Educator Profile

Transitioning to Technology Based Instruction

Marist's Mark Van Dyke navigates higher education's technology maze with the help of the Sakai open source LMS

When Mark Van Dyke signed on with Marist College five years ago, he knew that online education would play an integral role in his new position. Conversant in basic computer applications like Microsoft Office, Van Dyke had used technology as a management tool, but never for teaching or learning.

"When I received my contract, it was clear that I'd have to be willing and able to develop and teach online courses and apply technology in the classroom," recalled Van Dyke, associate professor for Marist College School of Communication and the Arts in Poughkeepsie, NY. "I enrolled in an online course myself and then had my first online teaching experience with a graduate course during the spring of 2005."

Because online education was still in the development phases in the mid-2000s, Van Dyke had to "feel his way" through the process of applying classroom teaching in a Web-based environment. "Through that method, I developed an interest in how educators can use technology to reach students in traditional classrooms, both as a way to facilitate the on-the-ground course and via courses administered 100 percent online," said Van Dyke.

Van Dyke's focus on merging technology and the university classroom hasn't gone unnoticed. This year, he received an honorable mention in an international competition showcasing ways to use an open source learning management system called Sakai in the classroom.

The Sakai community develops and distributes the open source Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE). The Sakai Project focuses on the creation of open source course management, collaboration, and online research support tools for the education community.

The Sakai Project began in 2004 when five universities began building a common course management system as an alternative to commercial systems or their own home-grown solutions.

The Sakai community recognized Van Dyke for his spring 2008 Public Relations Case Studies and fall 2008 Communication Capstone courses, for which he integrated Sakai into his teaching strategies. Van Dyke created separate work sites, using Sakai, for two sections of a public relations case studies course that would be the beginning of a year-long project. These sites promoted active learning among students within each section.

To promote collaboration among students in different course sections, Van Dyke produced two additional Sakai work sites for each section of his fall 2008 communication capstone course, and added a project collaboration site. Course materials were then migrated from the spring and fall courses into the project site. The collaboration site connected all students from both sections of the fall course and created a bridge to the experience and knowledge gained by students in his spring course.

Comparing the collaboration site to the "hub of a wheel, with the spokes being the connection between the site and unique course sections," Van Dyke said students added forum discussions, chats, blogs, podcasts, wikis, resource folders, and contact lists to the site.

The project site facilitated collaboration among 70 students working in 15 teams from four different course sections, over two semesters. Remarkably, neither Van Dyke nor his students had ever used Sakai before, nor had they received any specialized training other than what was offered to all faculty and students. "We completed a couple of tutorials, and the students took to it right away," said Van Dyke, who views his role in the classroom as a conduit between students and the applicable learning materials.
"For me, teaching is all about relationship management," explained Van Dyke, who served for 29 years in the United States Navy and retired in 2000 as Deputy Chief of Information, the second-highest ranking public relations executive in the U.S. Navy. "Thanks to technology, I can now fulfill that role in a 24/7 manner and am no longer limited to just one or two class meetings a week."

In that 24/7 learning environment, Van Dyke said he can more readily develop enriching relationships between his students and the course content. Up for tenure next semester, Van Dyke will continue on his quest to merge technology with university education as a way to better prepare the future workforce for success.

"Using tools like blogs and podcasts, we're equipping our young graduates with real-world skills that they're going to need, regardless of what profession they go into," said Van Dyke. "The users go beyond simply being students, and become true professionals. They can then take that experience out into the workforce, where they have a leg up on the many other entry-level professionals who haven't had that experience."

But is there a limit to the amount of technology that students need at the college level? Yes, said Van Dyke, who believes in using only those tools that truly enhance the educational process. "As educators, our job is to balance the magical things that we're doing with technology with the actual application of those tools," said Van Dyke, "and to go beyond just applying technology for technology's sake."

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