Improving the student experience

For as long as universities have existed, one rule has remained constant: Don't carry on conversations during lectures. That's changing at the UW, thanks to one of several new teaching and learning tools being evaluated across campus. The tool, called Yarn, allows students to participate in real-time chats with one another during lectures.

"My biggest goal is to have 100 percent participation. I want every student to feel connected to the class," said Mike Eisenberg, professor and former dean of the Information School, the first to try the new tool in Spring Quarter 2011. Eisenberg uses Yarn as a "backchannel chat" to generate interesting questions and comments that he uses to enrich the discussion.

Yarn is just one of a number of cutting-edge teaching and learning tools UW-IT is making available to promote collaboration, enrich the student experience in and out of the classroom and help instructors manage their courses. Eisenberg, for instance, uses multiple proprietary and open-source tools including Catalyst Web Tools, Facebook and Vimeo.

"Not all students feel comfortable raising their hand and speaking out in class," Eisenberg said. "Having all these tools, both synchronous and asynchronous, makes it a lot easier for students with different skills, styles and personalities to participate and be fully engaged."

Other new tools, like Tegrity lecture capture and Canvas for course management, are currently being piloted, while ViDA, which provides students with 24/7 virtual desktop access to a growing software library, is already available.

According to Tom Lewis, UW-IT's director of Academic & Collaborative Applications, making multiple tools available and integrating them securely into UW's computing infrastructure is a strategy that keeps the UW on the leading edge of technology.

"We've always been leery of one-size-fits-all solutions that are still the dominant model in higher education," Lewis explained. "The future is not going to be about one big thing. We want to create a 'stack' of integrated tools. Our job is to find great technologies, bring them together, and make them quicker and easier to use, so that our students and faculty can be more effective."

One new tool Eisenberg is especially excited about is Canvas, a next-generation learning management system. Canvas promises to tremendously streamline instructors' ability to manage their courses and enrich the student experience.

"Right now it takes up to a minute per student just to get to their work for evaluation and grading. For me, that can be 100 minutes for each assignment," Eisenberg said. "With Canvas, you're just there. It's done. I estimate this one tool is going to increase my personal efficiency by 20 percent, which is time I can use for more meaningful interactions with my students."

"I think we are in the top 10 percent among our peers when it comes to willingness and efforts to take advantage of cutting-edge learning technologies," Eisenberg said. "All these technologies have the potential to make the classroom experience so much richer. That's what we're really talking about. A very rich, multi-dimensional experience that engages all the students."

Read the complete UW IT Annual Report.