May 2011 Archways

President’s Column

Dear Friends,

President Jane McAuliffe

President Jane McAuliffe

Not so long ago Bryn Mawr faculty were debating whether computer science should be taught at a liberal arts college. Now we embrace computational research methods in nearly every field of study, manage mobile computing on netbooks and smartphones, and offer videoconferencing capabilities for collaboration with distant partners across the globe. Bryn Mawr stands on the threshold of a new era, a time when technology offers us new opportunities to enrich our academic life and to expand our communities beyond our physical borders.

Transforming Teaching and Learning

I hope that you caught the recent New York Times report on the Tri-College Digital Humanities Initiative that features Bryn Mawr Professor of English Katherine Rowe and her students. It provides marvelous examples of the vitality that digital tools can bring to “traditional” humanities classrooms, like the use of software to create a virtual three-dimensional Globe Theater. Digital technology is expanding the formats for student research, as with a current senior who created a Web-based thesis to map Marianne Moore’s engagement with her audiences. Because of what Professor Rowe calls an “exciting generation gap” between students fluent in new media and professors with sophisticated critical knowledge, both students and faculty can learn and can teach.

In using new tools for learning and research, our academic community must grapple with fundamental questions about limits and liabilities. Laptops in the classroom can enrich student engagement, as in the course described above. Laptops can also be a tempting distraction for checking email or Facebook. Translation software can quickly decipher a quotation in an unfamiliar language but violates the Honor Code if used to translate an essay for submission in a foreign language class. To address these paradigm shifts in academic culture and practice, the Self-Government Association has taken the lead in creating a “Digital Dialogue” for students, faculty and staff to explore the role of technology in the classroom and in student work.

Blended Learning

Blended learning describes a pedagogy that seeks to integrate online course modules tailored to the individual needs of students with more traditional classroom instruction. To date, blended learning approaches have been used primarily in large universities and community colleges. This fall, however, Bryn Mawr faculty piloted two courses that integrated software developed through the Carnegie Mellon Open Source Learning Initiative with classroom teaching. Targeted use of tools like pre-class online activities that allow students to absorb basic information and demonstrate mastery of skills frees up class time for more engaging projects and discussions. Bryn Mawr just received a major grant in the inaugural competition of the Next Generation Learning Challenge, funded by the Gates Foundation, to convene a group of 37 leading liberal arts colleges in the investigation of blended learning tools to enhance student achievement in science, mathematics and technology. Bryn Mawr was one of 29 grantees among 600 applicants. Blended learning and digital humanities projects will also form part of a $1 million grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for Bryn Mawr and Tri-College initiatives to develop a liberal arts curriculum for the 21st century.

Digital Identity and Digital Community

Technology also shapes Bryn Mawr’s identity in the world. Our admissions office, like those of other colleges, has created online experiences for prospective students, from video tours, to live chats with current undergraduates, to Facebook pages where admitted applicants can meet each other. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media tools also allow us to create a vibrant virtual community that includes alumnae/i, parents, students and friends. Over the past year Bryn Mawr has been consistently ranked in the top 10 “most engaged” Facebook pages for colleges and universities. You can “friend” Bryn Mawr or follow us on Twitter.

Living in Beta

Digital transformations challenge many assumptions on which our higher education tradition has been built. Changes are rapid, and sometimes force us to move forward before we have achieved a sense of mastery. Work is increasingly collaborative, and conclusions evolve through dialogue with a global circle of colleagues. Institutional identity is shaped and changed by a play of perspectives that can go viral in social networks.

We are now “living in beta,” a technical term for test mode that captures the broad cultural impact of technological change. “Living in beta” suggests a willingness to innovate, a clear-eyed commitment to constantly improving how we work, and a recognition that change is ceaseless. Living in beta at Bryn Mawr is exciting, a little unnerving, and fun.

Jane McAuliffe