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Call it WSU Tech: School at forefront of e-education

PULLMAN – The technology wing of Jeff Records’ life is significant. He has computers, both desktop and laptop. He’s got a digital camera and cell phone, a PDA and a digital video recorder.

Almost all of it, he says, could be used in one way or another as part of his classwork at Washington State University.

“Pretty much everything but the Xbox,” said Records, a junior from Montesano, Wash.

For his generation of students, technology is deeply fixed to the college experience. Most classes now have some kind of online component, whether it’s a quiz or discussion thread or e-texts, and classroom uses of the Internet are steadily expanding.

Most recently, collaborative programs such as blogs or wikis are offering the potential to revolutionize the way students learn, breaking down barriers between classes and disciplines, and democratizing the learning process, said Barbara Monroe, a WSU professor of English who researches teaching with technology.

“What’s different now from even three years ago,” she said, “is there’s been this surge in social software.”

WSU is now launching a university wiki – a communal Web site in which people can add material and edit entries – as well as wikis intended to help create communities among incoming freshmen.

The brisk pace of technology is nothing new. Still, if you’ve not been on a college campus for several years, you might be surprised. No one registers for classes in person anymore – if registration makes you think of lines, you may be a grandparent. Book purchases, financial aid, transcripts and almost every university function is done online. A student might read e-text versions of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.” And students want, and typically get, online access nearly everywhere.

“When the Internet goes down, people get stressed about it,” said Heather Dickerson, a 19-year-old sophomore at WSU, “because everything you have to do is online.”

Anytime, anywhere

The modern campus is a sea of technology. Student unions are filled with students intent on their wireless-connected laptops. The number of tasks that can be done on handheld devices – from taking notes to checking e-mail – has exploded. Some universities are trying to plug lectures and other information into iPod-friendly podcasts.

In the space of a decade it has remade the way students live.

“Before, you always had to go find the information,” said Antony Opheim, the University of Idaho’s associate director of technology development and network systems. “You went to the library. Where is research done? In the library. Now students want it available at Starbucks or on the Admin lawn.

“Students now don’t think of it as a luxury.”

In a warren of cubicles tucked under Martin Stadium on the WSU campus, the workers at Student Computing Services answered hundreds of calls last week from students returning to campus.

The department, which is virtually entirely student-staffed, helps students get connected in a variety of ways – producing the “magic CD” that helps scour incoming computers for viruses, answering help desk questions and running student labs.

Getting tech-ready was among the top priorities for everyone before the start of classes Monday.

“The professors expect that all these students will have instant e-mail, instant access and can go right to work on the first day of classes,” said George Ball, SCS director.

The influx of tens of thousands of new computers all connecting to a single network also makes universities particularly ripe for viruses and other security problems.

“Last fall we had virus storms like crazy,” said Ball.

‘Great fish-bowl’

By launching its first wikis, WSU is at the front of a technological trend. A wiki – Hawaiian for “quickly” – allows viewers to change entries, respond on the site and view past changes made to any entry. Perhaps the best-known example is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that users can edit themselves.

At some universities, professors have used wikis to host ongoing conversations and debates about works of literature. Others have students post their work online so others can critique or react to it.

Anyone can view the WSU Wiki, but only students and faculty can edit it.

Nils Peterson, assistant director for WSU’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology and leader of the effort to create the wiki, says the technology could change the way knowledge is shared in universities.

Instead of a student writing a paper that is seen by only the professor, students can now post work online and comment on each other’s submissions. A graduate student might compile a bibliography for a class – and post it on the wiki, making it something a student in a 400-level course could use as a launching point for work of their own, Peterson said.

“One of my colleagues calls it the great fish-bowl,” he added.

He views technology as changing academic life in three ways: moving administrative tasks such as registration and grade tracking online; changing the way that classroom activities are done without changing the essential nature of the work, such as e-filing a paper rather than printing it out and turning it in; and finding whole new approaches to learning – what he calls “transformational” change. He sees the wiki as falling into the last category.

If new technologies like wikis create a more collaborative educational environment, it won’t be without some resistance, said Monroe, the English professor. Many instructors may have a Web page listing a course syllabus and other materials or use e-mail to communicate with students. But few are really adopting interactive approaches that can transform education.

Many instructors view education as a one-way street, she said.

“College faculty are very resistant to the idea that knowledge is socially constructed,” she said. “They are the experts.

“What has to happen is a teacher has to rethink her role in the classroom and needs to think of herself as a co-learner,” Monroe said.

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