University of Chicago Uses Tech to Teach

Cole Camplese keeps his institution on top of emerging tech, but that doesn’t overshadow his focal point: people

Cole Camplese, University of Chicago, VP for IT & CIO

Not many educators encourage students to browse social media during class, but Cole Camplese is a unique exception. As both a professor and a higher-education CIO, Camplese understands the value of allowing students to utilize all the technology available to them and has found ways to direct the millennial capacity for multitasking toward integrated learning methods.

That’s because, as former director of Education Technology Services at Penn State University and in his current position at the University of Chicago, Camplese takes a long view on how tech can and should affect education. He talks to Sync about how far technology has come since he started teaching in 1999 and how it can be used to produce the most effective results in higher education.

What have been some of the biggest technological changes in education since you began teaching in 1999?

Cole Camplese: The Internet was already established back then, so it’s always been the backbone of my teaching. The most impactful developments have been the ability to easily post content and the rise of social technology. The web has gone from being static to being a more fluid and engaging environment, which affords new capabilities in the classroom. I never imagined mobile devices and resources that are always right at my fingertips. Now students can consume and create content that incorporates all sorts of media on devices that are thinner than a notebook. From a 1999 perspective, that’s mind-blowing.

“There’s always resistance to disruptive and emerging technologies. When the chalkboard was introduced, there was concern because teachers had to turn their backs on students.”

How do you put those developments to use in the classroom?

Camplese: The center of my practice is having students write together. Online social capabilities like wikis and Google Docs support working in teams, and I can assess who’s participating in the collaborative format. I also use Apple Airplay to share my screen wirelessly and can ask students to share theirs, too, which pushes collaboration even further.

Twitter is another example. I started encouraging students to use it during classes at Penn State as a second classroom-communication channel. I would monitor tweets and sometimes display them so the entire class could see the “multichannel discourse.” They use it to ask each other questions, share resources, and offer encouragement. It creates an environment that extends beyond the classroom, and that helps support an overall learning community.

How would you like to see technology evolve at the University of Chicago over the next five years?

Camplese: I continue to believe that technology is an essential driver of higher education. What I want to see happen at U Chicago is that we work even harder to align our investment in technology to the overall goals of the institution. We need to make sure we are providing services that our world-class faculty need in order to continue to do transformative work, and that will require us to constantly assess and challenge ourselves to be better partners. I believe we need to continue to grow the understanding and belief that technology is a strategic advantage—not simply a commodity activity.

What are some of the challenges universal to tech in higher education? What are some that are unique to each institution?

Camplese: One overwhelming challenge across IT in education is the need to constantly tell the story that technology is a critical component of the ongoing transformation of high education. We must see technology in that light and not lose sight of the importance of IT in the academy. Each institution has unique challenges, and it is our job as IT leaders to adapt to those differences. Some institutions want to move the needle on their four-year graduation rates, while others are looking to find new financial models to invest in new initiatives, while others are looking to develop new revenue models through activities like online education. Each campus has a set of institutional goals that CIOs must understand so that they can align their organizations to help achieve those goals.

What’s on the Syllabus?

Camplese characterizes his “Disruptive Technologies” course as “a grand experiment” that evolves throughout a semester. Some of the topics and assignments include:

Meet our technology: Twitter and course hashtag #CDT450, Google Drive, Yammer, Diigo, Course Blog, the iPad

Students answer: How do you view the iPad as a tool?

Assignment: Post a comment to explain your team’s definition of community

Discussion topic: the Web is a customer service medium

Assignment: Tweet something about what Twitter can mean in shaping your identity

You’ve said that you’re excited by working in higher ed because technology is shaping how faculty teach and research as well as how students learn. How are you hoping to positively influence both of those populations in your new role?

Camplese: Here at U Chicago, our faculty members are renowned as world-class researchers. I believe one way our instructional design and educational technology teams can play a role here is by helping faculty expose each faculty member’s research in new and novel ways to better engage our students. I believe we can better engage faculty by building relationships with them that matter. What I mean by that is reorienting our staff to care about the work of our faculty and creatively craft pedagogy and practice that brings that work to the students. This relationship and trust-building is a critical component of helping to shape the teaching and learning experiences at the University.

I am also interested in engaging more directly with our students. We have an amazing student body, and I believe that by simply reaching out to campus student leaders, they can become more active partners in our service delivery.

You’ve said that “IT is a people enterprise.” Can you explain?

Camplese: Technology professionals tend to think our customers are just like us—that they love IT and computers. In reality, we need to spend more time talking to users, understanding their issues, and recognizing that what we’re offering might not be what they want. It’s not just about delivering services. It’s focusing more on what customers need and then delighting them by providing it.

IT organizations themselves are also about people. IT workers are often seen as existing in the background, never coming out of the server room. But they need professional development, opportunities to work together and to share what they know. CIOs obviously need to support business functions, but they also have to develop world-class organizations that operate from a human-factors perspective.

It goes well beyond just running machines. You can do that all day long, but if you can’t connect with people, you can’t really deliver top-notch service. And in the university setting, too many of my colleagues focus exclusively on the IT piece and forget about the educational part of the equation.

What is your ideal set of capabilities or type of implementation?

Camplese: I want to be able to create a people-focused ecosystem that uses technology to improve critical metrics, like GPA and four-year completion rates. There would be long-term faculty development opportunities, like faculty fellow programs, that bring innovations into the classroom. Instructors would share those techniques with colleagues and create a model for cultivating and supporting a really engaged community.

It would be a little simpler with students. I’d give them the right physical environments to learn in with the right capabilities and turn them loose with the right kinds of tools.

How close have you come to that ideal?

Camplese: Pretty close with students. I’ve given assignments asking them to design apps with capabilities that don’t already exist. One team came up with an app for recording live presentations, posting papers, and getting peer reviews. Another located multicultural events on campus. I would never have thought of those. They came about from letting them use the technology to explore what already exists and coming up with ideas that would disrupt what they found.

Do students have a better sense of technology’s potential in the classroom than their instructors?

Camplese: Generally speaking, yes. They’re more fluent with technology more quickly. But what students are aware of has nothing to do with what’s effective for teaching. We still have to guide them.