This summer a small group from W&M had the distinct pleasure of taking a short jaunt up the road to visit with our colleagues in the University of Mary Washington (UMW) Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT). I’ve posted about the work going on up there before, and after working with director Jim Groom in wrangling the OpenVA 2.1 event last spring I was looking forward to having a longer conversation with the entire group up there. Along for the ride were fellow AT bloggers John Drummond and April Lawrence, as well as Karen Connor from the Mason School of Business and our old friend Pablo Yañez.
The Information and Technology Convergence Center, a Strategic New Space for the University
Our hosts were three members of the DTLT: Jim – of course – and colleagues Martha Burtis, Director of the Digital Knowledge Center (DKC) and Andy Rush, Coordinator of Academic Media Production. All were incredibly generous with their time, especially given that they’ve been running so many tours in recent months to showcase their very new home in the Information and Technology Convergence Center (ITCC).
This building is a strategic new space for the university, encapsulated by an emphasis upon the “and” in its title. This is not an IT building. Rather, this is a building for students to run, use, and engage with digital technologies in all their forms. An academic technology commons. In addition to housing the DTLT offices there are a few well-equipped classrooms, dynamic meetings spaces, audio and visual recording studios, an exhibition space, and an impressively versatile auditorium. We were looking forward to not just seeing this new space and hearing about how it has been used in its first year, but also how the DTLT team has come to be known as one the most innovative academic technology groups in the country.
The Console Houses New and Old Technological Items of Popular Culture
We found Jim tidying up the coffee table on the 4th floor in the UMW Console, and so our tour started there. The console is a curious space, pushing us back to the late 1970s and early 1980s by surrounding us with popular culture aesthetics of the time: wood paneling, a Back to the Future poster, Phil Collins cassettes, and so on. It’s ultimately an exploration of the cultural impacts of technology through aesthetics.
April and I jumped to the sofa for a quick game of Donkey Kong on the Atari, then chatted with Jim over the foosball table. He explained how a faculty friend of the department was working on getting Youtube clips of entire days’ worth of 1980s television broadcasts to be transmitted to several cathode-ray tubes around the room. We flipped through titles like War Games and Flashdance that were in a bizarre Videodisc format, something akin to an enormous floppy disc.
The construction of this project space is not tied to any particular course, program, or initiative at UMW, but is emblematic of the kind of vibe running around the DTLT. The UMW Console was born out of the interest, enthusiasm, and curiosity of the people who got involved. It has turned into a highly productive and intriguing exploration of technologies new and old, taking on a life of its own: apparently people drop vintage items off all the time, unsolicited. When I asked Jim how he did it, he lightly struggled to scan his memory, shrugged, and said, “we just started building it.”
Next Stop: the Digital Knowledge Center
We next met up with Martha and Andy, and they all escorted us into Martha’s most recent undertaking, the new Digital Knowledge Center. The DKC is a place where students can go for help with digital projects across curricula at UMW. It is staffed by other UMW students who serve as peer tutors, thus it also offers up employment opportunities for students. Brilliantly, the work at the DKC ultimately supports the DTLT work with faculty, as now instructors have a place to send students for support in more complex digital projects. It’s a space aimed at accomplishing what our Swem Library’s Writing Center does, but is focused on digital, academic projects.
The mere notion of this kind of program and the thinking behind it was enough to raise all of our eyebrows. Directly supporting teaching and learning that is more deeply engaged with digital, “twenty-first century” tools should be a top priority in all post-secondary institutions. It seems that with the DKC, the DTLT has come up with compelling approach to actually support that work.
It’s More Than Just New Facilities That Make Up This Space
The tour continued and we covered the rest of the building, which really has all of the allure and exciting potential of any new facility. But bright, shiny surfaces aside, this group has been up to great things for a longer stretch than that of this fresh space. In fact, one of the queries I had gone to Fredericksburg with was trying to understand how a small department at a small public university has become such a powerhouse in innovative edtech. After all, this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about the work going on up there, and I even examined some the division’s strategic planning efforts in my doctoral coursework.
We ran out of time to have an in-depth discussion on this topic, but there were several allusions to strong leadership early on in the division’s existence as well as regular support from upper administration. These are important for sure and should not be underestimated. Yet, after spending time with this portion of the group, methinks they were being much too humble. Just a few weeks after our visit, Jim reflected on the paradoxical success of the DTLT and its simultaneous disbanding. He states it much more eloquently, but basically: It’s the people. It is the contributions and collaborations of those people that have worked for, in, and with the DTLT that made it what it is and have created such a sublime edtech exemplar.
The circuitous unfolding of a project like the Console and polished brilliance of the DKC are but two examples of the uncanny work coming from these people in Fredericksburg. Their open willingness (and effectiveness in doing so) to share their work both in and out their institution are testament to their vigilance in making edtech better for teachers and learners.