Tech woes at small Colleges


Mere minutes before my lecture to the freshmen, I heard a “click, whir” noise. Curious, I looked behind me. And there it was, the projector screen rolling up into its casing like Napoleon retreating from Russia. I turned back to the monitors on the podium. My PowerPoint remained while the monitor for the auditorium AV read “OFFLINE.”

Naturally my immediate reaction was righteous indignation. I had not touched the thing. In fact, I hadn’t even looked at it funny. I wondered if I could still give my lecture with pantomime instead of PowerPoint.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Previous weeks had seen, among other incidents, a colleague attempting to play an Internet video in class. When the video began to play, it was bereft of sound. Students in the hall murmured, impatient in the silence while the professor urged “it’s coming, it’s coming.” Another lecturer’s mike went out mid-presentation. She bravely pressed on while an AV assistant crawled inside the podium much the way a mechanic would before explaining why I need new shocks and struts.

One colleague finished his lecture without incident. He then shut down the podium computer, as is habit for many of us, the same as turning off a light when exiting a room. The next lecturer, scheduled to speak to a class of sophomores in 10 minutes, greeted the departing professor with a look of horror. The message on the screen gave the reason for the panic: “Downloading updates 1 of 97.”

Before you get the false impression that our campus is technologically backward, we’re not. Typewriters are few, and I have yet to see anyone remove their shoes and socks to count toes once they’ve run out of fingers. But like most small colleges, we have unique challenges when it comes to technology. Our budget tends to be concerned with serious and existential issues such as enrollment and keeping the heat on.

And we’re not alone. Last April, Bloomberg Business ran a story about the “death spiral” of small colleges facing declining enrollment, and The Chronicle has published any number of pieces on just how difficult it is for a small institution to remain state-of-the-art with technology. Small colleges face challenges with server storage, wireless access, lack of redundancy in Internet access, and hardware obsolescence. It is also difficult to retain IT staff as the lure of a substantial salary in the corporate world is all too strong.

A friend of mine who works in IT support at Microsoft sometimes assists institutions in higher education, so I asked him what sorts of difficulties he has encountered with smaller-size colleges. “The office suite used by the school and the one on the student’s device are not 100-percent compatible, so the finished document does not render properly,” began his litany of examples. “The professor decides to use some website to post assignments that does not fully support all browser versions used by the students. School computers are compromised by malware because the AV software was not updated with the latest signatures.”

What interests me is how many academics at small colleges seem to be falling back on decidedly low-tech approaches in order to get the job done.

There was much consternation when Moodle, our chosen course-management platform, went down just about the time that midterm grades were due. “How are we supposed to calculate our grades?” was the collective cry. A professor of history responded: “They’re called ‘class record books.’ I have a box of 20 in my office if you need one.” While using those books makes for a somewhat messy and ink-blotted approach (not to mention they’re coated with the faint odor of whatever I had for lunch that day), I’ll confess that I’ve adopted it. It works.

In discussing low-tech approaches with a colleague, I bemoaned how many of my lesson plans have had to be altered on the fly because the server went down or because an LCD projector, seemingly fed up with its treatment, had gone on strike pending negotiations.

“You know what I use?” my colleague asked. “A marker and a dry-erase board. It’s a method that has its roots in the ancient Greeks and Romans. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough me.”

My own pedagogical style is now a hybrid of old and new. I have lessons that include websites, but I have printed text to hand out — just in case. I create lectures with software platforms such as PowerPoint, but skimp on the multimedia bells and whistles. That allows flexibility. Should the campus system be on the fritz, I can switch to the dry-erase board. Based on a purely observational and anecdotal assessment, I believe I am having success with my hybrid approach.

What surprises me, though, is that it is sometimes viewed as anti-technology by a few colleagues. Two biologists, who had shown no previous interest in totalitarian regimes, once eyed me sitting in the cafeteria with what I will admit was a rather unwieldy pile of paper.

“Why don’t you just have your students share papers with you on Google Docs?” one of them asked.

I teach writing. As such, I often draw arrows over the pages, showing where blocks of text would better fit in the flow of a student’s essay. That — and circling nonwords such as “irregardless” in red ink six or seven times — gives me a therapeutic release.

“You use grade books?” the other asked as if catching me with a stack of leaflets for a Scientology invitational.

I gave them a quick recap of my “adaptive” plan. They seemed to regard me as, at best, a technophobe, and, at worst, a Luddite. What those colleagues failed to understand was: (1) I spent my adolescence staring for hours at a screen as I sent Mario, Luigi, and the Contra twins against all manner of adversaries; and (2) I don’t eschew technology in the classroom. I just can’t count on it working.

And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Like many children of the 1980s, computers have been omnipresent in my life. I constantly want to know about the next “cool thing” on the technological horizon, and my career in higher education has been no exception. Class blogs as “living documents,” e-portfolios for student writing, integrating social media into classwork — I’ve tried to adopt much of it and have done so with excitement.

When technology fails, however, I find myself refocused. My primary tasks are to teach students how to critically evaluate texts and how to write in academic discourse. The glitzy package for that instruction is secondary in the scheme of things. I would do well to remember that.

For now, I must finish the PowerPoint for tomorrow’s lecture on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. And by that, I mean, attaching the feelers on my bug costume.

Author Bio: Jon Nichols is an assistant professor and writing support specialist at Saint Joseph’s College, in Indiana.