The Digital Evolution
By Amy Derbedrosian
Nancy Macko remembers the day her department chair asked if she was interested in teaching computer graphics.
Sure, the Scripps College art professor and printmaker replied. What is it? Macko quickly brought herself up to speed, developing the first course in the College’s Digital Art Program in 1990. At a time when computers weren’t yet in every faculty office, she entered a classroom with three desktop Macs to teach skills that were new to students, including how to use a mouse.
There’s no question that technology in higher education has come a long way. Today’s undergraduates carry smartphones everywhere, and the latest higher-education trends include once-unheard-of technologies and teaching methods. Virtual reality, flipped classrooms (in which students access video and other materials outside class to reserve class time for problem solving), and blended learning that combines online and face-to-face education are just a few.
The technologies that make online education possible have expanded its adoption. The Pew Research Center reported in 2011 that more than 75 percent of U.S. colleges and universities offer online courses. Liberal arts colleges are now among them: in 2012, Wellesley College became the first liberal arts college to have its faculty teach noncredit online courses and the first women’s college to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs).
At first glance, the increased prevalence of technology in higher education seems at odds with the traditions of residential liberal arts colleges. After all, a broad education, small classes, and personal interaction do not require technological intervention. Yet as Scripps demonstrates, embracing technology doesn’t mean replacing what has long benefited students, either.
Rather than shift its approach to education, Scripps considers how technology can complement it and further strengthen the College’s academic excellence. As Gretchen Edwalds-Gilbert, associate dean of faculty and associate professor of biology, notes, “We believe technology is a critical part of pedagogy, but it should be natural and integrated. Technology has to be in service of something.”
At Scripps, technology serves to enrich the residential liberal arts college experience. This is visible in classrooms where technology is both a tool for creativity and problem solving and a subject for in-depth study and critical analysis. It’s evident in the use of social media and apps that promote information sharing, conversations, and face-to-face connections. It’s even apparent in students’ first encounters with Scripps, during an admission process in which digital communication provides more immediate ways to learn about the College.
Today, many academic programs at Scripps incorporate technology, with the extent varying by field. Edwalds-Gilbert explains, “It’s critical in digital art and the fine arts overall. In the sciences, it depends on how you look at technology. In molecular biology, you need to look at databases and technological equipment such as fluorescence microscopes. A few of our biologists combine global information systems (GIS) mapping with fieldwork.”
Scripps faculty and students in every field already benefit from the Sakai online course management system used throughout The Claremont Colleges. This makes it easier for faculty to post a syllabus, readings, and announcements, for students to submit assignments, and for everyone to communicate outside the classroom. Scripps also participates in a consortium-wide initiative to strengthen and expand digital humanities teaching and research through the Center for Teaching and Learning. Edwalds-Gilbert says, “This center will help people think about how technology can enhance what they do. We’re now more intentional in saying technology is not just for science or engineering. That intellectual shift happened in the last five years.”
Technological advancements have changed what, as well as how, students learn at Scripps. Students can now choose majors such as media studies, computer science, and science, technology, and society (STS) that focus on understanding technology and expanding career options while fitting firmly within the College’s liberal arts tradition.
Media studies majors, for example, both produce and look critically at contemporary media forms, including film, television, video, Internet, and print. They take advantage of computing power to create videos, animations, and digital photographs. But like all Scripps students immersed in the liberal arts, they consider the social and historical contexts of their subject—in this case, how media producers influence, and are influenced by, the surrounding culture.
“We’re focused on independent media, being innovative, and looking at what’s come before and what is possible. We blend making, writing, thinking, and reading. Very few programs do that. A student becomes more informed about herself and more aware as a global citizen,” says Professor T. Kim-Trang Tran, an experimental videographer who teaches both media studies and digital art courses.
The Digital Art Program Tran joined in 1999 now forms a concentration in both the media studies and art majors. From a single computer design class, it has grown to encompass graphic design, digital photography, website development, and videography. And like the media studies major, the Digital Art Program merges technology with a liberal arts perspective.
“The program involves critical thinking, a cornerstone of teaching at Scripps,” explains Macko, who became the Digital Art Program director in 1992. “Students take away a sophisticated fluency level in software, expanded creativity in their own work, an informed understanding of digital art and all digital imagery on the Internet, and a deeper understanding of media.”
Tran believes this differentiates Scripps students. She says, “Students are preoccupied with mastering skills, but anyone has access to YouTube how-to videos. What our students have that others don’t is a liberal arts education and critical-thinking skills. They stand out as creative problem solvers.”
As student interest in digital art and media studies grows, so does Scripps’ investment in these areas. This year, the College hired its first-ever tenure track position in media studies; in fall 2016, Carlin Wing will join Scripps as an assistant professor of media studies.
Though defined by technology, the computer science major now available to Scripps students through the consortium also hones critical-thinking skills. Computer science major Shinjini Nunna ’16, who will join Google in September, explains: “I think computer science, more than teaching you how to code or build technology, teaches you to think through a problem, which has so much value in the liberal arts. And a technical major with a liberal arts education gives me a better sense of the problems I want to solve through computer science. My goal is to provide greater access to computer science education to women and other minorities.”
Scripps students in computer science help address this significant need. Women earn just 18 percent of undergraduate computer science degrees, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the New York Times reports that they represent only 30 percent of employees at large Silicon Valley tech companies. Not many Scripps students have chosen computer science—11 majors and 13 minors since 2005—but Nunna’s experience as a tech-company intern at Salesforce convinced her that there should be more.
“The other interns may or may not have had stronger technical skills, but I had better communication skills,” she says, attributing this to her Scripps education. “I know how to work with other people, be a leader, and communicate about problems and solutions. That goes a long way in tech.”
Some Scripps students have a deep interest in technology but not Nunna’s desire for a tech-industry career. The STS major—one of few undergraduate programs of its kind at liberal arts colleges—allows them to explore how science and technology inform and are informed by society. Students examine this through the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences, including history, anthropology, philosophy, and policy. Laura Perini, a Pomona College philosophy professor who coordinates the interdisciplinary program, calls STS “the epitome of what you can do as a liberal arts institution.”
Nancy Williams, the Scripps chemistry professor who advises the College’s STS majors, explains, “Scripps students are deeply rooted in figuring out how knowledge is created. STS asks how we create knowledge and how that new knowledge affects us. The questions we ask and how we ask them matter. What do we research as scientists, and what is the process? What kinds of technology do we produce, and who is it for? Technology doesn’t exist freestanding of culture; it comes back to our values.”
These questions appeal to a small—just four in 2015—but varied group of Scripps students. Some STS majors learn about bioethics or medical technologies to prepare for medical school. Others want to apply their study to careers in law, education, or policy. Lauren Burke ’16, a dual major in STS and anthropology, wanted to understand the products of technology and how they change society.
“We designed the major to allow students to apply several different scholarly approaches to a particular area of interest,” says Perini. “The STS major gives them what every liberal arts education should: the ability to analyze something interesting and important using skills they gain at Scripps.”
The same thinking that guides how Scripps integrates technology in academics influences its use in other areas of campus life. While digital communication is common in the admission office, residence halls, and students’ daily activities, its intent is to facilitate knowledge and interpersonal contact.
In today’s college admission office, the student recruitment process has gone digital. Applications are completed online. Print publications haven’t disappeared—Scripps still mails overview and follow-up materials, as well as a viewbook—but students primarily look to websites for immediate, helpful, succinct information.
“We use a digital platform to connect in ways that enhance what we convey about the culture of Scripps and encourage students to feel engaged in the process digitally,” says Laura Stratton, director of admission for Scripps.
She turns to email to invite students and their families to connect with Scripps in person. Congratulatory phone calls to admitted applicants have become messages from current students sent via Facebook or e-mail. A Facebook group solely for admitted students encourages them to share information and photos before they’ve even graduated from high school.
But however much the methods employed by the Scripps admission office have changed, the goal of communicating remains as it was in pre-digital days. Stratton says, “At the end of the day, the recruitment and admission process should mirror what students will experience on campus. That’s the only way to make it genuine.”
The desire for well-informed students also led to introducing the Scripps College and LiveSafe apps last fall. Students can use the Scripps College app to manage class schedules, assignments, and study sessions; learn about services and events; join a club; locate a campus map; and communicate with each other. Though the app isn’t meant to replace existing resources, student activities coordinator Evetth Gonzalez notes, “It serves as a handheld alternative to the Scripps website and is an easier way for students to access information.”
This app offers a direct link to the LiveSafe app, which promotes personal safety at The Claremont Colleges. Many colleges now have an app for this purpose, and University Business recently wrote, “Mobile technology will continue to play a crucial role in helping universities maintain a safe teaching and learning environment and communicate updates.”
The LiveSafe app incorporates emergency contacts, information about sexual misconduct and sexual assault, the option to report incidents anonymously, and a safety walk feature that lets students have friends remotely watch them follow a safe path to a destination. Sallie Tiernan Field House Director Deborah Gisvold says, “Our goal is to make sure students have the resources and information to feel safe on campus. Before, students would need to access a computer or the Internet and get information from websites and flyers.”
Scripps students also stay informed and communicate regularly through social media. This, too, provides offline benefits that enhance campus life. Assistant Director of Residential Life Jill Langan explains, “Though we’re a small campus, social media is a way to engage with and stay plugged into the culture here. It helps students find their own niche and become more successful community members.”
Each residence hall, class year, and student club typically has a Facebook group. Students also use Facebook to communicate about events, mobilize around issues such as Black Lives Matter, and volunteer skills. Yet their behavior clearly reveals that they value face-to-face interactions, not only those on social media.
Media studies major Leah Snider ’16 expresses a strong affinity for her cross-country and track teammates. Art major Ishbel McCann ’18 describes a community of digital art students. And media studies major Nicole Zwiener ’16 says, “Facebook isn’t the be-all and end-all—it just connects. To feel a sense of community, I go to the places where I study, eat, and my friends are.”
That students as well as the College favor using technology to support the traditional Scripps experience doesn’t surprise Edwalds-Gilbert. The dean and professor has observed this in the classroom, noting, “Students want to see technology used well, but they still want to build a physical model rather than look at it online. We looked into changing textbooks and were interested in online options because we’re sensitive to cost. Students put a kibosh on that; they still wanted a physical book. Students also seem to prefer faculty who use the whiteboard rather than PowerPoint. It’s funny how old-fashioned students can be.”
To discover more about the Digital Evolution, read our latest Scripps Magazine here.
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