Naomi Boyer – Polk State College
There is no doubt about it—technology can be intimidating. Not only is it constantly changing, but at institutions like Polk State College, over 16,000 students expect teachers to be as savvy as they are when it comes to software, devices and mobility.
“We are constantly asking ourselves how do we use technology to improve our processes, but also how do we reduce the fear and increase comfort [for faculty] when it comes to exploring the possibilities,” says Polk CIO Naomi Boyer.
In 2012, Boyer helped launch Innov8 Academy, a program designed to facilitate innovation at the central Florida-based college. The yearlong program includes a four-day intensive course, with topics ranging from improving online course retention and incorporating digital storytelling into classes to using instructional videos in writing intensive courses. All departments are encouraged to participate, and faculty are not required to focus their studies around technology.
“There has been a significant transformational change of how faculty perceives innovation and the role of technology,” Boyer says. “The beauty of the program is we are not telling them what to do, we are just encouraging them to take risks and be creative.”
Culture of innovation
Innov8 Academy was launched as a result of the college’s internal grant program. Boyer and her team pitched the idea of a technology workshop to the administration, and, once it was approved, had 20 faculty members ready to participate.
This past year, that number has grown to nearly 80, and the program has also widened in scope. The four-day intensive program is followed by monthly meetings, which support the faculty’s “action research projects.”
“This gives them the space to try an innovation, study it, research it and decide how it will impact student learning,” Boyer says. Some even publish their findings.
In 2017, a faculty member in the nursing department decided to use these action research projects to launch The Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI).
The goal was to provide faculty with data about students’ learning skills, such as time management, note taking, concentration and self-testing. The professor hoped to identify where students were struggling, and, as a result, improve their studying techniques and test scores.
Boyer says the project leader was so excited about the data she was collecting that she started publishing her findings, found a colleague to join the project and is writing her PhD dissertation about LASSI.
Collaborations like this one are very common for nearly all of Innov8 Academy projects, Boyer says.
For instance, the science department wanted to determine how to help students through the detail-intensive anatomy and physiology courses. Through Innov8, a group of professors developed a series of web-based lab videos that help students learn the skeletal system and other complicated subjects.
“[These faculty] weren’t developing these videos in a vacuum, but actually sharing the content with their colleagues, and then studying the impact of these videos in those classes and student learning as a result of the videos,” Boyer says.
In many cases, projects and departmental collaboration have encouraged other faculty to join Innov8 Academy.
Boyer recalls a project, “A Journey to Excellence,” through which two nursing professors evaluated two nursing courses using Quality Matters (QM), a nationally recognized format that judges the effectiveness of online courses. After seeing the success of the project, the nursing department fundamentally improved its online program to align with QM standards.
“They systematically worked through all the courses, improving navigation, course standards and the quality of online learning,” Boyer says.
Polk ‘power users’
Boyer, who was promoted to CIO in 2014, sees programs like Innov8 Academy as critical to Polk’s mission of serving students, but they are not the only way technology is supporting education.
For a decade, the college has been transitioning everything from its intranet to identity management and file storage to the cloud, relying on long-time vendor Séafra, a cloud-based solutions company located in Tampa, Florida.
Séafra President Jeff Collins says as a result of moving to the cloud, the college only pays for the services and storage it needs, as opposed to footing the bill for onsite storage.
“But the really important piece is that students and instructors live in a world where they want to stay connected all the time, and the cloud creates that ability to interact with their information,” he says.
Other vendors have taken notice of Polk State College’s commitment to technological innovation.
“Naomi and her team have embraced some pretty aggressive methodologies of improving the services they provide students, but also at the university and administration level,” says William Sands, vice president of business development at Protected Trust, a security compliance company based in Winter Haven, Florida, that provides secure data storage, communication, email hosting and cloud services.
Its partners, Six/Ten LLC, a real estate and economic development company, and NAP Central Florida, a nonprofit organization that helps agencies access network services, also work closely with Polk State College. Specifically, NAP Central Florida has connected the college with the Florida LambdaRail, an independent, statewide fiber optic network used solely for nonprofits.
“It’s a private network so it’s not colliding with the traffic of other internet services, which means that research that would normally take 200 milliseconds on a typical network, they can get to the same place in 10 milliseconds,” Sands says.
With the support of such partners, Polk State College felt the time was right to launch a new ERP system as well as Canvas, state-of-the-art, cloud-based learning management software.
It’s a lot, Boyer admits, but she’s convinced that technology is only going to become more a part of college life. Instead of fighting it, she hopes people will follow in her example.
Even though she may get frustrated with technology, “I can call people and get the answers I need. I’m a power user that stretches the system limits, so I understand the impact on our faculty, staff and students,” she says. “We have to keep advancing and trying new things because technology tools have the promise of making us more effective in the services we provide to students.”
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