Story by Connie McDougall
Photos by Jerry Gay
Photos by Jerry Gay
In many ways, Seattle Pacific University is a David among the Goliaths of higher education, especially when it comes to using technology. Early on, far-thinking individuals pushed to invest in the strategic use of technology on campus. SPU donors and administrators backed these efforts up with confidence, and perhaps more importantly, cash.
As a result, the campus is well-wired. Examples of technology used wisely and creatively can be found everywhere. For instance, each residence hall room boasts two Internet ports, voice mail and cable TV; 80 percent of the University's classrooms are equipped with built-in Web access and other high-tech learning equipment; the entire campus is linked by state-of-the-art e-mail and groupware applications; and high-quality student computer labs make access to electronic learning and services nearly universal.
In 1997, Seattle Pacific became the first university in the state to offer online registration to students. Now, 90 percent of SPU's undergraduates register via computer, and long lines at the registration desk are a thing of the past. "They can register from their computers in the middle of the night if they want," says Janet Ward, dean of enrollment management.
"Technology augments service, agrees Ruth Adams, University registrar. "We wanted to be high-tech where we needed to be, and high-touch where it's really important." Innovations being explored for next year include an online degree audit so students and advisors can track academic progress, and an interface that allows students to pay tuition online.
Another exciting new focus is using the Internet to take Seattle Pacific academic programs far beyond campus boundaries, thanks in part to David Wicks, director of instructional technology services. "My primary purpose is to help faculty incorporate appropriate technology into their courses," he says.
In only two years, Wicks has assisted in creating a master's degree program in education that's offered entirely online to students as far away as Europe. He's also worked on special projects such as enabling Assistant Professor of Management Randy Franz to teach an online course to students in the U.S. and Lithuania last fall. Within the next year, business courses will be offered to students in the U.S., Romania, Russia and Africa.
Less dramatic but just as productive are numerous classes that Wicks calls "hybrids" or "BlendEd." In-class lectures are supplemented by online components such as class notes, grading information and self-assessment activities. "We have to get out of the mindset that the computer is the teacher," he says. "It's not. We want to use technology for what it does best -- disseminating information, extending the classroom, and enriching learning."
This emphasis on the careful use of technology can be seen in one of Seattle Pacific's electrical engineering labs, equipped with several new computer systems brought in by the new Director of Engineering Anthony Donaldson. "This lab didn't exist a few months ago," he says. "It's the next step in giving students the critical training they need to compete." One system transmits whatever the professor writes on a specially equipped white board directly to student computers. Information can be saved, transferred to the Web, and easily accessed later.
Like Wicks, Donaldson hopes to use this Web-based instruction to widen SPU's reach. "We're not going to be able to send 100,000 teachers to India, but I have witnessed remote villages receiving cable," he says. "Now we have the means to deliver education anywhere."
Gee-whiz high-tech has also come to the Career Development Center. Launched this spring, "jobnet" is the newest kid on the block -- a Web-based software program that serves the entire SPU community, including students, alumni and employers. Students can post resumes and do job searches. Alumni can access the site to publicize jobs, offer mentoring, or seek employment. Screened employers have instant access to the kinds of students or graduates they need.
This hugely expands the Center's effectiveness, says Director Jacqui Smith-Bates. "Before jobnet, students had to come to us during regular business hours and much of the work was done on paper. There was no central database. Now there's a Web tool designed especially for them."
Clearly, technology is here to stay, but its impact on education must be closely considered, says Seattle Pacific Professor of Education Jeff Fouts. A consultant to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Fouts recently completed a study on the uses of technology in schools, and he found a mixed bag. "There's prejudice on both sides of the issue," says Fouts. "Some think that children are clicking and pointing instead of reading and painting. Computer advocates love the technology and claim it greatly enhances learning."
He suspects the answer is somewhere in between, but warns time is running out for public schools. "I think they have less than ten years to make real progress in the use of technology or people will stop funding technology for the schools," he says. "It's hard to envision a 19th century model of education being effective in the 21st century. Most people say if there isn't real, radical change, public schools may well become obsolete."
Colleges and universities could suffer the same fate if they don't respond to the challenge -- and promise -- of technology, says Fouts. Fortunately, SPU seems to be ahead of the curve.