It's all about access

Through the years, the way people have been educated has changed dramatically. With the advent of the Internet, seats became empty as students began to look to online courses as a way to earn credit. Weber State University is looking — and has already taken many steps — into going a few steps further.

“We’re looking into taking traditional pedagogy — traditional methods of teaching — and combining those methods with mLearning (mobile learning),” said Bret Ellis, the vice president of information technology at WSU. “It’s really a marriage of the two.”

This fall, students and faculty have access to WSU’s own iTunes U account (available from the student portal). Here, faculty can upload audio and video recordings of their classes, as well as documents and other handouts pertaining to a certain course. Not only are these materials available to WSU students, but also to the general public. Anyone who has access to the Internet and iTunes can download the e-content directly to their iPods, iPads and iPhones.

It has taken WSU, and the state of Utah as a whole, three years to finalize the contract with Apple, according to Alan Lewis, systems manager for the IT division. Even before the Utah State Board of Education settled on an agreement with Apple, the University of Utah formed their iTunes U account and content. As a result, of the public universities in Utah, U of U has the largest iTunes U library.

“Faculty have several options when it comes to creating videos and other material for their classes,” Lewis said. “They can create content in their own offices and upload that audio or video to Canvas. Faculty can also record their lectures and upload those videos to iTunes U, which would then be available to the general public.”

Lewis explained that there is also a do-it-yourself lab in Lampros Hall, in which faculty members can use top-notch technology to supplement their courses.

The majority of content on WSU’s iTunes U belongs to the Dumke College of Health Professions. Many professors in CHP opt to enhance their classes with iTunes material, enabling their students to listen to their professor’s voice while watching PowerPoint slideshows of course-related material.

Another service available online to students is Canvas. Canvas is fairly new to WSU and had undergone a series of pilot phases. Through Canvas, faculty are able to tempt their students to access additional resources online. Students are able to link their Facebook, Twitter, GoogleDocs, LinkedIn and other social media accounts to their Canvas accounts. This, in turn, allows students to collaborate and contact professors without ever having to log in to their Canvas account.

Sharon Dover, who works at WSU as the technology resource coordinator, has been working on the mobilization of WSU’s Virtual Lab. In the past, students have been able to access the various software and programs such as WordPerfect, SPSS, Adobe Suite products and Mathematica via the Virtual Lab — but only via a computer. Now students and faculty can access these programs in their mobile device’s Web browser.

Particularly, many students in the radiologic technology and science programs have a great need of access to WSU’s online Virtual Lab. These students complete homework assignments and prepare for exams by means of the Virtual Lab. Through the Citrix Receiver App for iPad, students can access the Virtual Lab anywhere, any time.

“That’s what we’re here for,” said Shelly Belflower, WSU’s IT planning and academic technologies director. “We’re here to help students be able to access the resources for their classes when they need to be using whatever device they have.”

Belflower, who was formerly the director of technology services, said that students learn in different ways, and that for students to be successful, they have to be taught in the best method possible.

“Some people learn best face to face, in a traditional classroom setting; others converse better through e-mail,” Belflower said. “Everyone has their own way. However, I don’t think that, even amidst the new technologies and new ways of teaching, the face-to-face method will ever disappear.”

However, while WSU strives to maintain cutting-edge services for its students, there are many challenges that arise with Web- and mobile-accessible material.

“As the CIO (chief information officer), it’s very important to me to understand what do we need to provide for faculty and students when they’re ready for mLearning,” Ellis said, “especially in terms of storage, security, or access or wireless. We have to anticipate problems before they even become an issue.”