Technologies from touch screens to cloud computing are changing higher education on a global scale
Dissecting molecules on wall-sized touch screens or changing weather patterns with the tip of your finger may sound like scenes from a science fiction movie, but for students at some international universities, it's just another day at school.
Driven by a desire to spur collaboration and creativity, universities worldwide are investing in technologies they hope will prepare graduates for a rapidly evolving job market.
At Canada's University of Calgary that means installing gaming consoles, DJ booths, wall-sized touch screens, and a digital video globe at the newly opened Taylor Family Digital Library . Using the new technologies and software packages beefs up graduates' r?sum?s by adding digital skill sets, says Shawna Sadler, technology officer at the library.
"Who does work just by pencil and paper anymore?" asks Sadler. "It's all digital. We want to make sure our students have access to these new forms of expression." Each digital element at this cutting-edge library is designed for both fun and academics, Sadler says.
A biology student mixing pop music tracks in the library's DJ booth can transfer those audio mixing skills to the classroom and edit recordings of dolphin signals; or a history student interested in video games can analyze scenes from the library's collection and later use that expertise to design historically accurate scenes for the gaming industry, Sadler says.
"The gaming industry is one of the largest and financially strongest industries in the world," Sadler notes. "We're preparing our students to have an edge."
Installation of the gaming rooms and DJ booths won't be complete until January, but students and teachers are already experimenting with touch screen tables and the digital video globe. Undergraduate students jumped on the new technology, using the touch tables to pull molecules apart and studying weather patterns on the digital globe, Sadler says.
As students flock to touch tables in Calgary, their peers in Brisbane, Australia, are stampeding toward CoWs, says Geoff Mitchell, director of learning environments and technology services at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).
Classrooms on wheels, or CoWs as they're known at QUT, are equipped with large-screen displays, video equipment, and wireless Internet access. They also utilize TeamSpot, software that allows multiple students to login to one CoW and use it as a joint workspace, moving documents and images from their personal laptops to the display screen.
The system transformed a group work approach that typically involved a project leader at the computer while their teammates talked on cell phones and flipped through books, Mitchell says.
"They're digital campfires," he says. "Students are automatically attracted to them." Now students work on documents and brainstorm as a true team using the portable workstations, Mitchell adds.
Students surveyed by QUT say the CoWs encourage group work by giving them control over their meeting space and allowing everyone to access a shared display screen.
That ability to work collaboratively is essential in today's job market, says Johanna Frelin, CEO of Hyper Island, a digital media college in Sweden. Degree programs include Interactive Art Director, Mobile Applications, Motion Graphics, and a post-graduate Interactive Media Management track. While the school only has one master's program, the majority of Hyper Island's students already have an undergraduate degree or prior work experience, Frelin says.
"The more technologies there are, the more teamwork you will need," she says. "But the core thing is: how efficient is your team?"
Hyper Island's approach is unconventional but effective, says Antonio Raul Ceballos, an Interactive Art Director student who attended Boston University before earning an M.F.A. from Howard University.
There are no teachers, textbooks, or tests. Instead, students talk to industry professionals via Skype, an online phone and video service, and use cloud computing services like Google Docs to collaborate on projects.
"We look at how technology is affecting and influencing different areas, and how people are adapting to it," Ceballos says.
While Hyper Island is a digital school, its classrooms are not outfitted with the latest in education technology. Students bring their own computers, and the school provides cameras, lighting studios, and a broadband connection. They find all other digital technology on the Internet for free.
"We want to show them that anyone can start their own company. If they have to buy all this software, it's a big investment," Frelin says. "We show them where to find the tools."
Because tools change as quickly as students learn them, Hyper Island encourages students to pick one and experiment, then move on to another without hesitation, she adds.
"Just jump into the digital pool," Frelin says. "In the worst case you get wet, but hey, how bad is that?"
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