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Technology and Liberal Education

May 19, 2009

Many educators at smaller, undergraduate oriented colleges and universities have long been frustrated that they don't always have the technology options of large research universities. A small nonprofit that since 2001 has tried to remedy that problem is today announcing new leadership, a new location and plans for a major expansion.

The National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (known by its acronym NITLE) was created by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of Ithaka, a program designed to encourage experimentation and adoption of new uses in technology in scholarly publishing and academe in general. NITLE, which currently involves about 130 colleges, is spinning off to become its own organization, will move to Southwestern University, and plans to involve many more colleges than ever before.

The organization is also announcing a new executive director, who has been involved in several significant efforts to make teaching materials or scholarship available free and online -- and who wants to promote that open access ideal with NITLE. W. Joseph King, the new executive director, has been executive director of Connexions, a Rice University-based project to share educational materials at no cost, and he is board chair of Rice University Press, the only university press to be exclusively online.

Institutions pay a base rate to be members of NITLE and then pay to join various programs that are more affordable as a group than they would generally be for a single institution, especially those on the small side.

King said that this model could be particularly useful given current trends in education technology and the need felt by many colleges to economize. For instance, NITLE currently works with 24 of its colleges to use Moodle, an open source course management tool, and another dozen NITLE colleges are considering joining the effort. Many smaller institutions have shied away from such projects, feeling that they don't have the internal infrastructure they would like, and collaboration lets them go this route, King said.

King said one of his first goals would be to expand NITLE, now that it will have the permanence of its new structure, to attract many more institutions. "There are many more liberal arts colleges out there," he said. While not specifying a target, he stressed that the organization had only started to reach the institutions that might benefit. "As you get to smaller colleges, their use of technology and availability is limited by budget and other constraints. The idea is to bring them to the table," he said.

By locating the institute at Southwestern, where King will also serve as vice president for innovation, the institute will constantly be influenced by a real campus environment, with faculty members, students and administrators to offer ideas, he said.

King mentioned several possible areas for NITLE expansion of services:

  • Video and podcasting. He noted that large institutions have in-house facilities but that NITLE colleges could collaborate to offer similar potential, which he said was important as education becomes more common using iPhones or iPods.
  • Course materials. Many colleges want to find ways to make textbooks more affordable, he said. Collaboration with Connexions and other online repositories could allow groups of liberal arts colleges to create their own, inexpensive course materials.
  • Scholarly materials. With more professors wanting to provide free online access to their research, NITLE might be a central location for such a database.

At the same time, NITLE plans to step up efforts to study technology issues with the goal of sharing knowledge with member colleges. "We don't want to be just a service provider," he said.

 

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