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The Blue & Gray Press | December 16, 2017

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A Digital Liberal Arts Framed by Online Practices

 

By DAHLIA SOMERS

When Jim Groom, executive director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies at the University of Mary Washington, joined the department nine years ago, he brought with him a vision for a digital liberal arts.

Since then, DTLT has spearheaded the open web movement at UMW, incorporating technology with liberal arts values of strong teacher-student communication and focused attention on the individual educational experience.

While Groom holds the vision, the man responsible for the oversight of academic programs is provost Jonathan Levin.

“The question [about online integration] is how it will impact us at a university like Mary Washington, where we’re smaller. We rely on face-to-face communication,” Levin said. “We pride ourselves on the contact that students have with the faculty, and I think the answer then is that we will grow our technological presence, our online footprint as it were.”

According to special projects coordinator Martha Burtis, DTLT works with faculty in areas such as course development and integrating technology into classroom settings.

Many students are unaware of the existence of DTLT, as many do not know what the department contributes.

“One of the great things about the DTLT is that online resources and the web is a part of everything we do,” instructional technology specialist Ryan Brazell said. “Every faculty member that we meet with are either using Canvas, the learning management system here, [or] they are using UMW Blogs, UMW domains and are interested in getting their students to understand what the web is, what that means for them moving forward and how they use it.”

Freshman Karly Kremposky uses Canvas for her classes, and said that the system “seems to be well integrated into what we do.”

“Canvas was weird to figure out at first, but it’s really easy and convenient to use because my professors put up things like power points,” Kremposky said.

Since 2007, UMW Blogs has been open as a publishing platform used by over 800 classes, according to Groom.

The six staff members of the department meet regularly with professors to work on projects that are then introduced to the students, such as in BUAD 310: Principles of Marketing, where students learn how to create either a business website or an advertisement.

To ensure that the department offers students the best possible learning experience, DTLT developed the Online Learning Initiative, a program that lasted for three years and focused on bringing together cohorts from the university community in order to define the values held dear in the university’s traditional learning environment.

According to Burtis, the staff then worked to find ways to translate those values to an online context. Although the program is on a hiatus, the lessons learned during its run helped inform the direction that DTLT is now taking.

Many of the emerging online classes at UMW are graduate and continuing education programs aimed to benefit the busy schedule of a working post grad. As a result, many undergraduate students are unaware of these programs’ existence.

Instead of focusing on the quantity of online courses offered, DTLT stresses the importance of using online tools in a thoughtful and reflective manner.

“The bigger problem with online courses is not whether it is good or bad, it depends a lot more on how you see it building into the university’s identity,” Groom said. “Like an ancillary appendix you create two cultures: the online and the campus people. I prefer a symbiotic relationship that interacts and reflects a far bigger culture of who we are.”

Like many universities now, UMW is making a slow yet considered step toward online education.

“It’s going to be a bigger and bigger thing for us, but we’re going to always need to find ways to use it that are consistent with what our identity is as an institution,” Levin said. “I think it will be innovative. We will enhance student learning by using these means. Some courses might go entirely online, but I think we will always be trying to balance how we use online technologies with what students get in their face-to-face contact with faculty in the classroom.”

The school has taken the time to ensure that students are exposed to online integration in the classroom in a way that will be useful in the real world.

According to Burtis, this allows opportunity “for further exploration and experimentation in our non-online courses; in our face-to-face, our more traditional courses and our hybrid courses. I think Mary Washington does more interesting stuff online [and] in its face-to-face classes across the board than most schools do in their online courses and partly that’s because we don’t see online as a delivery mechanism.”

Though the school has yet to offer a large collection of online classes, the push toward combining technology and learning is evident all around campus, as seen in the large usage of UMW Blogs, Canvas and especially the new Information and Technology Convergence Center.

“Without question the future is bright for online learning,” Levin said. “It has grown enormously and it’s going to continue to grow enormously. This is a national trend, it’s an international trend – it’s not going to be reversed.”