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Grant helps Messiah professors, students hone digital skills

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Dwayne Safer, standing, an associate professor of finance at Messiah College, shows a student new technology in the Ralph S. Larsen Finance Lab on campus.
Dwayne Safer, standing, an associate professor of finance at Messiah College, shows a student new technology in the Ralph S. Larsen Finance Lab on campus. - (Photo / )

Time and money are two often-cited barriers keeping digital technology out of classrooms.

A Messiah College pilot program removes both barriers so students are better prepared to step out of the classroom and into the workforce.

The Sawyer Digital Proficiency Initiative represents a $345,000 gift from Sawyer Products, a U.S.-based manufacturer of outdoor protection products.

William G. Strausbaugh, Messiah’s associate provost and vice president for information technology said the anonymous donor is a Messiah parent who was impressed with Messiah interns and graduates who joined the Sawyer workforce.

The private college in Upper Allen Township will use $45,000 to purchase equipment such as 3D printers and 360-degree cameras. The other $300,000 will be used over three years for faculty and student digital technology training.

For faculty, Messiah established a fellowship program for 15 professors, who will be chosen annually based on their proposals to integrate technology into curricula to improve learners’ digital proficiency. In a summer, week-long intensive program, fellows will learn the technology needed to fulfill their proposals.

“That’s 45 faculty members over three years,” Strausbaugh said. “We have about 180 full-time faculty members, so that’s a significant proportion who will have that opportunity. Fellows then become part of a professional learning community that shares what they’re working on with other faculty.”

For students, the initiative funds a noncredit technology course for students to earn a digital proficiency certificate. Students may also apply for digital internships partnering them with fellows.

“Everybody thinks this generation of students is already tech savvy, but those skills need to be learned,” Strausbaugh said. “If they learn to do presentations in effective ways, if they learn to edit, develop websites, launch marketing campaigns on social media, our students will stand out in a job search.”

Strausbaugh said Messiah always supported faculty who wanted to integrate technology into curricula, but they had to find the time and motivation to do it. The Sawyer Initiative allows fellows to reduce their teaching load by one course so they have time to integrate digital technology into coursework.

“In that sense, you’re always working with only the most motivated people working on their own time,” he said. “This carved out space in their schedules, trains them, and puts them in a community of people working on similar things. It really takes it up a level.”

Messiah history professor David Pettegrew is an archeologist and a self-taught digital historian who has mastered databases and GIS. Now he’s among Messiah’s first group of Sawyer fellows.

This won’t be his first stab at injecting technology into his classroom. For a western civilization class, he wanted students to learn digital skills, so rather than assign a traditional research paper, he challenged them to produce videos.

“I had no idea what I was doing – as a result, the parameters for the assignment were poorly worded and vague,” Pettegrew said. “I didn’t realize how much time the video would take and I didn’t give them enough guidance in the beginning, so they were overwhelmed.”

And then there was a fundamental issue of how he should grade their work in a medium with which he was unfamiliar.

“A paper is one thing – I’m used to reading and writing papers – but this was a whole different medium,” he said. “So that’s what I need to learn – how to create the scaffolding that moves them toward a finished product.”

Pettegrew said the Sawyer Initiative will also expand his teaching options beyond the traditional lecture/discussion model to the more dynamic blended learning model, which incorporates online digital media.

“As faculty who teach in non-technical fields, we have to be intentional about helping students navigate this digital world we’re living in,” he said.

Making history modern

Dickinson College history professor Matthew Pinsker recognized the power of digital technology in the humanities more than a decade ago.

“There were pioneering projects that were already popular and I wanted to do something like that at Dickinson,” Pinsker said. “I was convinced that digital forces would change history because they make it so much easier to teach and do research.”

Pinsker launched a research engine as a resource for students in middle school to early college and for their teachers. It has morphed into a sophisticated resource on the Civil War era, called the House Divided Project, with a database including 15,000 public domain images and tens of thousands of records, two dozen related websites, and an online graduate course and workshops that have trained 5,000 teachers.

In the course of developing content for the site, Pinsker’s own students develop a publishing ethos, as well as digital skills to compete in the job market.

“No matter what field you’re in, you need digital skills. You have to present online with different types of tools. In my classes, they learn that,” he said. “Students get more engaged, more invested.”

Two years ago, the project moved to dedicated space on the Carlisle campus that’s also a demonstration classroom. Using an HP app, students need only point a digital device at an artifact to raise related videos, websites and other online media.

In workshops, Pinsker trains teachers to create their own digital museums and assures them the learning curve is manageable. He said that fear is another barrier keeping educators from going digital.

“A lot of people are intimidated by it, so not everybody is using it in the classroom,” Pinsker said. “But everybody realizes it’s a priority.”

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