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What's on Your IT Agenda for 2014?

Here's what's on the IT table for three different institutions during the coming year.

Every new year brings with it a fresh list of "to-dos" for college CIOs and educational technologists, and 2014 will be no different. With so many diverse options at their avail -- and limited budgets with which to work -- IT leaders in higher education will be choosing wisely when it comes to new infrastructure tools, equipment, applications, and related classroom technologies.

Here's the insider's view on what three institutions will be planning and/or rolling out in 2014:

Seton Hall University

Adding more cloud -- and some art -- to the educational mix

As the professor of instructional design technology at Seton Hall University's Department of Educational Studies in South Orange, NJ, Rosemary W. Skeele has become a master of multitasking. With a new year spread out in front of her, Skeele said much of her agenda revolves around beefing up the institution's online learning offerings. "We're putting a lot of effort into developing online courses that are more interactive and social in nature," she explained, "with the goal of increasing engagement and learning."

One of Skeele's goals for 2014 is to add artist pedagogical technologies (APTs) to the university's distance learning setup. These technologies employ the arts (photos, videos, drama, literature, painting, and so forth) to evoke social dialog online from students in relation to specific topics. Skeele sees APTs as viable tools for increasing social interaction in the online learning space. Students may be presented with pictures or pictorial representations and asked to respond to them, for example, or teachers could weave artistic representations of specific ideas throughout their courses.

The ATP concept isn't new to the college classroom, said Skeele, but it is innovative in the online space. "I think we have overlooked some of these techniques that have been used for years in the classroom by not using them online," said Skeele. "APTs summarize the use of more of the social interaction of projects that can be used in online learning."

Also on Skeele's agenda in 2014 will be the increased use of cloud computing and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategies in the classroom. Both strategies allow institutions to adopt technology on campus in a budget-friendly manner. "The more we use the cloud the more we can avoid having to buy myriad different products," said Skeele, "and then worry about how to dispose of them and replace them five or six years later."

University of North Carolina Wilmington

Seeking the magic wireless bullet

Like many institutions of higher education, the University of North Carolina Wilmington has been grappling with Internet bandwidth issues lately. As more students bring their own devices on campus, and as a growing number of faculty members integrate iPads into their class curriculums, the need for 24/7 and consistent Internet access grows exponentially. "We're trying to support mobility and allow faculty to become more mobile with their teaching tools," said Leah Kraus, interim CIO.

Kraus said her long-term hope is that the tablet will wind up as the core mobile solution used by students and instructors. To accommodate that goal, she said UNC Wilmington is in the middle of a four-year-long Internet access upgrade project. The effort involves upgrading the school's wired and wireless access core to one gigabyte (for desktops) and its uplink to 10 gigabytes. Kraus said the wireless upgrade has been particularly onerous. "The more people who are on an access point, the less bandwidth they get," said Kraus. "To resolve this, we're constantly evaluating the number of devices -- as opposed to the number of people -- who are connected to specific access points and trying to find the dead spots."

There will more "dead spot" hunting ahead for the university's IT department in 2014. "We're trying to get ahead of that curve and track how device usage is changing in classrooms," said Kraus, "and putting an emphasis on wireless bandwidth as computers and devices continue to suck down more than we can deliver."

During the year ahead, Kraus said UNC Wilmington will also install and roll out more video conferencing technologies that support its ongoing "classrooms without borders" synchronous learning initiative. Using WebEx, Skype, or another piece of software, instructors teach remotely and/or work from their own classrooms with students who are not physically on campus. "All faculty members want to be able to reach out to students wherever they are," said Kraus, "and also bring specialists into their classroom through videoconferencing."

Clover Park Technical College

Supporting the mobile movement with professional development

When Michael Taylor was first asked to link Lakewood, WA-based Clover Park Technical College's mobile device initiative with a learning management system (LMS), his goal was to create a repository of videos that students could access securely on a 24/7 basis. The setup also had to be platform-agnostic so students could tap into it from their computers, tablets, or smartphones. It was a big charge for Taylor, who found himself up against major challenges when trying to achieve that goal.

"I was buried in the weeds for a long time," said Taylor, director of information technology. He broke through that barrier after realizing that LMSs from Blackboard and various other vendors could accommodate multi-platform access. "After that, our projects moved ahead significantly."

Taylor expects that forward momentum to continue in 2014 as an increasing number of instructors integrate distance learning initiatives and mobile devices in their classrooms. "We're still in the early stages of our mobile initiative," said Taylor, "but we already have departments that are working with iPads and the App Store."

To help faculty members get up to speed with the mobile movement on campus, Clover Park Technical College recently formed an IT technology committee. On it are various mentors who work either in groups or one-on-one with faculty members who need help using new devices, selecting applications (such as ebook readers and word processing options for iPads), and using the equipment in class. The school also mobilized an e-learning group to help instructors understand and work in the online learning environment.

"We realize that a lot of instructors can't just pick up a device and know how to use it and implement it in their classrooms," said Taylor. "Yet students expect teachers to be able to do this. In addition to the technology tools, we're also providing the professional development that helps teachers and students feel more confident about using those tools."

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