Interest drives investment of instructional technology

Interest drives investment of instructional technology

Madison, Wis. – Few things can make a professor lose his cool more than having technical difficulties in the middle of a lecture. The possibilities for making a mistake are endless: a DVD made specifically by the professor won’t play in the computer, audio recordings skipping around uncontrollably or even an overhead projector falling to the floor.
On the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, the duty of solving such technical issues and more falls on the Learning Support Services division, which last week celebrated its 50th anniversary. As technology has developed so has the center, helping professors implement new ideas in their classes and fixing the inevitable problems.
“We just work with faculty, trying to help them figure out what’s the best technology and how to use it,” said Read Gilgen, director of LSS. For the past 24 years, Gilgen has led LSS through the advent of VCRs, personal computers, the Internet and MP3s – and the headaches developed by trying to bring them into education.

Reel-to-real life applications

Although today LSS handles a broad area of technology – its services include a recording studio, video production system and equipment to digitize documents – it grew out of humble beginnings, more specifically the basement of Bascom Hall. Founded in 1955 as part of the university’s Spanish department, its resources consisted solely of two bulky tape recorders used for English-Spanish translations.
The opportunity to expand came soon for LSS, however, as the next few years saw technology get a hold in the marketplace. The introduction of cassette tapes allowed the department to upgrade from their existing reel-to-reel setup, and television followed soon after to give a visual aspect to the training.
Gilgen said despite those upgrades, technology was still fairly unwieldy, recalling his first experience with a camera in 1978 to record students in his for his Spanish class. “It was so ugly – it had a big string microphone, a big honking camera in the corner – it was a real production just to tape skits or anything else in the classroom.”
The awkwardness of existing setups didn’t deter the language department and, in fact, technology was beginning to catch up around the entire university – placing LSS, with its experience, in a position to help other departments. Video screens used by language classes to present cultural background were also attractive to chemistry teachers to display schematics, and the bilingual recording setup was of even more value to music professors looking to show students how a real concert sounds.
“Instructional tech is fairly universal in a university,” Gilgen said.

New ideas for tech – and problems to match

One of the main reasons for that universality, Gilgen said, was the shared enthusiasm of professors for adding new technology to their curriculum.
“We have found over the years that the technology that gets used in the classrooms tends to mirror the instructors have at home,” Gilgen said. Professors kept bringing in their new toys – VCRs, personal computers, digital cameras – and wanted to know how they could take the improvements they’d found in their personal lives to their students.
Of course, simply providing the technology didn’t mean that it worked the first time around. Gilgen said that LSS has had to deal with a myriad of problems professors bring to the division, chiefly when it follows trends adopted by colleagues. In those cases, since the problems are typically uniform among all instructors, LSS offers instruction such as “PowerPoint 101.”
Other times, the problem is based on supply and demand for a technology. Gilgen said as an example, when videos became widespread the department was swamped with requests for VCRs and additional TV sets, and they simply didn’t have the equipment to satisfy everyone.
Experiences like that, however, have taught LSS a valuable lesson: “When you see something get big in the consumer world, better prepare for it in the instructional world,” Gilgen said.

Tools for the modern student

That maxim proved especially useful with the advent of the Internet, as professors immediately jumped on the interactivity and freedom it provide them when they were working with students. For the first time, using online forums such as blogs and wikis, students could communicate in real time with their professors and get a discussion going.
“There can be a group of students who collaboratively work on a report or a composition – one goes in and makes additions, another student goes in and changes that, adds something and makes a couple corrections,” Gilgen said. “They can work on the same piece even though they’re not in the same room.”
While technology moved group work from the libraries to the Internet, it also did the same for the library itself. Over the past few years, LSS has been involved in a major effort to convert all its analog tapes for foreign language classes into MP3 format, creating an online language lab where students can download files and access them on their personal players. This move was so popular, Gilgen said, that it caused an entire class to break out in applause when they heard the news.
That support from both students and teachers has been key to the development of LSS, Gilgen said, and will be key to their growth in the next few years. Both sides of their customer base have shown an increasing amount of familiarity and interest in technology helping LSS get a better idea of what trends will be coming up in classes and telling them what to follow, especially in areas like the Internet.
“It seems like people are always coming up with ways of using that technology and coming up with ways to make it faster and better,” Gilgen said. “We’ve always been comfortable followers of technology and will continue to do so.”

Les Chappell is a writer for WTN in Madison. He can be reached at