Oct 31 2006

Top-notch Technology at Small, Private Colleges

With a campus footprint of one square block in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., St. Francis College embraces technology to provide cutting-edge services.

The challenges of operating a small urban college in New York City aren't lost on Joseph Hemway, assistant vice president of information technology and CTO at St. Francis College, a liberal arts institution with 2,200 students. Providing an outstanding educational environment, staying affordable and offering the right amenities are major concerns of the college.

Increasingly, technology has been a key piece of the puzzle. “Our goal was to reinvigorate the school through technology and make it a centerpiece for 21st century education,” Hemway explains.

St. Francis, which traces its roots back to a group of Franciscan Brothers in 1858, has steadily adopted advanced technology and embraced the wireless world. The private, independent coeducational college, located in Brooklyn Heights, uses tech tools to provide a superior learning environment and boost its stature. For example, wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) is available to students, faculty and administrators across the one-square-block campus, which encompasses four major buildings.

Technology is changing the way students and instructors act – and interact. It's creating new opportunities to communicate and collaborate. “Our motto is ‘The Small College of Big Dreams,'” says Hemway. “It's difficult for a small urban school to differentiate itself and provide the level of services that a larger school might offer. Wireless technology is one way to achieve that goal. It ensures that students receive big-time services.”

That's a prospect the school takes seriously. St. Francis is a commuter school, so interaction on campus is essential. A diverse array of departments require first-rate instruction and content.

Information technology, along with wireless connectivity, is changing both the school and the way students, administrators and the public perceive it. “Wi-Fi is a touchstone for many other initiatives and offerings at the school,” Hemway says. “It is symbolic of all the other things we're doing to help students gain knowledge, regardless of their disciplines and interests.”

Clear Connections

Equipping classrooms, libraries, labs, offices and common spaces with Wi-Fi is a top priority at St. Francis. In 2003, the school deployed a pair of Cisco access points in two cafeterias and a lounge. Initially, the goal was to provide Internet access on campus, enabling students to sign on after viewing a splash screen that displayed a user agreement and an explanation of wireless security risks.

In 2004, the school expanded the number of access points to nearly 50 to provide coverage within a new 35,000-square-foot academic center. The building includes a state-of-the-art library, a 90-seat theater and lecture hall, gathering spaces for students and updated offices for various departments. In addition, 14 “smart classrooms” feature advanced technologies, including electronic whiteboards for sharing data and displaying multimedia presentations.

St. Francis moved into the final stage of its wireless deployment in February 2006, expanding access to its internal network to most of the campus. The college uses more than 70 access points, including Cisco 4000 series devices. Anyone visiting the campus can log on to the Internet, although access to the college's network is restricted to fully authenticated users. The school relies primarily on 802.11b and 802.11g wireless protocols, which are less expensive and more compatible with students' equipment.

The system allows students to connect to the information they need, including e-mail, files, course management data, journals, grades, transcripts and course information. Access points authenticate directly with Active Directory, making the process fast and simple, while reducing administrative overhead for the IT staff. The school blocks access on its administrative network, and it uses virtual private networking to keep data and connections secure.

All this is creating an environment that's high tech and high touch. Students who bring notebooks into the classroom can participate in an interactive learning experience. For example, an instructor using a whiteboard can send a presentation directly to the students' screens.

Some instructors optimize content and curriculum for personal digital assistants (PDAs). St. Francis provides free devices for students in the honors program. They can use the PDAs to communicate with one another, to participate in virtual meetings and to collaborate on a project. They can also use the PDAs to access the Internet and the school's network.

Focusing on the Big Picture

St. Francis has embraced an array of technology solutions. For example, the communication arts department is among only a handful across the country to have a high-definition television studio, complete with state-of-the-art recording and broadcasting equipment. An editing lab has advanced computers with professional editing capabilities. In addition, students can tap into digital sound design, real-time motion graphics and other advanced features.

The school's technological success is no accident. St. Francis has adopted targeted strategies to help fuel technology integration and adoption. In 2005, it instituted a notebook PC purchase program for faculty. Instructors submitted proposals explaining how they would use computers in their classrooms. Those whose proposals were selected received free notebooks and training on how to use wireless, smart whiteboards and other interactive tools. “The idea was to get away from chalk and talk and get students excited about content,” Hemway says.

Another strategy centers on the adoption of best-of-breed and open source systems. Matthew Hogan, director of network operations, has been instrumental in moving the college technologically forward. More than 60 percent of the school's back-end systems are Linux-based, Hogan says.

St. Francis now uses open source code to manage student e-mail and for several other functions, which has resulted in dramatic savings.

There's no question that St. Francis makes the grade, by embracing innovation and helping students prepare for the challenges of the 21st century workplace. “It's all about people realizing their dreams,” Hemway says. “Technology is helping to make that possible.”

Samuel Greengard is a freelance technology writer based in Portland, Ore.

St. Francis College

Founded: 1858

Location: Brooklyn Heights, N. Y.

Enrollment: 2,200 students

Academic Departments: 18

Motto: “The Small College of Big Dreams”

History: St. Francis was founded by Franciscan Brothers as the first private school in the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Five Ways to Use Tech Tools

Advice for colleges and universities on implementing technology includes:

1. Map out a technology plan. A systematic approach helps a college or university stay on track and avoid wasting dollars. Building the right platform from the start can provide the flexibility and scalability required for future growth.

2. Look for ways to maximize your budget. Use open source code and systems when appropriate, and purchase items through preferred vendors in order to obtain volume discounts.

3. Identify opportunities to improve processes. Technology alone cannot drive improvement. Educators must revamp the way they teach and handle workloads. And security controls, including authentication and encryption, must stay at the forefront.

4. Provide training. New technologies – including Wi-Fi, electronic whiteboards and personal digital assistants – require training in order to provide a maximum return on investment.

5. Work with partners. A strong relationship with a supplier or integration partner can pay huge dividends. An organization can tap into the partner's technical expertise without paying large fees to consultants.

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