Today's students expect technology in the classroom, says Scott Trimmer of The University of Findlay.

May 24 2010

Colleges Leverage Technology to Recruit New Students

Institutions offer wireless, smart classrooms and distance learning to recruit today's students.

Institutions offer wireless, smart classrooms and distance learning to recruit today’s students. Institutions offer wireless, smart classrooms and distance learning to recruit today's students.

Does your college have tech appeal? Officials at The University of Findlay think their school's multiyear effort to invest in smart classrooms, audience response systems, interactive whiteboards and other advanced instructional technologies gives them a recruiting advantage.

And it does, says Scott Trimmer, an academic technology specialist at the private college in northwest Ohio, but not in the obvious, measureable way that most education executives may prefer.

“Quite frankly, students today just expect us to have this kind of technology,” Trimmer says. “They're not going to see our classrooms on a tour and say, ‘Wow, these technologies are great! I need to come here because of them.'”

Trimmer says the reality is that if the college doesn't offer wireless, the latest classroom technologies and distance learning, potential students will use it as an excuse to cross Findlay off their list.

Findlay now has 130 technology-enhanced classrooms, each outfitted with a digital projector, computer, notebook VGA connection, DVD and VCR players, network access and audio system. The technology lets faculty supplement their lectures with PowerPoint presentations, video clips and Internet resources.

The university is also ramping up its use of other academic technologies. Several colleges use interactive whiteboards. The Center for Teaching Excellence last year also launched an audience response system initiative using clickers, and they've already experienced a 25 percent adoption rate.

“A lot of instructors use it just to gauge whether and to what degree students are understanding the concepts they are teaching,” Trimmer says, noting that instructors will go over a unit and then include a clicker question on one of their PowerPoint slides or even write one on the fly. Clickers allow students to answer confidentially.

Multiple Draws

Findlay offers many other tech features to attract students, including a fully wireless campus, including green spaces and dorms; a Blackboard learning management system that lets students and faculty access, organize, store, publish and distribute course and study materials online; and distance learning utilizing Elluminate, an application that delivers online text chat, two-way audio chat, video, an integrated whiteboard, and built-in screen-sharing and remote desktop features.

Findlay offers students enrolled in distance learning a positive interactive learning environment and also has hybrid courses that let students combine traditional on-campus lectures with the convenience of online coursework, says Trimmer. Online education is critical to attracting students, he says, especially those who are older and may have a job or a family, people with long commutes and even students from different states.

“Higher education is really changing because there are more and more nontraditional students, and they expect and rightfully demand that we offer classes when they need them,” Trimmer says, noting that its online learning programs also let the school continue teaching in the event of a natural disaster, such as a blizzard or flood, both of which are possibilities at Findlay.

Game Changer?

The flexibility and interactive options that academic technology offers clearly has pedagogical benefits, but is it a game changer for students when it comes to their college choices? Analysts think it's too early to tell.

Claire Schooley, a senior research analyst for Forrester Research, says faculty members are still learning how to adjust their teaching styles to make the most of the technologies. And while students are likely to enjoy the new technology, many still want to make sure that classroom gadgets help them learn as effectively as listening to a professor's lecture.

“I do think these technologies can be a factor in terms of students wanting to go to a higher education institution that is willing to invest inand offer cutting-edge classroom technologies,” she says.

Schooley says lecture-capture systems are particularly attractive to international students, and interactive whiteboards are a necessity for elementary and secondary education students who will need to know how to use them in their own teaching careers. “However, I don't think it's a deciding factor for the large majority of students,” she adds.

Some colleges don't spend the money on new technology until they are sure it's the right decision. The University of Northern Colorado upped its investment in academic technologies after a school survey revealed that respondents cited more technology in the classroom as their greatest need. The IT department now has 76 high-tech classrooms and another 75 outfitted with a wall interface to connect a notebook, DVD and projector.

“We have the theory that even though money is tight right now, if we don't continue to invest in doing the right things that students want and that will enhance teaching, then we won't continue to attract the students we want to attract,” says Paul Sharp, director of IT client services at Northern Colorado.

A survey taken recently by the IT department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) discovered how popular classroom technologies are with faculty.

The school converted nearly 100 percent of its lecture space into tech-enhanced classrooms that boast a teaching podium and a turnkey system that controls an in-room computer, projector, digital document camera, DVD and VHS systems, integrated sound system and network access.

The percentage of faculty who believe that document cameras in the classroom have significantly improved educational results

Source: Primary Research Group

Richard Zera, CIO and executive director of IT at UML, says 78 percent of surveyed faculty use the enhanced technology in the classroom on a regular or extensive basis, and 85 percent of those indicate a positive or very positive influence on their teaching abilities and on their students' ability to learn.

“I think that's a strong indication that our faculty are supportive of innovation in teaching and that they recognize we must find new ways to deliver their message,” he explains.

Wireless Coverage

Zera says another important tech feature that UML offers is an 802.11 wireless network that covers many dorms, dining halls, lecture halls and libraries, and will eventually cover nearly all campus locations. It offers a number of web self-service options as well. Students can go online to register for classes; view schedules and grades; view and pay tuition bills; manage financial aid; and manage their housing arrangements by selecting a preferred dorm, choosing a roommate and signing up for a meal plan.

The school also invests in technologies that help improve extracurricular life for students. UML has joined a leading digital multimedia entertainment network so it can offer students free, legal access to more than 1.5 million downloadable digital music tracks. The service is a nice addition for students who want to create their own social networks around shared interests in music and other entertainment.

“We think UML should be known as a school that has technology infused throughout the life of a student,” Zera says. “Whether it would be in the classroom, in the resident halls or in various student organizations and student activities, we're working very hard to make that a little bit of a differentiator. And we think it really is a major differentiator among today's students because they've grown up with technology and it's how they prefer to live and learn.”

Improved Teaching

Some school observers say the real potential to draw a correlation between deploying classroom technologies and recruiting top students lies not in how students feel about technology, but in how technology strengthens the faculty.

The biggest benefit to academic technologies is that it encourages instructors to reflect on their teaching, says Ron Cramer, a learning technology consultant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which has installed full technology setups in 193 of its 354 general assignment classrooms.

“If you are going to make a change to your class or try something new, then you have to ask yourself why you are doing it,” he poses. “What is the value to you as an instructor? What is the value to the students? You really spend time thinking critically about learning.”

University of Massachusetts Lowell CIO Richard Zera agrees that to be a truly effective student recruitment tool, the technology has to be less about trying to impress students with shiny gadgets and more about figuring out how the tools can improve learning. That means letting faculty feel that they are part of the process and allowing them to test the technology and collaborate with other faculty and even students on shared challenges and innovative teaching methods.

“If students feel that they're learning and the technologies are enhancing their academic experience, then I think they'll go out and talk about it with prospective future students and show their enthusiasm for it,” Zera says. “And that's when I think we'll start to see some real benefits when it comes to student recruiting.”

Assembling Smart Classrooms

Follow these tips when planning to deploy academic technologies at your college:

  • Start with the basics. While definitions of what constitutes a smart classroom vary from college to college, IT administrators agree that some basic fundamentals are necessary to gain any real benefits over a traditional classroom. The must-have features include an in-classroom computer, notebook connectivity, digital projector, access to Internet and the campus TV network, sound speakers, DVD and VCR players, and power sources. An often overlooked low-tech necessity is flexible furniture to support different kinds of teaching scenarios and to organize students for different types of classroom activities.
  • Keep it simple and consistent. Faculty members shouldn't have to be computer scientists to use academic technologies. Implement standard equipment and easy-to-use, touchscreen consoles to ensure that instructors can teach in any classroom without the need for additional training.
  • Partner with faculty to test technologies. San Jose State University has an incubator classroom for faculty to test technology and use it to develop innovative teaching methods. At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a cross-campus group of clicker users put three different systems through their paces for the IT department and ultimately recommended a product that had fewer functions but also the simplicity the faculty felt they needed to focus on the pedagogy of question creation.
  • Don't leave faculty high and dry. Once faculty start developing their content in concert with academic technologies, they'll be lost should a technology or system go down. The University of Massachusetts Lowell invested in a herd of computers on wheels, self-contained technology-enhanced classroom systems that are strategically placed across campus so an instructor can get one and be up and teaching within five minutes of encountering a technical problem.
  • Think outside the box. Academic technologies are constantly evolving and offer new ways to think about how to better meet changing student needs. For example, the University of Wisconsin–Madison is investigating a more automated lecture-capture and delivery system using Apple's Podcast Producer.
<p>Andrew Spear</p>