Lafayette College An Interdisciplinary Team Approach
Lafayette College is an independent, selective liberal arts college, founded in 1826 and set on a beautiful 110-acre campus in Easton, Pennsylvania. About 2,200 undergraduates and 200 faculty members work together in what the college calls “a small college environment with large college resources.” Nearly all Lafayette students reside on campus, which helps create what President Arthur J. Rothkopf describes as “a close-knit community of learners and doers.”1
Teaching and student mentoring are the top priorities of the faculty. Consequently, Lafayette College’s faculty and administrators eagerly embraced the concept of using technology as a way to promote more active and individualized student learning. The staff of the library agreed, but wanted to translate the concept into a tangible project. The librarians recognized-by virtue of their position as developers and users of information technology and as regular teaching partners with the faculty-that they were in an excellent position to take the lead in providing a link between technology and the classroom.
The library formed an Educational Technology Support Team in 1996, made up of three librarians, a colleague from Computing Services, and an instructional technologist. Neil McElroy, the director of the library, encouraged formation of the team because he believed the library needed to do something more to help the Lafayette community exploit the Web. The team’s initial work focused on support for campus applications of the World Wide Web, through workshops on topics such as writing Web pages, biweekly noontime presentations in which faculty members shared their experiences with the Web, and individualized support. Team members helped the faculty create class Web pages and experiment with applications of educational technology.
In its second year, the Educational Technology Support Team expanded its efforts by launching a mini-grant program, funded by the provost and administered by the team. From the funds provided, the library awarded grants of $1,000 to faculty members who proposed projects for using technology to improve teaching and learning. These grants provided compensation for the time needed to implement the project. The team awarded five mini-grants the first semester and four the second; one team member was assigned to work with faculty members on each of the grant projects.
In the third year of the team’s operation the college installed eleven new electronic classrooms and reconfigured a twelfth. Team members are providing support for the 70 faculty members who teach in these rooms. For example, the instructional technologist maintains a faculty e-mail list to facilitate exchanges about electronic classroom issues and developments.
The expenses of the projects have been covered in large part by the provost’s support of the mini-grant program and by the college’s commitment to infrastructure improvements and classroom upgrades. The library also provided some support from its operations budget, but the main library expenditures have been in time rather than dollars, and the librarian did not see financial limitations as a significant barrier to maintaining the team approach.
Library staff made a large contribution to the evolution of the educational experience at the college. The decision to form an educational support team to provide the Lafayette community with “close support and quick response” as it implements new educational technologies has been a pivotal one. The team has provided basic instruction and support; has created a forum in which the faculty share ideas about teaching and technology; helped advance the provost’s educational goals, and, in the process, enhanced the reputation of the library and its staff. One faculty member, summing up a widely held view of the library, said: “If you’ve got an idea, they’ll find a way to help you with it.”
The college recognized the contributions and impact of the Educational Technology Support Team by presenting team members with the annual campus teaching award. The surprised and gratified winners used their prize money to buy a digital camera to enhance their work.
With the formation of the Educational Technology Support Team, the initiation of the mini-grant program, and the expansion of electronic classroom facilities, the provost’s goal of increasing the proportion of faculty members who use technology in teaching is being realized. One interviewee estimated that perhaps half of the Lafayette faculty is now using some kind of technology in the classroom. The library staff’s increased involvement with campus pedagogy has created teamwork at the working level. For example, first-year seminar bibliography sessions have led to substantive conversations with faculty members about Web resources. Faculty who have participated in the mini-grant program are using new technologies in several disciplines, as the following examples illustrate.
- After attending a team-sponsored brown bag luncheon about the value of positive reinforcement in teaching basic principles, one physics professor created a software package to provide instant feedback to students on the quality of their homework assignments. The program allowed students several attempts to get the right answer, a degree of support that he himself could not have found time to provide. He noted that most students have doggedly done and re-done problems to get them right, even if they account for only a small part of the grade. Succeeding in the homework problems gives students a sense of accomplishment and confidence while also building their mastery of the course basics.
- A psychology professor wanted to use technology to encourage more interaction among his students and to provide a richer array of resources. He created a comprehensive Web site for a class of 40 students and he has seen improvement in the breadth of information and the number of sources that students use in their papers. The students’ presentation strategies are also now more diverse. He has found that his online bulletin board offers a good learning alternative for students who do not participate much in class discussions. He anticipates eventually changing the way students submit their assignments and papers.
- A professor of languages is working with the special collections librarian to design a multimedia program to access special collections through the Web, particularly the wealth of material in the college’s Lafayette collection. She is enthusiastic about the new dimensions that special collections bring to her teaching of current courses and her development of new ones. (“Political Institutions of France,” a survey of French literature, and a French civilization class are among those that will use this material.) The grant was a spur to defining the idea and developing a plan.
- The videoconferencing facilities at Lafayette have allowed engineering students studying abroad to participate in core courses being taught on the Easton campus. This allows them to continue making progress on their degrees while studying abroad. These same conferencing capabilities enable joint language instruction on the Lafayette and Lehigh campuses, allowing both institutions to offer language courses that would not have had sufficient enrollment on a single campus.
Challenges: Staffing and Classroom Support Issues
The roles and responsibilities of the librarians have changed considerably because of the innovative work of the Educational Technology Support Team. The library has handled this team work so far with no new additions to its staff of 25. The library director recognized, however, that a specific assignment within the library for information technology was not a short-term need. Thus, the position of instructional technologist, which had been part-time and supported by grant funds, was expanded to full-time, with full college funding. Despite the new demands on library staff, faculty members do not perceive a decline in traditional library services. However, library staff members admit that they have had to defer other projects, such as enhancing the library’s own Web site.
There has been discussion of adding more instructional technology staff and creating an educational technology support unit in the library. If this were to happen, the role of the Educational Technology Support Team would be reconsidered. Team members are not troubled by the prospect of a diminished role, as long as librarians stay involved in educational technology and there is some centralized support for faculty who want the assistance “all in one spot with people you get to know.” For Lafayette College, the library has become that spot.
Faculty members have raised some concerns related to the new emphasis on technology. Several worry about the lack of technological expertise on campus. Faculty members have had to be fairly self-reliant in setting up class Web pages and doing their own scanning and other computer-related tasks. One faculty member hoped he would not always have to be a Webmaster himself. Another professor raised concerns about how the college-wide emphasis on educational technologies would affect evaluations for tenure. Recognition for technology use as it relates to scholarship, teaching, and service needs to be more clearly defined. Finally, while faculty members have found it productive to work with students in developing new applications of technology, student initiatives and student-authored projects are often difficult to maintain when a student leaves.
As classrooms are automated and updated, new problems arise with their use. According to one student whose history class happened to be in a new classroom, it took the professor “forever” to figure it out. Problems that can hamper productive use of classrooms are not necessarily complex technical issues. Problems such as control of window shades are trivial but frustrating. There is not yet a designated staff member to assist faculty who find that a bulb is out or that the projector does not work. The instructional technologist assists if she is available; many faculty members, however, would like a “911 response” when the success or failure of a lesson plan increasingly depends on the smooth operation of classroom equipment, including more traditional audiovisual equipment.
Conditions for Success
In the campus visit, staff and faculty members were asked what factors had contributed to their successful applications of educational technology. The following were given as reasons for success.
- Library staff viewed the launching of the support team as manageable in part because they initially committed to trying it only for a year. Setting a time limit gave them courage to go ahead.
- The team structure allowed for different areas of expertise to be represented and presumed a sharing of the work.
- Including a member of the Computing Services staff on the team helped the library to maintain good working relationships with that department. The Computing Services staff has been glad to have the library take the lead in this type of faculty support, enabling computing staff to focus on network maintenance, faculty hardware support, and training in the use of e-mail, word processing, and other common campus software.
- Keeping the team relatively small facilitated decision making and implementation of ideas. While it might have been helpful to have a faculty team member or a faculty advisory group, it would have added more structure and layers to the team and might have slowed it down.
- The support team is seen as a grass roots project, not a top-down administrative mandate. Library staff had written some of the first Web pages on campus, and they knew what it was like to need help. They wanted to help their faculty colleagues.
- The library director planted the seed and then let the staff develop the idea. In one librarian’s view this permissive leadership allowed staff to find out what they needed to do. Librarians have continuing support from the library director and are given the time and freedom to be flexible and to undertake “what comes in the door.”
- Library staff have drawn definite limits in deciding what services the team provides. For example, they have refused to be troubleshooters and do not provide on-call support for the electronic classrooms. The team also did not take on the task of maintaining Web pages for individual classes. Faculty members have often hired students to provide this assistance.
- The provost contributed a great deal of initiative and momentum in her support of the mini-grants and for the “year of the classroom” project. She has been eager to see faculty members make creative use of educational technology, and having it available in the classroom makes it easier for faculty members to try it.
- The campus community displays a collegial attitude toward librarians. Library staff believe that the provost trusts them and that faculty members think of them as valuable colleagues with expertise to share.
- The president has been supportive. By making the library one of three topics of focus in the Middle States Accreditation review, he set the stage for reinforcing the work of the library and supporting
- its requests for more resources and more space. He has recognized that the library is a place of continuing value in the digital age.
- · The library newsletter has helped publicize technology initiatives and accomplishments across the campus and with other colleges and universities.
- · A key to the success of the project has been its personalized, individual approach, or what the library director characterizes as close support.
1 “President’s Message: Celebrating Opportunity,” Lafayette Magazine, Spring 1998, p. 2.