Hiram College as the New Liberal Arts: Integrated Study, High-Impact Experiences, Mindful Technology

By Lori Varlotta

April 5, 2017

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By Lori Varlotta

Starting this fall, Hiram College—a liberal arts institution in northeast Ohio—becomes one of a small number of colleges and universities throughout the country to roll out a 1:1 campus-wide mobile technology program. This 1:1 program issues all full-time traditional college students, faculty and staff a state-of-the-art technology package.

As a longtime educator, I know that mobile technology plays an increasingly prominent role in the lives of today’s students. Until very recently, however, colleges and universities have not been as quick as K-12 schools to implement institutional-wide mobile programs. Indeed, many of us are just now in the midst of conceptualizing and implementing a mobile technology program for our own campus.

The Emerging Initiative

Starting in fall 2017, Hiram will equip all full-time students in the undergraduate college, faculty and staff with an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, and keyboard/case bundle. While students are buzzing about the devices, college faculty and administrators are designing the program in ways that go well beyond the broad distribution of contemporary gadgets. To communicate its broader purpose, we have titled our program Tech and Trek. The cornerstone of our program is to teach students how to creatively and critically use technology to navigate the many treks they take on their undergraduate journey.

We believe this mindful—rather than perfunctory—use of technology sets our mobile program apart from those elsewhere. Moreover, it adds a contemporary and highly relevant dimension to the types of offerings and experiences prevalent at classic liberal arts colleges like Hiram. This incorporation of technology is not occurring in a vacuum; it is occurring via a symbiosis that enhances the top-notch classroom and out-of-classroom experiences that are long-standing traditions here. The synergy between active classroom learning, high-impact experiential activities and mindful technology creates a whole that is bigger and better than the sum of its parts. We are fashioning this powerful combination—this newly configured whole—as “New Liberal Arts.”

Let me explain.

Integrated Study: Active Classrooms That Assimilate Theories, Personal Stories and More

Students at small liberal arts colleges like Hiram do not often sit through a “sage on a stage” lecture. Intimate and interactive teaching, learning and sharing are not just rhetoric, they are reality here. Since these are the exact classroom features that are easily enhanced by mobile technology, Hiram faculty have welcomed the introduction of Tech and Trek. In short order, they have come together to discuss how they will use mobile technology to expand and redefine the “flipped classroom,” student group work, hands-on assignments and the like. Already, they are brainstorming ways to:

  • Facetime or Skype with content experts no matter where they live or work,
  • Teach students how to use Twitter and other social networking tools to gather observations and perspectives from students, teachers, and leaders who live and work beyond the confines of their own community,
  • Curate or create interactive e-books that lend themselves to annotations, highlighting, and embedded media and quizzes,
  • Introduce simulation tools that help students model physical or social phenomena,
  • Use music/artistic tools to create and share expressive performances or original visual projects,
  • Utilize presentation apps to create state-of-the-art visual aides, and
  • Incorporate on-the-spot assessments (advanced clicker-type technology) to discern real-time comprehension of material.

The use of technology in any one of these ways enlivens classroom learning by serving as a sophisticated tool for assimilating personal observations, textbook theories, and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies. In doing so, it brings integrated learning to a whole new level, sharpening the very skills thought to be diminished through a perfunctory use of technology. Indeed, Tech and Trek will help students develop the real-world and real-time skills of oral communication, teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, and civil discourse with the classmates sitting next to them right now.

High-Impact Experiences: Treks that Fuel Learning and Transform Life

In addition to active classroom experiences, Hiram undergraduates have long taken out-of-classroom treks, including study abroad trips, internships, guided field work, research experiments and service learning projects. Since the learning that occurs in these venues is impactful (even life-changing), Hiram officials want to ensure that all students participate in at least one of these transformative ventures. Hence, we modified degree requirements in 2014 to mandate that all students successfully complete an internship, study-abroad trip or guided research project.

To maximize the transformative potential of these learning experiences, we are designing Tech and Trek to ensure that mobile goes mobile with mindful technology. At the very moment I am writing this blog, the offices and committees that oversee study-abroad trips, internships, service-learning projects and guided research are talking about the ways we can teach students to productively and ethically use technology in all of these venues. As students embark on such journeys, they will use their device to capture, compile, organize, analyze and reflect on both the expected and unexpected people, places and things they encounter.

It is clear that mobile technology will help our student travelers memorialize the trip of a lifetime. Students visiting ancient monuments and ruins will be able to augment a written narrative about their visit with photography and videography. Students can also use location-aware search apps to ask questions and get on-the-spot responses to what they see in the moment: how deep is this lake, and what type of fish are plentiful here? How tall is this tower, when was it built, and why does it look “crooked?” If all of this isn’t exciting enough, they can use a multimedia app to store the image they have photographed along with the electronic notation they have made with their smart pencil. And they need not spend their travel money on an international SIM card to let Mom and Dad get a sense of what they have been up to. Instead, they can use wikis, Twitter and other forms of social medial to publish and share original work with friends and family thousands of miles away.

In addition to study abroad opportunities, there will be iPad-powered experiences for those who are earning credits through service-learning projects, internships and clinicals as well. There is nothing far-fetched about a student recording an on-the-spot interview with the site supervisor of a service-learning project or a student intern audiotaping a presentation he is making to his “boss.” Similarly, a student teacher could record a math lesson she is delivering to her tenth-grade geometry class, and a student nurse can be videotaping the interactions his class partner is having with a patient under their care. All of these recordings could then be reviewed by the faculty member who can see and hear exactly what the students are saying and doing. Faculty overseeing such courses can assess the remote learning without traveling for each observation to the student’s place of work.

The New Liberal Arts: Using Mindful Technology to Strengthen Pedagogy and Programs

As you have read, Hiram learning has long been fueled by both interactive classrooms and high-impact experiential activities. The exciting thing about Tech and Trek is that introduces a mindful technology component that has not been present before.

As we see it, mindful technology is more than simply knowing how to use technology. It is also about delving into the whenwhere-and to-what-extent-questions that are sometimes out of sight or overlooked in the technology-saturated world we now inhabit. When mulling over when/when not to use this technology, Tech and Trek will prompt students to explicitly consider culture mores, privacy concerns, institutional (hospital, museum, theater) policies and other factors that may be at play in the situation at hand. Furthermore, Tech and Trek is designed to remind them that in many situations (foreign travel, restricted areas, etc.), failure to make the right decision can result in real-life consequences. All of this will help students determine when it might be better—more natural, more humane, more sensitive—to put the device down and keep their eyes, ears, and, most importantly, their hearts open.

When combined with our already strong classroom learning and our powerful out-of-classroom treks, we believe that Tech and Trek’s mindful technology positions Hiram College to become a national model for the “New Liberal Arts.” This model will be known for maximizing the symbiotic relationship between integrated study, high-impact experiences and mindful technology.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Lori Varlotta


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