Blending learning and 3D printing: Hendrix College's CIO explains what's working
This CIO profile is part of the "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions and conducted by the Education Dive editorial staff.
Believe it or not, not every college and university is rushing to throw its name into the MOOC hat these days. Many liberal arts schools—like those in the Associated Colleges of the South—are still focused largely on meeting the technological demands of students already on campus.
David Hinson serves as executive vice president and CIO for ACS member Hendrix College, a small liberal arts college in Conway, Ark. At Hendrix, blended learning and classes taught via teleconference are front and center for Hinson, and keeping the school's infrastructure up to par with the growing number of devices brought on campus by students is a much greater priority than becoming the latest member of MOOC mania. If his spot on the "20 Rising Star CIOs" list alongside The Huffington Post's 50 most social CIOs on Twitter is any indication, he's also helped increase his institution's visibility.
In the wake of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey, Education Dive spoke with Hinson about the school's blended learning initiatives, its local-headline-grabbing 3D printer and what his role means as he helps facilitate Hendrix's ethos and increase its visibility—in the community and on social media.
EDUCATION DIVE: How did you arrive at your current role as the CIO for Hendrix College?
DAVID HINSON: Prior to coming to Hendrix, I had my own software company and was invited to come to Hendrix in the spring of 2010 to advise them on the need to develop mobile applications for the college. I spent three days on campus talking to different groups and made my recommendation—which was basically for them to focus on making their website more responsive and mobile first—as opposed to going out and developing a web app or a mobile application. I didn’t hear from them for six months, so I thought, “Well, maybe they didn’t like what I had to say.” [Laughs] But in January of 2011, I got a call from the president asking me if I would consider coming on board as the chief information officer, so here I am two years later.
What was the transition to education like?
HINSON: It actually was remarkably pretty easy. Software, by its nature, is essentially a people business, and being in education is really no different than that. The pace was different being with a small software company and working with startups than working in a larger, more process-driven environment like education. So, that was a bit of adjustment—the ball definitely slows down quite a bit. But it was a welcome change, and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Can you tell me a little bit about the campus you serve at Hendrix?
HINSON: We’re 30 miles north of Little Rock. We have a student body of about 1,400 students. It’s an undergraduate institution. We are affiliated with the United Methodist Church and have been around since 1876. Our college belongs to a consortium of colleges called The Associated Colleges of the South.
Are there a lot of distance learning or continuing education initiatives?
HINSON: There isn’t distance learning per se. We just finished our first for-credit course in cooperation with Rollins, another one of our ACS consortium partners, for one of our voice and diction classes. It was part of a program that the ACS started a couple of years ago called the New Paradigm Initiative, and essentially what it is, is using high-quality teleconferencing—h.323 teleconferencing—to allow a faculty member in Winter Park, Fla., to basically teach local students there and five students here at Hendrix. The class itself is taught the same way we would teach a class locally. It’s very Socratic, it’s engaged, it’s in the moment. So, it’s not traditional distance learning as most people think of it. It’s really more along the ethos of what we would consider to be a traditional liberal arts class, with a lot of give and take and engagement.
So is that along the lines of the blended learning and teleconferencing initiatives in the YouTube video of your presentation at UBTech?
HINSON: That’s exactly right. And again, this class was the first for credit. We’ve actually done a number of these this past year. If you’ve seen the UBTech video, you know that we did a session from the Democratic National Convention last summer. We’ve done a number of sessions between Hendrix and some colleges in China. So we’re very interested in that model of teleconferencing as opposed to just having strictly online content delivered asynchronously. We’re really focusing more on blended aspects of technology as they augment our in-class presentation as opposed to, “Hey, let’s develop a MOOC and deliver content to large numbers of people in a very non-interactive fashion.”
And this all ties back into Hendrix’s Odyssey program and the ethos of “engaged and active learning.”
HINSON: That’s absolutely right.
What challenges and accomplishments have you experienced since becoming CIO?
HINSON: I think probably one of the bigger challenges I had was to change the perception of IT as an obstacle to overcome as opposed to having technology services being a valued partner in helping our on-campus staff and faculty to accomplish their aims. People don’t call IT because they want to just chat. They usually call because there’s a problem in the classroom, there’s a problem with their printer, there’s a problem with their PC. So, we really had a perceptional challenge to make sure that we were delivering services timely and friendly and solving people’s problems. What I saw was a challenge to bring more of a service organization orientation to our area, and I want to say that that’s probably one of the bigger accomplishments we’ve done this year.
The first summer I was here, we did a $400,000 campus upgrade to bring a common platform of technology into every one of our teaching spaces. That’s a physical type of thing, but it all ties back into how we can deliver better services to our faculty and to our students. Our approach basically was, “Let’s level the playing field. Let’s clear obstacles and make sure that we’re delivering services in a friendly, timely and efficient manner.”
I noticed that you were featured on the Huffington Post’s list of “20 rising stars” with their list of the most social CIOs. What was that like?
HINSON: It was a surprise, for one thing. On the one hand, you’re always honored to get that kind of recognition. On the other hand, you don’t want to be viewed as spending too much time on the Internet. [Laughs] So, it was very surprising and humbling to be considered that way. I really view social media as another channel to get the message out about the good things that we’re doing at Hendrix, and it’s just another tool at our disposal. We just try to make sure that we’re part of the conversation and not having someone else frame the conversation for us. It was just nice to get that kind of validation.
In a Jostle interview, you mentioned that Hendrix jumped into various social networks with no oversight or planning or sense of consistency in the beginning, so how did that impact the school’s current social media guidelines?
HINSON: I think we recognized that our people were looking for some structure, and just due to the ad hoc nature of how these connections had grown out, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. What we really looked to do was to bring some nice helps for our folks to be able to go to and say, “How does this help me frame the conversation in a way that puts forward the message that I want to say, but also gives me some good guidelines on how I should react or interact within any one given community.”
It’s always nice, with 20/20 hindsight, to say, “Hey, if we’d only known four or five years ago that these would have been the challenges we would face, then we would have set about putting together a policy beforehand.” What we tried to do was to make it so that it wasn’t so much a set of rules as it was a guide for healthy living within the different social media communities, because being a good member on Twitter is certainly not the same thing as interacting effectively on Facebook or Pinterest or LinkedIn.
You basically have to kind of get a feel for what those communities mean to their respective members, and then engage in a way that, No. 1, shows that you value that particular community and you have something to offer them, something relevant to say. And at the same time, you want to be authentic. You don’t want to be seen as someone blasting out some sort of canned message with no real personage behind it.
Do you feel that going beyond social media and attending events like the Conway Tech Tuesday is an important part of increasing the college’s visibility through your role, as well?
HINSON: I absolutely think so. I mean, you can get in a bit of an echo chamber within any organization. I think you have to look outside to your community to see what other innovators in and around you are doing and have that point of contact. It’s a way for us to kind of get our message out to the local community, whether it’s potential employees or potential partners in industry in and around the community.
It’s also a way for us to see what’s going on. We’ve got a local manufacturer of 3D printers, so it’s neat to have that kind of contact and compare and contrast what they’re doing versus what we’re doing with 3D printing on campus. It’s nice to see how other PR professionals go about their craft. If you can see them in a social setting, you can get a better sense of who they are and how they approach their craft and how we might be able to apply it to what we do here at Hendrix.
Speaking of 3D printing, I saw a news report about Hendrix’s new 3D printer. How does that fit into the campus’ tech ecosystem?
HINSON: I think it remains to be seen. We always try to put technology through the lens of what it means for the pedagogy. So, the pedagogy drives our technology purchasing and acquisition, and not the other way around. We actually got our 3D printer to teach with another design class here on campus. We know that there are some applications that other faculty could potentially use with it, and what we’re trying to do is offer opportunities for those faculty to come and interact and kind of ideate about what they potentially can do. I think this year what we’re hoping to be able to do is get one or two additional printers that we can put in our student life and technology center to allow broader access to some of our students on campus.
Again, you want to provide some touch points for technology so that people can come and experiment, see what the bounds are, because 3D printing is like anything else. It can tend to be over-hyped in terms of its promise on delivery of what it actually can do. It’s just good for people to see what the technology is, what it can mean and what the application can potentially be going forward. I think it’s an important technology, but people need to understand what it is and not to be afraid of some things that you read in the media about printable weapons and things of that nature there. So what we’ve tried to do is approach technology in a smart and reasonable, fact-based fashion. We’ve tried to put good policies in place regarding how we would support 3D printing technology on campus and set the sails and see where the wind takes you.
And getting that printer also sort of ties into what you were talking about in the UBTech video about future-proofing classrooms.
HINSON: Yeah. We really can’t anticipate where technology’s going to take you. Three years ago, there was no iPad. Six years ago, no iPhone. So what will the next three, six, 10 years bring for us? I don’t think we really know. The best you can try to do is just recognize that you need to have a good foundation of technology that will support whatever comes down the road. For us, that means that we are constantly reevaluating our network infrastructure. It’s no surprise that kids are bringing more and more devices to campus.
Last year, one of the freshmen said, “How many devices can I bring?” and I’m like, “Well, how many do you have?” It’s no longer a case of students bringing a laptop and a desktop. It’s laptop, desktop, tablet, phone, gaming console, wearable device—those types of considerations become more and more important. Our focus has been not so much on individual clients and connection points as it has been to look at what our backbone looks like, if it’s efficient, and what is our strategic plan moving forward for upgrading components of our backbone network to be able to handle that hockey stick curve of increasing devices on campus.
On that note, does Hendrix have a BYOD policy?
HINSON: No, we don’t really have a formal BYOD policy, other than it’s more de facto than by fiat, right? We don’t constrain what people can connect to our network other than making sure that they comply to our security policies, and we’ve got a number of published computing policies on the website that more than covers that. We try to use common sense so that we are not gate keepers as much as we are enablers of smart technology use, so that’s how we’ve tried to approach the entire BYOD phenomenon.
Hendrix uses Moodle, so I was wondering what you think the advantages of an open source LMS are as opposed to those of, say, Blackboard.
HINSON: Well, there are a number of different advantages—one being cost. It’s significantly more sustainable in terms of budgeting to go with an open source alternative. Moodle has a very broad-based support ecosystem for people who understand how to use it. We currently host Moodle through Moodlerooms. One of the things that we looked at when we were evaluating Desire2Learn and Blackboard and Moodle was the fact that Moodle was relatively independent of Blackboard, which had gone about purchasing other LMSes in their drive to get bigger.
It was a bit of a surprise a little over a year ago when they bought Moodlerooms, but we felt like, by going with Moodle, that we didn’t necessarily tie ourselves to Moodlerooms as being the service provider. We could bring it on campus if we wanted to maintain it ourselves, or go to another service provider. We just felt like it gave us a level of insularity to a company like Blackboard, which is a great company, but it just seemed to be more concerned with growth than working with the product per se.
Have there been any changes with Moodlerooms that you’ve noticed since the acquisition?
HINSON: Not really. The service levels have remained pretty good. Honestly, we’ve kept a weather eye on things to make sure we haven’t seen a noticeable drop in service. It’s something we’ll continue to monitor because it’s just something we’re concerned with, and we want to make sure the level of service that we went into expecting remains that way, and so far it has been.
Do you know if there are any plans within the ACS for MOOCs in the future?
HINSON: I know that a few of the member schools have looked at them on a very ad hoc type of basis. In fact, some of the schools that use Blackboard are using their MOOC facility to offer some small MOOCs. But, if you look at the model behind MOOCs, which is massively open online content, it’s not necessarily at the cross purposes of a liberal arts education. You’re not going to see someone try to grade 20,000 English papers through a MOOC. The schools that I’ve talked to that are using it within the consortium are doing it at a very limited scale, and none are offering it for credit as we speak now.
As far as the overall tech environment on your campus, are you satisfied with where everything is at?
HINSON: I don’t think you can ever really be satisfied from where you are. Students have a voracious appetite for more and more bandwidth, and so our plan in September is to basically quintuple our carrying capacity on our Internet circuit, so we plan to do that. We also have, as part of our strategic plan, to support Bonjour and Airplay—some of the more consumer-oriented device protocols—so that we can better accommodate things like iPads in the classroom for presentation devices. And then, we’re always looking at the fact that we’re offering more teleconferencing classes on campus. That’s more and more video. More and more students want lecture capture.
Again, we just have to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place to supply those services. So that’s where we are. We’re an OK place, but we know that we’ve got some improvements to make in order to stay apace of what our students are going to demand.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more CIO profiles from Education Dive as part of our 2013 "Mobility in Higher Education" survey underwritten by Sprint Higher Education Solutions. Download the full survey results here.
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