Texas’ oldest college will soon be offering some futuristic classes, thanks to a new $500,000 grant for digital education from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“We believe in face-to-face classes and student-professor interaction,” said Austin College Vice President for Academic Affairs Sheila Piñeres, “but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the digital age or say it’s not relevant to us.”
The grant will be dispersed over the course of three years, and is aimed at enabling AC professors to develop new and creative ways of using digital media to give students a better learning experience.
This technology will show up in a variety of ways, said Dean of Humanities Patrick Duffey, who spearheaded the effort to win the grant and will administer its funds on campus. He gave examples of students creating interactive maps and digital storytelling videos, building online databases, or using blogs and wikis to share information across disciplines.
Each year, nine professors will propose and receive funding for a new class, which they will develop with new technology in mind. Duffey noted that these classes are expected to become regular offerings in the AC course book – each one must be offered at least three times.
The majority of the funds will go toward training and development for the faculty, making sure they know just what digital technology is capable of. “After all, a lot of us didn’t grow up with an iPad in our hands,” Duffey said.
The money will also be used to hire a full-time “instructional technologist” who can advise both students and teachers, and to support an international conference on digital education to be hosted at AC every two years.
College President Marjorie Hass said most people think digital education means putting courses online and reducing direct contact between teachers and students, but that is not what this grant will do. “We are not looking for ways to take the professor out of the equation,” she said. “We are looking for ways to put the professor more deeply in it.”
Hass said tech-fluent professors will be better equipped to work with “digital natives,” that is, students who have grown up with computers and cell phones. But she also said this program will have plenty to teach students about the technology they know so well.
“Just because students are digital natives and fluent in Twitter and Snapchat does not mean they are educated in effective communication using those tools,” said Hass “When our students come to us, they already know how to read, but that doesn’t mean we don’t teach literature. It’s the same thing.”
AC freshman Kailey Gray said she is excited that her professors will be using new and creative ways to teach. Many of her teachers already use basic digital skills in class, “but sometimes PowerPoints get a little old,” Gray admitted. “New technologies are easier to learn from, so as professors learn how to use them, it will make class easier and more intriguing.”
Above all, AC’s administrators said, they hope this grant will help them continue their long-term goal of creating a 21st-century, higher-education experience in the middle of Sherman.
“People think that a liberal arts college is something set back in the medieval ages, with people walking around in robes,” said Piñeres. “But come back in three years and see the innovative things our faculty will have done with this opportunity. We’ll have a lot to talk about.”