps lessen the burden on faculty while also responding to the student desire for having more instructional resources in one place.