James DeVita's ETEAL Experience

EDL 556 and the Technology Consultation Project

As an ALTC senior associate, James DeVita has worked to promote applied learning at UNCW and has spent many hours planning and facilitating applied learning workshops for faculty and staff. He is presently an assistant professor in the department of Educational Leadership and has run two ETEAL projects to date.

James DeVitaI arrived at UNCW in August 2012 as a new faculty member connected to new concentration (Higher Education) in the M.Ed. in Education. Although I had a couple years of post-doctoral work to develop my teaching philosophy, I was intrigued by opportunities to make meaningful theory-to-practice connections that are often discussed in my field, but are typically positioned in the hands of the administrators with whom we collaborate. Faculty members are expected to delve into the "theoretical" aspects of the program leaving a gap between theory and practice that is never fully realized.

When I began reviewing materials and resources related to ETEAL initiatives at UNCW, I felt as though I had found the support to implement applied work in my classroom. In Spring 2013 I taught EDL 556: Technology in Higher Education for students enrolled in the M.Ed. in Higher Education. Throughout the first iteration of the course, I required students to utilize multiple technologies to develop a social media presence, engage in interactive discussions, and prepare a presentation for a regional conference. While students both expressed and demonstrated growth in these areas, there was something missing from their overall experience. Thus, I applied and was awarded funding for the development and implementation of a Technology Consultation Project (TCP) that would provide students with opportunities to apply knowledge learned in the course to an administrative context.

I modeled the design of the TCP on an experience that I had as a new professional at Colgate University. I was tasked with chairing a committee to develop the strategic planning for the Sophomore Year Experience. The Dean of Students at the time mentored me through the process, which including a SWOT analysis, development of 1-page action plans in collaboration with campus and community stakeholders, and an assessment plan. The SWOT analysis and action plans were critical pieces in the project as they required students to examine their stakeholder's needs and consider multiple variables that could derail their work. The action plans required students to map out the specific details of the deliverables as a guide for seeking feedback from their stakeholders. In lieu of an assessment plan, students were required to develop a sustainability report that detailed the staff, software, and other supports (e.g., instructions, website passwords) that were needed to maintain their deliverables.

I realized at some point that there's a natural extension to teaching about administrative work in higher education by using real world activities that were a part of my professional experience. It's an obvious connection, but not really discussed so directly in our field. Scholarship often speaks of "theory to practice" and identifies best practices as things like utilizing case studies and narratives in courses to illustrate examples, or working with campus administrators to develop practicum experiences and internships. These seem to position the applied work in the hands of the administrators and to leave the "theoretical" to the faculty. It's a tension I've heard students express as "I need the degree to get a job, but it's the experience (GA, practicum, internship) that really matters." From what I heard from students in the multiple reflections I asked them to submit in the course is that the TCP project moved the applied project into the classroom and made learning about the application and engagement with content.

Throughout their reflections, students listed a number of specific skills and competencies that they believed would benefit them as they transition to professionals in the field of higher education. Some of the skills were directly connected to the content of the course, including: comfort with various forms of technology (youtube, jing, website design and development) while other skills were based on the ways in which they engaged in the major project: group work, playing on a team, processing and responding to feedback, and working with external stakeholders to design and implement a product/outcome. One student summarized what they learned in this way:

"I got to apply what I have been learning over the last year in class to a real project. I was able to experience first hand these competencies. I learned how to take an idea and make it a reality with a strong group of people. I really learned about dividing tasks for a greater good to be accomplished. I received the most experience with the Human & Organizational Resource competency through this project. I learned how to use technology I haven't before in a real life situation. I learned how to build a module in Blackboard, about Jing, creating quizzes and discussion board questions, etc."

Another student identified the direct connection between course content and the process of working on the Technology Consultation Project:

"The TCP project helped me with both my leadership and organizational resources competencies. The implementation of our deliverables helped me gain more experience with the use of various technologies and the group worked helped me focus and refine my leadership style."

While overall I was pleased with what students shared about the value of their experience, there were notable challenges were encountered. Students focused primarily on issues related to working collaboratively as part of a team and limited exposure to the stakeholders. One student wrote about that:

"The largest challenge encountered in the TCP project was the perceived lack of vestment of the stakeholder. It was really hard to devote time and energy to a project that the stakeholders seemed either disinterested or skeptical about it. At times I questioned the desire of the stakeholder to put in the necessary work involved in implementing the work that we had researched; as if they had decided on a whim that this would be a good initiative."

Another student discussed the issues associated with group work:

"Some of the biggest challenges of my group's TCP project were that we had such a big group and at some times it seemed like there was not enough work for everyone to do. Also our stakeholders didn't really give us a direction to take the project they gave us free rein. We overcame these challenges by breaking the biggest task into two so then there would be more work. As for the stakeholders we came up with an idea for the project and stuck with it."

Similarly, the project stakeholders, many of whom were current professionals in higher education throughout North Carolina talked about wanting more face-time and exposure to the students working on the project. Although students were required to meet and update their respective stakeholders on 4 separate occasions throughout the process, the stakeholders desired additional meeting time. One of the stressors associated with this project from an instructor's perspective is the need to balance the demands of the stakeholders with an appropriate amount of time and support for students to actually do the work that would make additional meetings beneficial.
During a face-to-face meeting where students shared their final presentations (including as student artifacts), a couple of students mentioned to me that I appear to care more about their learning and development than about assigning them grades for their work-which is what they thought education was supposed to be about-and that it was the first time that a faculty member appeared focused on their growth and development in this way.

That was a powerful and satisfying moment for me. The development and implementation of the TCP was not without its issues similar to those I have experienced in the implementation of other applied projects. The risk that this carries for a faculty member is far less, though, than the reward associated with students' learning and development.