Tech Woes at Small Colleges (CHE)

May 20, 2015

By Jon Nichols

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.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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