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CT Innovators Awards | Feature

CT Innovators Reunion: Where Are They Now?

Ever wonder what becomes of our award winners after their moment in the CT spotlight? We followed up with three Innovators from past years to find out how their projects have fared.

Illustration by James Kaczman

Each year, Campus Technology gazes across higher ed horizons to identify the most innovative IT programs at American colleges and universities. The projects we profile are inspiring examples of technology making a difference on campus--at least at that moment. The question is, have they stood the test of time? We delved into the annals of the CT Innovators roster to find out.

Class of 2009: Funding Student Innovation at U Missouri

Student innovation is as alive today on the campus of the University of Missouri as it was three years ago, when the institution's Information Technology Committee (ITC) won an Innovators award for its Interdisciplinary Innovation Fund (IIF). This annual competition provides seed money for student-centered, interdisciplinary projects. Successful applications build on collaboration among campuses, colleges, schools, departments, and student organizations for initiatives that foster both innovation and entrepreneurship. As part of an early IIF-funded project, for instance, student teams competed to develop iPhone apps.

The maximum amount for each award is $25,000, and the ITC has $200,000 to spend each year--an amount tapped from the students' annual technology fee.

Call for Entries

The 2012 Campus Technology Innovators call for entries begins Jan. 1. We seek innovative colleges and universities that have deployed extraordinary technology solutions to campus challenges. Go to to submit your nomination by Feb. 15!

Dollars and Sense
In a change from 2009, the financial aspects of applications receive more scrutiny today, according to Joi Moore, associate professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies and a three-year member of the ITC. Just consider it a sign of the times.

"We're being very prudent when we look at the budgets of the projects, making sure that every dime spent is going to be meaningful," she says. "During these times we have to be very careful about allocating that money."

As part of the latest funding cycle, 20 proposals were considered over two days in October. According to Moore, these included a few unsuitable applications that were probably submitted as traditional funding sources dried up. "We had a variety of people looking for ways to have their projects fit even though they might not fit," she notes. "We were looking for proposals that were innovative and had heavy student involvement. That was the key."

In fact, because the committee funded only those projects that closely met expectations, it still had money left over from the grant pool.

Fostering Innovation
Proposals from the past year have trended toward the creation of mobile apps and social information systems. The latest winners, announced in October, range from game-oriented apps to apps for medical records and stress management.

SUSTAIN!, for example, is a mobile game for teaching sustainability. The objective is to keep a team's avatar healthy over a 10-week period while maintaining as small a carbon footprint as possible. Game:Time will bring business, journalism, and engineering students together to develop an advertising-driven Mizzou Athletics app to increase fan interaction. MedZou EMR will enable students who work at a community healthcare clinic to provide enhanced continuity of care to their patients.

Moore believes the purpose of the fund is still as sound as when it was first proposed. "It makes our students more the producers of new technology instead of sitting back and learning about things," she explains. "They're the driving force. That creates such a passion and a spirit of creativity on campus. Students want to be involved in that. You see a lot more energy when they take ownership of a project. That's a different level of engagement and a new way of learning that some people haven't thought about. It's problem-based and practitioner-oriented, with real-world aspects."

And that iPhone app competition? It's still held every year, but in 2011 the focus shifted from Apple to Google. The winning team created an Android app called Media Mogul, which one student participant described as "a trend-tracking news game, which pushes the limits of how we can analyze and disseminate information."

Class of 2008: Mobile Learning at ACU

Abilene Christian University (TX) could rightfully be renamed Mobile U. Since becoming the first higher ed institution to hand out iPhones and iPod Touches to freshmen and develop mobile-centric curricula four years ago, the Texas institution has broadened its reach, expanded the ACU Connected program to all 4,700 students, and infused even more of its educational programs with Apple mobile devices.

"Increasingly, this is just the way we do things," explains Bill Rankin, director of mobile learning and an English professor.

According to George Saltsman, director of educational technology, the budget for mobile learning at ACU is about a million dollars a year, or about 1 percent of the entire operating budget for the university. That boils down to roughly $200 per student per year. Half of that investment goes to the devices themselves; the other half pays for the infrastructure that surrounds them. Students receive a new device every two years.

Making an Impact
The impact of the mobile program has been far felt, not necessarily in increasing enrollment (in fact, the latest academic year has seen a drop in the number of freshmen enrolling) but in other ways. According to Saltsman, the quality of the students who are applying has improved. "The average ACT/SAT score has increased every year since we began and it's increasing at a pretty good rate. So the quality of applicant is better than we've ever had before," he notes. "Now is it just the mobile learning program? There's no way that you can calculate that. There are a thousand other things going on to try to advance the university. But this is a big one."

The US News & World Report college rankings for ACU have also improved every year since the mobile program was introduced. The institution has achieved the No. 1 position in "up-and-coming schools" for three years running (in one of those years it was tied for that spot), and moved up three positions to No. 17 in "regional university west rankings."

But it's in the classroom where the biggest impact has been felt. "What we're seeing now is that every student carries an access point, and therefore I'm able to leverage the benefits of the entire student community to discover information--so that we can spend our time processing that information in class," says Rankin. "Even while we're talking, even while we're having discussions, there's a class blog that's running in the background. People are posting ideas or examples up to that blog."

In other words, he observes, there's a "sea change" going on in the relationship between students and information and between students and their instructors. "Before this initiative, my primary task as a teacher was to discover, collate, categorize, and then present information to my students," he says, "Now, it's a much richer class than what I used to teach when I brought all the information."

Continued Momentum
The momentum of the mobile initiative keeps growing. Eighty-four percent of faculty report that they regularly use their mobile device for class activities; half say they use it in every class period. The Apple iPad has been added as a device option--particularly popular among faculty. And over the last two years, the university has spent a lot of time exploring the use of digital books. "That's going to be massive," declares Saltsman.

Plus, the work being done by various faculty members may help redefine the classroom. When Stephen Baldridge, an assistant professor of social work, needed to be at a conference, for instance, he decided to teach his class remotely that day. But rather than have students gather in the classroom, he told them to use their phones to do interviews with fellow students about what they think ACU represents. That experiment led to further uses.

As Rankin points out, Baldridge had an epiphany: "What I've got now is a multimedia studio in my pocket. And I can use that to create cutting-edge, brand-new educational media that help me and others understand and invest in concepts."

In a subsequent assignment, students interviewed homeless people who live not half a mile from campus under an overpass. "What do you think is going to have a greater impact on how a student perceives homelessness?" asks Saltsman. "Reading about that in a textbook and talking about it in a classroom or interviewing somebody who is homeless?"

Rankin concurs. "This is not just some academic issue to them anymore," he says.

Real-World Learning
The best environment for learning, Saltsman says, is the world where things are happening rather than in a room where events are approximated and synthesized. Real-life learning "begins to emerge on a campus where you have everybody with these devices and permission to experiment and explore, and a number of faculty who are beginning to use those devices in novel ways," he explains.

"We're going to see the classroom space become less and less about the place where people discover information, and more and more a space for collaboration for stuff [the students have] discovered or made elsewhere," concludes Rankin. "The elsewhere--the real-world experiences--becomes the primary classroom. That's going to have tremendous implications on how we design spaces, how much space we decide we need, and what we do with things like scheduling courses."

Sharing Best Practices

To share its experiences and hear about programs at other institutions, Abilene Christian University (TX) hosts a mobile learning summit every two years. The latest one, in February 2011, was attended by 550 people. In addition, every semester the campus holds an open house; the fall 2011 event drew about 105 people. To aggregate the results of surveys among faculty and staff, share profiles of mobile initiatives, and report on all the mobile-related ideas simmering across campus, ACU publishes a hefty annual report that is available free on its website.

Class of 2006: Statewide E-Portfolios in Minnesota

In 2006, when the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system won an Innovators award for its electronic portfolio work, eFolio Minnesota was flying high. Working with Avenet Web Solutions, a company with an online portfolio-management product called eFolio, MnSCU billed its initiative as "the only statewide e-portfolio infrastructure available in North America." It was on track to support the e-portfolio needs of every resident of Minnesota, and project leaders planned to expand the system to address institutional accreditation needs. They were even preparing to release the system for purchase and use by schools outside the state, under the brand of eFolio World.

The Best-Laid Plans…
The reality has proven to be slightly different. For example, not every resident in the state knows that he needs an e-portfolio. Development of an institutional version of the product has stalled; once a product is attuned for institutional accreditation, it's a pricey proposition to modify it for another school's use. As for expanding outside the state of Minnesota, MnSCU has run into procedural roadblocks: Public universities aren't necessarily set up to handle direct sales to other schools, no matter where they're located.

In fact, says Paul Wasko, longtime director of eFolio Minnesota, the achievements of the project's early years are not as feasible today. "There are three aspects to consider when you look at a project. One, do you have the necessary leadership in place to do that work? Two, do you have the time? Three, do you have the resources? [In 2006] it was the right set of circumstances--for leadership, resources, and time--to pull it off. I don't know if I could pull it off today."

What's changed between then and now? There has been a shift in leadership at MnSCU, starting at the top. In fact, Wasko notes, he's the only staff member left from 2002, when the strategy for an e-learning tool was originally put in place.

Also, he says, "We were riding a wave of interest and energy. There was a whole bunch of new stuff on the content side for e-learning." Now that e-portfolio functionality has become more common, it's cropping up in learning management systems, and instructors are just as likely to specify student use of Twitter or Facebook for sharing learning reflections in courses.

Then there's the resources issue. Early on, it certainly didn't hurt that the university system made funding available to build out the e-portfolio system. And, in 2006, in order to make the product available to individual users (versus institutional customers), MnSCU and Avenet teamed up to provide the development resources needed. In contrast, resources now are "very tight," Wasko says.

Positive Evolution
Still, the program continues to grow. Whereas 50,000 users were reported in 2006, that count has grown to 55,000 in Minnesota and 31,000 outside the state. And a total of 200,000 people have registered for the e-portfolio since the start of the project.

eFolio Minnesota has evolved in other ways, too. In August, the two primary entities involved in the project--MnSCU and Avenet--shuffled responsibilities. Previously, MnSCU had responsibility for marketing and sales within the education marketplace; Avenet handled the same for the workforce and public agency sectors. Under the new agreement, Avenet has taken on sole business and operational responsibility for the product in all markets, much to Wasco's relief. MnSCU will focus on product development, training, and consulting in the ed space.

"Trying to conduct operations within a public sector organization is a challenge," Wasko says. "I'd have people call up--usually at the end of the fiscal year--and say, 'Paul, you know that stuff we looked at last spring? I was able to get some last-minute money. Can you do a contract and an invoice, and can we get it all done by June 30?' I'd say, 'No, we can't do that.' Then they'd say, 'How about if you just take a credit card?'"

A public institution typically isn't set up to sell something, he observes. "You can't keep telling people, 'Love to do business with you. Here's the standard state contract.' If they're a public entity, more than likely they have to tweak the contract, and six weeks later you may have a contract. That doesn't lend itself to getting off the ground quickly." Because Avenet is private, he adds, it "will take that credit card."

The two entities are still working on the details of the profit-sharing arrangement. In the meantime, Avenet is working through the list of customers to transfer their contracts from MnSCU to the company. "It's in our best interest to see Avenet succeed in this," Wasko adds.

In addition, a recent infusion of development work from the University of Minnesota has taken the burden off MnSCU to be the primary developer of the educational version of the product. "The U's ability to bring new resources into this project has been invaluable," Wasko states. "Not only is the partnership resource-based, but working with them on the instructional side has been great, too." Now the two school systems share co-ownership along with Avenet.

Supporting Users
What about that ambition of having every resident in the state of Minnesota--and eventually in other states--use the e-portfolio to capture the output of lifelong learning? eFolio has certainly become the vehicle for documenting and organizing credit-bearing efforts when a Minnesotan returns to school, says Wasko. "But if you went to the person off the street, and said, 'Hey, I've got this wonderful tool you should put your stuff in to keep track of it,' most would say, 'I haven't updated my résumé in 20 years. Why should I do this?'"

Over the years, Wasko has also found that students aren't as tech savvy as their use of technology would suggest. "There were assumptions early on that we were going to deal with this incredibly rich technology population. And every bell and whistle we threw up would be a snap. It hasn't been that way."

Another lesson learned: Supporting the faculty is as valuable today as it was in 2006. "You can build this incredible infrastructure that does every whiz-bang thing you can imagine. But ultimately there's a need to have someone do that translation from 'Here are the toolsets' to 'Here is how you use the toolsets in an instructional context.'"

Wasko adds that when faculty members maintain a portfolio personally, students see the task less as an assignment and more as a transformative process. "The discussion is more about, 'How do I make decisions about what to display? How do I display it?'" he notes. "It's really an interesting process."

Class Notes

Virginia Community College System's College-Planning Wizard

The Virginia Education Wizard, an innovative resource that helps students, families, and school advisers make college choices, achieved 100,000 site visits during the website's first six months of existence. Two years later, usage has jumped to a million visitors and 314,000 individual accounts.

Originally developed for the state's community colleges, the wizard now serves students who may also want to attend state universities, as well as job-hunting adults trying to move into new careers. Another change: Avatars Chris and Maria, who helped guide visitors through the process of using the wizard, have been replaced by avatar Ginny, who has her own Twitter account (@GinnyWiz).

According to VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois, who led the wizard's creation as an "Expedia-like" experience for students looking for college and career-planning information, "Use of this tool has been transformative for opening up post-secondary opportunity."

Ball State University's Student Digital Corps
This Indiana university's use of trained and certified students to increase expertise on campus in digital media software is still going strong. Recent additions include training for PHP, JavaScript, and HTML; development of an iPhone game and a campus map app; and the use of apprentices in a new tech center at the main library to give participants experience in working with university clients.

Last summer, Ball State introduced Digital Corps Adventure, a weeklong summer camp for junior high school students, who were taught game design and digital communications by the Corps' college students. "What started as an experiment has found a permanent home in the IT department," says Jonathan Blake Huer, director of emerging technologies. "With their expertise as creative technology professionals, Digital Corps students routinely support projects all over campus."

San Jose State University's Incubator Classroom
When this California university created a unique classroom that would give instructors and students an opportunity to learn and teach in a new kind of space, the intent was to evolve the room and its technology as needs changed. According to Christopher Laxton, director of academic technology, the "Incubator" continues to be an experimental classroom, and the most technology-enabled room on campus. Many of the features introduced there have since surfaced in other classrooms--in particular, flexible furniture and interactive whiteboards.

"Clicker technology is used, but not widely adopted by faculty," adds Laxton. "There are some instances of laptop 1-to-1 situations, and those have been surpassed this fall by a move to iPads, which several colleges are adopting to a significant degree. And lecture capture is something we are exploring more actively this year."

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