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Strategic Directions | Feature

Ball State Students as Developers: Not Just Technology Users

A Q&A with Kyle Parker

"We strive to serve as a catalyst for the campus community to use technology in creative, innovative, and immersive directions, and we cultivate opportunities for faculty and students to imagine, create, and develop new apps and services and deploy emerging technologies." — Kyle Parker

Ball State University is known for offering its students not only the experience of using the latest technologies, but also the chance to develop them. CT spoke with Ball State University's Senior Software Engineer for Developing Technologies, Kyle Parker.

Mary Grush: You've been working in technology development during your 15 years at Ball State University. How does the institution tap into the university community for innovative technology development projects?

Kyle Parker: The leadership has a big part in that. Our previous president and our new president who started just this past year, as well as our vice president for information technology, Phil Repp, have always had a vision to both serve and engage the community with the university's technology development activities. And Phil Repp, who was an art professor before he became a VP, brings a perspective from the disciplines on how to use technology development to open up new learning experiences for our students.

The campus community, including instructors and students, is highly involved in technology development projects. And IT has a key role in that. We strive to serve as a catalyst for the campus community to use technology in creative, innovative, and immersive directions, and we cultivate opportunities for faculty and students to imagine, create, and develop new apps and services and deploy emerging technologies.

Grush: Who owns technology development at Ball State? And how are students involved?

Parker: Many development projects are managed by IT, but I'd say that a lot of the development at Ball State is actually university-wide. The projects that involve students are done as a part of the curriculum. And as well as being part of the curriculum, these are "real" projects — not made-up exercises.

It's important to have students involved in real-world projects for many reasons, especially because we don't want them going to school in a bubble, isolated, and then not understanding how the real world works once they graduate. These development projects give us an excellent opportunity not only to do great work for the university, but more importantly, to give students real-world experience.

Grush:  What are a few examples of this kind of student development?

Parker: There are many different projects and initiatives going on throughout the campus. Our computer science department is doing quite a bit of student-focused development work. One of the projects they've just completed is a STEM-based game that was developed solely by the students. Other groups are doing mobile development. For example, there is one mobile tour project for the state parks, and another for one of the largest cemeteries in Indianapolis.

Again, this type of development centers on tools that are a true part of the curriculum and the subject of study — this is not just development for the sake of development. It's an extension of the department or how the learning is geared and what their focus is. Whether it's a mobile app, or a Web app, or any other type of technology, it's a true, natural direction for education, a real tool, and it's integrated into the learning design.

This is obviously taking place more on the academic side of the house than on the administrative side, though that's not any type of restriction — it's just where these projects tend to grow.

Grush: What technologies are having the most impact in the university's development efforts?

Parker: With our previous president, immersive learning was our driving mission. Classes and a lot of the student learning was focused around the concept of immersive learning, which was basically involving a multi-disciplined group of students in a real-world project. This often included people or organizations outside the university, to get students direct experience with something that they could use after graduation and a chance to get to know the field that they would be moving into.

The multi-disciplinary aspect is important: Students would be able to work with others outside their own discipline — theater students with computer science students with journalism students… all bringing a different perspective to the project.

While the branding, if you will, has changed with the new president from immersive learning to entrepreneurial learning, still, as I understand it, the focus is the same: to do real-world projects. This is not just the typical "read the book, write the paper, take the test" — rather, students are working on a real-world, semester-long project that has a deliverable at the end.

Grush: Given the shift to what you're calling "entrepreneurial learning," which particular technology or technologies are supporting that?

Parker: Mobile is the big driver right now, because that is where the world is going. The STEM game that I mentioned is Android-based; the tours for the state park and the cemetery app are iOS- and Android-based. There are also efforts underway in eTextbooks and ePublishing, creating interactive, rich media that's being delivered to tablets and to phones. So a lot of the projects are geared around mobile media.

Grush: In terms of the projects the university is involving students in, I think you said those projects are integrated into the curriculum. How are development projects assimilated into the curriculum?

Parker: Right, this is primarily done within the curriculum. Some of the courses were established courses — in these cases, the professors were able to modify the requirements and the syllabus for the course. Other courses were designed from the ground up as new courses. So sometimes the project is merged into the existing structure, whereas other times a new course is built around the technology or what the final product is going to be.

Either way, students don't have to sign up for courses that are not giving them credit toward graduation — these projects are in courses that are part of the core curriculum.

Grush: You've talked about the benefits to students as you see them, but is there a particular value that students appreciate as they are working on these projects? What do the students say?

Parker: Yes, students appreciate being involved in these projects — this has come through strongly in course evaluations: When students are doing something that's real-world and real-life, which does have something tangible at the end of it, that seems to foster a much greater sense of ownership. It's been a great experience working with our students on these projects, and seeing the pride they take in what they are accomplishing.

Grush: What will keep Ball State generating relevant projects, as technology and user habits change moving into the future?

Parker: There's a kind of joint "keeping an eye on things" here at Ball State, in terms of the general technology market — not just the higher education technology market — with students, faculty, and administration becoming aware of what's going on in the world around us and having the ability and the true chance to gear the classroom and the curriculum to that. That's one of the bigger benefits of having students involved in these real-world projects, which foster interactions across the disciplines and among the different roles on campus. Given everyone who's involved, Ball State will definitely stay on top of the curve. So will our graduates.

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