Center is one-stop shop for teaching technology

Ruth Stevens


Rafael Alvarado, Douglas Blair and Kirk Alexander (left to right) demonstrate the technology the ETC helped Professor James Gould develop for his "Animal Behavior" course.


A new center at Princeton is offering faculty members technology with a twist.

The technology provided by the Educational Technologies Center (ETC) is designed to help faculty members better integrate digital images and Web-based courseware into their instruction. The twist is that faculty members don't have to become techno-wizards to work with the center's staff.

"We have created a center with a staff that not only assists faculty, but looks at projects through faculty eyes," said Associate Provost Georgia Nugent, who oversees the ETC. "We begin with a series of consultations during which we ask what faculty are trying to accomplish and determine whether technology could help. This enables faculty to teach in ways they haven't before."

According to Kirk Alexander, managing director of the ETC, various units across the campus have been helping faculty integrate technology into teaching for at least 25 years. This new center represents a gathering of staff from those units -- the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the Alumni Council, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, and Computing and Information Technology -- for a more cohesive effort.

The center opened last summer with a staff of 12 full-time employees. Assisting are several graduate student interns and undergraduate student employees. Their areas of expertise include graphic design, animation, geographical information systems, relational database design and many types of special applications.

"We provide complete support," said Douglas Blair, director of production and client services. "Faculty members don't have to learn the creative process from the technological point of view and they don't have to learn the software, which often quickly becomes out of date."

Blair came to the ETC from the Alumni Council, where he designed Web-based courses for alumni education programs. Rafael Alvarado, director of instruction and database development for the ETC, formerly was the computing coordinator for humanities in the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning. Bringing together technology staff from different areas on campus means a greater pool of talent is available to collaborate with faculty on courses for a variety of purposes, Nugent said.

"The services we now provide through one center for on-campus teaching and for lifelong learning/distance education aren't separate or conflicting in our view," she said. "The uses we're developing for students might be helpful for alumni -- and vice versa."

For example, three years ago John Pinto, the Howard Crosby Butler Memorial Professor of the History of Architecture, came to Alexander for help on a project for his class, "Rome, the Eternal City." Pinto, who teaches the history of art and architecture, wanted to find a way to help students better visualize the city.

The two worked to place Giovanni Battista Nolli's 1748 map of Rome into an online database. Students can view the buildings and monuments on a screen in the classroom or on a computer in their dorm room. The map has links to additional photographs, paintings and historical and literary references.

"Before the digital revolution, I would come into the classroom with a set of slides in carousels, and the presentation I would give would be structured around those images," Pinto said. "If a question came up about something else, it was very hard to discuss it because I didn't have the image with me.

"Now, with this very extensive database, students have immediate access to the same information, images and background that I have. So I can say things like, 'Here is my interpretation or some other scholar's interpretation, but why don't you come up with another one that might use the same evidence but view it differently?' I can ask much more challenging questions and I can expect much more sophisticated answers precisely because the students have control of the evidence in the form of the database."

When Blair learned about the database, he was working in the Alumni Council. He thought such a tool might be of interest to alumni. So he collaborated with Alexander and Pinto to develop a series of Web-based lectures for an alumni education program. Within a month of the course being released, alumni had requested more than 1,000 copies.

Returning to the on-campus classroom, Pinto used some of the technology developed with Blair and others now on the ETC staff to design a freshman seminar last year on art history and technology. The students actually learned how to create a database, and each gave an online presentation at the end of the class on a monument in Rome. The projects were incorporated into the master database for future classroom and alumni use.

"Our primary focus is on the intellectual ideas behind the courses," Alexander said. "The shape the project takes depends on the content."

In addition to spending time consulting with faculty members before plunging ahead, staff members have gone so far as to audit a class to better understand how technology might best be used.

Alexander said that it's often useful to have a student from the faculty member's field working on the project. The ETC can help faculty members support students through part-time work, internships and assistantships. The center also coordinates solutions to intellectual property and copyright questions and secures permission when needed.

Currently, the center has about 20 projects in some stage of development. Through all this work, the center hopes to build a resource archive upon which faculty members can draw for a wide range of courses and purposes.

James Gould, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, was already ahead of many of his peers when it came to developing a technological resource for his classroom. Years ago, he began converting the support materials for his introductory course, "The Biology of Organisms," into digital images, simulations, animations and Quicktime movies.

About the time he decided to convert his "Animal Behavior" course materials, he was approached about preparing some lectures for alumni. ETC staff members worked with Gould to use a flash animation system to make his lectures come to life: butterflies take flight on the screen, video clips show the birth of a cuckoo and a map demonstrates the route of a homing pigeon. The course has just been released to the University community. It can be viewed at <>.

Gould turned around and used the materials developed for the alumni course in his regular classroom.

"Things like having a spider weaving a web would have been too complicated for me to accomplish," he said. "The digital technology has completely transformed the way I teach. The University is now very much in the lead in this area."

Gould said the technology has not only improved his ability to bring biology to life for his students, but it's given the students new resources available any time of the day or night.

"The students can listen to lectures without having to take detailed notes on the slides," he said. "They can always go back and find those slides and commentary on them on the Web. The number of times that database is accessed before a mid-term or final exam is astonishing. Clearly, the database is a great success with the students -- and it has not resulted in their not coming to the lectures."

Pinto echoed those sentiments, and said the student evaluations have been very positive.

"It's terrific to be able to have all this material at your fingertips 24 hours a day," he said. "In the old days before an exam, I would post photographs in a room and the students would have to go and stand there to study them. It was a zoo scene.

"The final exam would be scheduled in a room with a projectionist, and tended to test rote memory" he continued. "Now, I give take-home exams and the students have to use the database. I can ask much more challenging questions, such as, 'Here's a theme. Using the database, explore and develop this theme.' There's no excuse for getting the date wrong or not realizing that one building came after another. All that information is in the database. Students say it's not only more convenient for them, but it works better for them."

And as Princeton moves ahead with the new University Alliance for Life-Long Learning with Oxford, Stanford and Yale universities, the integration of technology into teaching will become increasingly important. Nugent said the projects faculty members and ETC staff members are undertaking can only benefit the online instruction and Web-based courses that will be offered to alumni through the alliance.

Faculty members interested in contacting the ETC may call 258-6903 or e-mail <>. The center is located in E246 Engineering Quadrangle. Examples of ETC projects are available at these Web sites: <> and <>.

November 20, 2000
Vol. 90, No. 10
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Editor: Ruth Stevens
Staff writer: Yvonne Chiu Hays
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Contributing writers: Karin Dienst, Marilyn Marks, Steven Schultz
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett,
Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett