Newswise — Innovation is "something that deviates from established practice or doctrine," according to "Merriam-Webster Unabridged" online dictionary. The definition implies that innovation happens when one or more individuals change an approach or take the initiative to bring about new methods or ways of doing things. In the case of the Faculty Innovators program -- comprised of faculty members who use technology to bring about change in their own instruction and in their fellow faculty members' instruction -- in Western Illinois University's College of Education and Human Services (COEHS), the innovation began in 2001, the inaugural year of the program.
Back then, Faculty Innovators started with the laudable goal of meeting students' expectations for technology integration in undergraduate and graduate courses. This year, the 24-month professional-development program for COEHS faculty members continues in its mission "to create a cadre of technology champions throughout the COEHS who will mentor their fellow faculty members and raise the technology standard for technology in integration and teaching."
According to Dawn Sweet, instructional development services manager in the College and coordinator for the Faculty Innovators program, the program helps bridge the gap between teaching and technology.
"The program helps prepare our faculty to meet increasing student needs and expectations for technology integration within the classroom and promotes the development of research and best practices in post-secondary education," Sweet explained. "Each year, participating faculty members receive a chosen technological device as an incentive for participating in the program."
Sweet noted, in recent years, the chosen device has been a laptop computer. But for this fall semester's Faculty Innovators program, the device is the recently released iPad, a mobile computer device manufactured by Apple. iPads utilize "apps" (or applications) to provide users with direct access to content on the web, including: educational content, such as reference materials, three-dimensional simulations and communication tools; organizational and content-production tools (such as calendars and presentation software); and a high-resolution screen through which users can view and interact with multimedia content.
"This year, in particular, we were conscientious of limited budgets, but we were also cognizant of the number of students carrying mobile devices into the classrooms at WIU," Sweet said. "There is a mobile evolution taking place in society today, and we felt it was time to move toward a more mobile and personalized device in order to prepare our faculty for mobility within the classroom. Of course, there are a variety of mobile devices available worthy of exploration in higher ed instruction, too. But we selected the iPad 16GB WiFi because it provided what we felt to be a transitional mobile device that would allow the faculty to move from using a computer or a laptop into a mobile world. In addition, we did not have to provide a cellular service contract for it, and a variety of apps were already available at no cost."
In and Beyond the Classroom
Each year, the Faculty Innovators program begins anew in the College, with another cohort of faculty participating and, subsequently, coming together to explore the chosen technology.
"Year one of the 2010 cohort will give each Faculty Innovator a chance to explore how the iPad can be used in his or her instruction and with students. Year two -- which will occur during the 2011-2012 academic year with this particular group -- is reserved for concentrated study of how the iPad can be used in, and is most relevant to, their own teaching," Sweet said. "For each Faculty Innovators cohort, at the end of the second year, each participating faculty member will submit an artifact, which can consist of a best practice, lesson plan, conference presentation or research paper ready for publication or published, back to the Faculty Innovators program coordinator. It will be filed and shared with faculty throughout the COEHS. Faculty Innovators will also present their work and findings at the COEHS TechFest, which is an annual exhibition of technology utilized in education and instruction the College sponsors and puts on each spring semester," she added.
Rachel Smith, an instructor in the recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA) department, is one of the faculty members in the 2010-2011 academic year Faculty Innovators cohort. Like her colleagues in this "iPad" group, she is in exploration mode and is looking at the possibilities. But, already, she noted that she thinks the iPad provides a unique instructional tool not only for her discipline, but also for her interest in devices and environments that are designed for use by able-bodied individuals and are accessible for disabled individuals too.
"I think the light weight and portability of the iPad offers flexibility to students studying and professionals working in the RPTA field. Generally, we're looking for a device that works in our environment 24/7, and that environment has many different forms. RPTA students and professionals can be working out in a park, be in a gymnasium, or be by a poolside instructing or working with a group of kids, adults or seniors at any point and time," Smith explained.
And because the iPad provides built-in functionality for those who need content to be made accessible (according to Apple, the iPad "comes with a screen reader, support for playback of closed-captioned content and other innovative universal access features"), it, in particular, provides Smith with a unique tool for her to explore her instructional interests.
"One of the areas I'm particularly interested in is a universal design technique. Specifically, I'm interested in how my instruction and my classroom can be more usable for students who learn in different ways. For example, one of the things I'm very curious about is textbooks, which are not always accessible to students with different learning styles. For an individual who learns better via an auditory method, perhaps a textbook could have auditory functionality via the iPad. Or, for a learner who is visually impaired, a conventional print textbook isn't really accessible. So I'm interested in exploring how e-texts can make a conventional textbook available in multiple formats," she said.
For John Timmons, assistant professor in the department of dietetics, fashion merchandising and hospitality (DFMH), his exploration with the iPad has to do with using it and other mobile devices to garner feedback from the students during class time.
"With 65 people in the classroom, there is not a whole lot of time for discussion. With some way of getting feedback from students, you can get them involved," he said.
Timmons also said that this is the second time he's participated in the COEHS Faculty Innovators program, and while the 2010-12 group is using the iPad, he noted that no matter what the chosen device is, the program provides a golden opportunity for faculty to learn.
"In 2003, I participated in Faculty Innovators, and that year they gave us a notebook computer, which I'm still using. I learned so much in the field of technology that I was just enamored with it. I love the input and the information. One of my motivations now is to simply explore ways to utilize and integrate technology in my instruction and for my students," he said.
Like Timmons, John Closen, assistant professor in the educational leadership department, has also participated in Faculty Innovators once before. Also like Timmons, Closen said he is grateful for the opportunity to participate in the College's program and explore how technology can be integrated into his courses and for his students.
"In regard to the iPad in particular, I see many opportunities for its use in the classroom, as well as its use as an organizational tool for current and future school administrators," Closen said. "The individuals that go through the Faculty Innovator programs get excited about the possibilities of technology integration -- they are highly motivated to take it into their classrooms. I also really like the diversity of disciplines represented in the education and human services fields that the program encompasses. Having participants from different departments provides us each with the different perspectives of our colleagues, which is a learning opportunity, as well. I can't say enough good stuff about this program and how it benefits faculty, as well our students, at Western."