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Ohio College Equips Incoming Students with Tech Tools

Hiram College is the latest school to make digital devices part of the students' liberal arts experience. But experts caution that tech giveaways need to be planned well.

Forget the paper, pens and textbooks — today’s higher education students are securely planted in the 21st century with mobile devices. But instead of chastising students for using them in the classroom, more colleges and universities are embracing and even encouraging mobile devices as innovative tools to enhance learning.

Such is the case at Hiram College, which recently announced a new Tech and Trek initiative that will go one step further by providing new technology to incoming students in fall 2017. But while this approach has become a growing trend in higher education, some experts are skeptical of its true impact on learning. 

Located in Ohio’s Western Reserve, Hiram College is a small liberal arts college with approximately 1,100 students, according to its website. The college recently received a $2.1 million alumnus donation that enabled it to launch the Tech and Trek initiative, which will provide an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and keyboard bundle to full-time, traditional freshmen students in fall 2017. 

According to Hiram College President Lori Varlotta, the initiative goes beyond simply distributing mobile devices and is aimed at enhancing and strengthening face-to-face learning that currently exists. Tech and Trek is designed to bring a “new liberal arts” way of learning by incorporating integrative study, high-impact experiences and the mindful use of technology.

Since students at Hiram are required to participate in learning outside of the classroom, including internships and study abroad opportunities, the mobile devices will support students in learning during these immersive experiences (or “treks”). For example, students can record conversations with individuals from other cultures or in other languages and reflect back on those recordings to achieve a greater, long-lasting impact. 

The devices will serve to enhance learning inside the classroom as well. For example, iBooks and integrative tools will allow students to highlight sections of text, embed questions and send their personal analyses or takeaways to a study group, enabling students and faculty to see who is contributing to group projects.   

“We want students to integrate personal stories with theory; soft skills and emotions and feelings with facts,” Varlotta said. “Mobile technology is wonderfully suited to help make those integrations possible inside and outside the classroom. They will be able to google, download, create electronic journals and do searches to bring a heightened sense of analyses into spur-of-the-moment discussions.” 

Another objective of the Tech and Trek initiative will be to teach students how to use digital devices in creative, purposeful ways to strengthen interpersonal relations on campus. 

A cohort of faculty and staff, including Assistant Professor and Early Childhood Program Coordinator Jennifer McCreight, is rolling out the initiative. They are also working with students and trustees on how to get the best results from the initiative. So far, McCreight has seen a positive impact from using many of the digital apps and tools in her own classroom. For example, she uses the interactive presentation tool Nearpod to encourage verbally shy students to share in conversations through typing or drawing. She notes that these tools help to enhance learning and communication, but also level the playing field for students by allowing them to access the same content and tools being used.

To sustain the initiative beyond 2017, Hiram College plans to increase its technology fee, which currently falls at about $100. 

While Hiram is the first college in Ohio to offer these specific devices, the initiative is part of a growing trend across the nation that can be seen at various higher education institutions. Belmont College in St. Clairesville, Ohio, launched the “Be Connected” initiative in 2015 that gives iPads to all students, faculty and the majority of staff members. Similarly, the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development launched an iPad initiative in 2010 to help students access course materials and university libraries, and create multimedia presentations. The University of Cincinnati College of Nursing also launched an iPad initiative, which requires nursing students to use iPads as part of their curriculum. 

Even schools that don’t implement formal initiatives are more likely to use mobile devices in some way to support learning. According to the 2016 Educause Center for Analysis and Research Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, “Students believe that a majority of their instructors have technology skills adequate for course instruction, use technology in basic ways to connect to learning materials, and encourage the use of online collaborative tools.” What’s more, half of students reported that they believe their instructors use technology to stimulate critical and creative thinking and maintain student attention. 

But Phil Hill, an education technology consultant at Mindwire, points out that simply implementing mobile devices into higher education is not enough to make a true impact on learning — it also relies on a pedagogical redesign of programs. In his work with colleges and universities, Hill has noticed a growing need for a wholesale redesign of curriculum and support programs for students to maximize these 21st-century tools. “Technology for technology’s sake doesn’t change education,” he said. “It’s a tool that can enable students and schools to improve education. Otherwise, all you’re doing is throwing technology at the problem.”