Oct 31 2006

Weaving Technology into Every Department of a University

From payroll to the photography department to early childhood education, technology is woven throughout the fabric of Columbia College Chicago.

From payroll to the photography department to early childhood education, technology is integral to the smooth operation of Columbia College Chicago.


Since earning his master's degree in photography at Columbia College Chicago in 2003, Matt Siber has sold works to the Art Institute of Chicago and the city's Museum of Contemporary Photography. He's had shows in Chicago, New York and Europe. He also landed a part-time teaching job at Columbia.

That's pretty impressive, especially considering Siber hasn't been in a darkroom in three years.

While digital photography was the last thing on his mind when he enrolled at Columbia, a school that emphasizes creative arts within a liberal arts curriculum, it's become the core of the photography program, he says. Columbia's imaging lab is one of the best in the country, with more than 100 computers, several large-scale mural printers and a full-time technical staff manning the labs, says Siber, who can't imagine going back to using film.

“If you're a young photographer coming out of school and you don't have a handle on digital imaging, you're not marketable,” he states.

From Columbia's photography labs to its dance studios, its payroll records to its student grades, technology has become the way students and staff communicate, the way faculty teaches and the way students learn. Like any educational institution, Columbia's product is information, and it is committed to making technology a core part of that product.

“Technology is all-pervasive,” says Kevin Henry, director of the product design program at Columbia. “We teach technology with technology.”

Reliable Technology

It's not just the college's administrative side that depends on technology. Teachers, administrators and students all need technology to stay ahead of the curve.

When Rebecca Courington directed the academic computing department at Columbia, she kept getting requests from professors to teach them new ways to integrate computers into their curricula. As the requests rolled in, she added new workshops until she finally realized that the campus could use a center devoted to training faculty to use educational technology. That's how Columbia's Center for Instructional Technology was created two years ago.

“Everything we're doing at Columbia has a technology basis,” says Courington, who now directs the center.

In addition to regular workshops, the center runs a technology fellows program that encourages professors to use technology in their teaching and curricula. As a result, several departments have embedded technology in their curricula.

For example, the film/video department is using technology in the classroom “from start to finish,” according to Courington. Even the dance department is piloting a new class that explores how technology is used in choreography to study movement and motion.

As the demand for technology continues to grow, Columbia is always seeking new ways to integrate technology throughout the campus. This fall, the college's Portfolio Center plans to start helping students and faculty put together online portfolios.

“Students need to know technology in order to succeed in work,” says Courington. “They come in knowing a lot already, but we're always one byte ahead.”

Arts and Science

When it comes to using technology in the classroom, the photography department is in good company at Columbia. The college's interactive multimedia program was the first of its kind in the country to fully integrate computer arts and computer science. Students learn to design Web-based tools and features–everything from Web merchant kiosks to computer-based training simulations. The program's goal is to teach students how to conceive of and create an appropriate interface for specific audiences and demographics, explains Wade Roberts, who directs the program.

Recently, the interactive multimedia department has been working with the college's early childhood education program to explore the use of interactive computing and collaboration as an educational tool for children.

In Columbia's product design program, everything is laced with technology since all products are becoming increasingly intelligent, explains Henry. In the past, students sketched ideas for a product and then worked with a manufacturer to design it. Now, most of that work is done with graphic software from Adobe Illustrator, Freehand and Photoshop, and all the drafting is done with computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing programs.

“There are almost no products that can get to market without going through a computer,” Henry points out. And that's good news for Columbia's students.

Five Tips for Managing Technology

Technology can have a profound impact on education, but colleges and universities need to be aware of the pitfalls. Bob Thall, chairman of the photography department at Columbia College Chicago, offers the following tips for schools that are determined to control their technology instead of the other way around.

1. Analyze hidden costs. The economics change dramatically with technology, so you need to keep that in mind. For instance, a photography darkroom and a digital lab cost about the same to buy. However, a digital lab needs to be replaced after a few years, whereas a darkroom can last for 20 years.

2. Create function-specific work areas. With function-specific work areas, you can limit expensive equipment to locations where it's really needed. Students don't require a high-speed computer when they're printing, but they do need one when they're manipulating files. As an example, Columbia's photo department put the computers with the most processing power in the image manipulation work area and placed slower desktop units at the scanning and printing workstations.

3. Don't let content be compromised by technology. Start with the basics and build from there. While Columbia's photography department moves more and more toward digital output, it still places great emphasis on the fundamentals of film photography. “I think most schools are asking the wrong question,” Thall says. “They're wondering how quickly they can introduce digital. I think the right question is how much can you teach before digital?”

4. Use portable storage tools. Many of Columbia's photography students keep their work on their iPods, which are easier to carry than trays of slides and are better organized when it comes to archiving work. Thall stores his book projects on a $40 flash keychain that he can take everywhere.

5. Don't throw away equipment before its time is up. Take advantage of existing hardware. Thall uses older printers for simple prints and saves the powerful machines for larger, more detailed projects. Students and faculty often use film cameras, then scan in the film because film cameras are cheaper and the quality is often better. “We get a lot more for our money, but the students have to be really trained and monitored to work in this kind of system,” he says.

Melissa Solomon is a New York-based freelance writer who specializes in technology.