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Eric Williams-Bergen, director of research and digital scholarship at St. Lawrence, works with a student using virtual-reality learning tools. Eric Williams-Bergen, director of research and digital scholarship at St. Lawrence, works with a student using virtual-reality learning tools.
St. Lawrence Fund

It’s Still St. Lawrence

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic required St. Lawrence to meet multiple, complex technological demands imposed by the transition to remote learning.  The flexibility to meet these unexpected investments was made possible by the St. Lawrence Fund.  Our annual fund has generated over $40 million since The Campaign for Every Laurentian began, providing critical resources to emerging student needs and unique opportunities as they arise.  Every Laurentian can have an immediate impact on our students and campus, simply by making a gift – every year – to the St. Lawrence Fund.

 

“It will feel like St. Lawrence,” René Thatcher says. “If our online students think this semester will be like spring, they’re in for a big surprise. We’ve made major changes—a lot of them.”

Thatcher is the executive director of campus outreach and services for libraries and information technology at St. Lawrence. Her role includes overseeing educational technologies as well as tech support (for software, hardware, and events) and security awareness. She collaborates with teams across campus to prioritize the University’s technology needs and create the strategies to meet those needs; and she works with faculty and students to design flexible teaching environments.

She says campus has been busy.

“In March, we pivoted because of COVID-19. We took essential course material and put it online. A lot of students even had their same class times.”

For many students and faculty, that offered much-needed routine and continuity. It helped counter the uncertainty of that time. After the semester ended, though, Thatcher and her colleagues in the dean’s office, information technology, the faculty development committee, and digital scholarship began asking how students in class or online could experience St. Lawrence in the same way.

“That’s the challenge,” Thatcher says. “This fall, each class will teach students everywhere, whether they’re in the classroom, online in their dorm rooms or thousands of miles away. Our professors are amazing and what they do—the way they work with each student—that’s the very core of the St. Lawrence experience. We’re giving them the tools and the training to make that personal experience happen with students everywhere.”

A key component of this is creating an environment where students can connect with faculty and each other. Thatcher, her colleagues, and faculty began looking at best practices.

“We sent out a survey to our professors and students,” she says, “to see what worked really well during the second half of the spring semester, and what didn’t. We looked at what other universities were doing, too.”

This led to workshops that pulled together St. Lawrence faculty members.

“These workshops are ongoing,” Thatcher says, “We’re seeing 40 to 50 professors meeting online all the time. They’re talking about granular details of teaching, and that includes a focus on building and maintaining connections with their students. It’s clear that this is one of the most important elements of learning.”

Many St. Lawrence professors also attended the Faculty Development Institute, a two-week course (taught by faculty at Harvard Extension and Union College) that delved into the structures of online and hybrid learning.

“Teaching is an art,” Thatcher adds. “It demands deep examination and real knowledge of its mechanics, and that’s in addition to an instructor’s knowledge about their field of study.”

She says the University has also invested in software that encourages collaboration.

“We have the technology now that lets students annotate course materials, collectively. No matter where those students are, they’ll be able to communicate, in real time, with their instructors and classmates about the things they’re seeing. Remember when students wrote notes in the margins of their books about the texts they were reading? This new software lets them talk, write, and even use emojis, to do the same thing—with books, yes, but also photographs and videos, including lectures.”

Our faculty members also received detailed instruction to make the most of the deeper functionalities within the online platforms they use to teach.

“Professors will be able to further engage students by letting them use the University’s advanced technology, like virtual whiteboards. Our faculty can create small breakout groups where our students, wherever they are, can work more closely together. Then, the students’ work—their thinking and notations, writing, doodles, photographs, sound, and video—can be brought together and the visual elements can even be put next to each other to see similarities and differences. Professors can integrate work done on lots of platforms and they can take instant polls that assess learning.”

She says the technology and analysis are, by design, focused on helping students reach the goals set by faculty, but she stresses that there is an even deeper, cultural aspect to all this.

“The St. Lawrence community and its character are built on collaborative scholarship,” Thatcher says. “We know this. Everything that we’re doing creates more spaces for that to happen.”

The Special Effects of Digital Scholarship

Teaching, learning, and research are moving beyond classrooms, books, and laboratories. These things are also happening in digital environments (the internet, virtual reality, etc.), where instructors and students can collaborate more—and more creatively.

St. Lawrence students can study climate “aboard” a whaling ship in the Arctic, they can learn history by “strolling” through ancient Rome, or get a first-person perspective of marine biology by “walking” across the ocean floor. These are only three of the dozens of immersive, virtual environments they can explore using the University’s digital scholarship hardware and software.

This kind of learning offers other unique tools. Eric Williams-Bergen is the University’s director of research and digital scholarship.

“We’ve been acquiring the technology that gives students more access to the learning resources within Owen D. Young Library and across the St. Lawrence campus,” he says.

Williams-Bergen and others have been using photogrammetry and three-dimensional scanning to create multi-dimensional, on-screen representations of books and other objects that students will explore in their classes.

“You can experience these things in a very engaging way,” he says. “There are elements to this that are like augmented or virtual reality. You can turn these objects around on your screen and really examine them from different angles.”

These techniques can also be used to digitally render three-dimensional bones for biology courses, rock formations in geology, and other objects that help students visualize their coursework.

“We’re also developing 360-degree virtual tours of St. Lawrence laboratories and field sites,” Williams-Bergen says. “In addition to that, we’re creating drone-based imagery of these sites and for much of campus, too.”

Professors will also have access to gimbal camera stabilizers they can use when creating high-quality video of themselves in the field. A built-in, facial-tracking feature will shoot video that can follow a professor or students. This will help remote students feel like they’re part of classes that take place at field sites.

“These are just some of the things we’re using now,” he adds. “All our digital tools and the interactive opportunities they create will bring St. Lawrence to students in really engaging ways. This is how a lot of people, especially younger generations, already experience the world. Increasingly, it’s how a lot of us are working. We’re ‘remote,’ but still able to connect with each other, no matter where we are.”

Williams-Bergen and René Thatcher stress the importance of that connection to deepen both learning and the St. Lawrence culture of learning.

“It’s technology, yes,” Williams-Bergen says, “but we’re using it to increase understanding, on many levels. This furthers our mission to know more and strengthen the bonds within this learning community.”