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Digital DWU Initiative Puts Tech at Center of Education

Jackie Hendry

Technology continues to change how we communicate and how we work. It's also changing how we learn. One South Dakota university is facing the challenge head-on with a new digital initiative and partnership with Apple.

Most of the student’s filing into the Sherman Center at Dakota Wesleyan didn’t know much about their school’s new initiative. They only had a name: Digital DWU.

But curiosity turned to excitement when junior Aaron Ahmadu took the stage and performed a rap about changing times.

"Going digital, living spiritual. It's so critical! It's so pivotal!" he says to the crowd as they wave their hands to the beat.

Next on stage is Dakota Wesleyan President Amy Novak. She wears a wireless microphone and commands the stage in a way that’s almost reminiscent of a Steve Jobs product launch.

She talks about a recent event when more than 100 business leaders visited campus to discuss trends that are shaping their industries.

"And it didn't matter if it was healthcare or education or the financial services sector or technology or our churches! All of them said the same thing: technology," she says. "Technology is changing our workplace and our world."

President Novak says research shows technology is also changing the way people learn.

"And if we can improve how you learn, how you absorb information, how we translate information to knowledge, we will forward a stronger future."

She announces a Dakota Wesleyan partnership with Apple, that will make the school one of very few universities in the country to integrate technology throughout its approach to education.

Credit Jackie Hendry
Dakota Wesleyan University President Amy Novak announces Digital DWU to students in the Sherman Center.

"And friends," she says, "I'm not talking about giving you a device for word processing or writing a paper. Starting this fall, when you come back, each of you will have your own brand-new iPad Pro with smart keyboard for a new kind of learning experience."

Some students cheer. Others seem more skeptical. President Novak starts to explain what Digital DWU means for them.

"In some classes your textbooks will be very different, or you might not even buy them!"

It’s no secret that textbooks are a big expense. Novak says instead, textbook content could take the form of videos, podcasts, maps or simulations. Students might role-play complex scenarios in a leadership class or diagnose an athletic injury from the field or court. Their classes might even incorporate adaptive learning technology that catches errors before they take their first quiz.

President Novak adds, "And while we're at it, we're going to do all of this while not increasing tuition for next year!"

Jaws drop, and the skeptics are won over...before a slight caveat.

"There'll be a slight technology fee," President Novak says, "But not anything near the cost of a tuition increase!"

She recovers their enthusiasm with a final overview: iPads for every student, Apple TV's in their classrooms, faster bandwidth on campus, and a more relevant education.

Some students linger after the announcement to watch demos of what’s to come from Apple reps and Dakota Wesleyan faculty who’ve already been trained in the new technology.

Lacey Wipf is a freshman biology education major. She spends most of her time at the music station experimenting with Garage Band.

"This was super interesting to see how you can make your own music, you can put stuff together, there's all kinds of different stuff you can do with it, so that's really exciting for me," she says.

She says she has her own iPad that she used in high school, but not to the extent that President Novak describes.

"I'm super excited," Wipf says, "It'll be fun."

Some Dakota Wesleyan students are part of a spring pilot program and are already working with  the new classroom approach. Brady Hicks is a junior Athletic Training major. He says his class is compiling a digital textbook through iBooks and collaboration with his professor. They include peer-reviewed journal articles, keynote speeches, and even scripted videos they write and perform themselves.

"It's been honestly fun making the textbook," he says. "It's a very innovative and creative way to learn when you have to create something that somebody else cna learn from and that you can learn from yourself."

He says the professor syncs the updated text over everyone's devices as information is added. Then the text carries forward for the next class.

"And they'll update it with any current information so that textbook is always current," says Hicks.

But is there such a thing as too much technology in the classroom? Some people might call this a gimmick, or say it feeds a declining students attention span that detracts from learning. President Novak is well aware of these concerns. But she says her bigger priority is leveraging students’ passion for technology rather than complaining about it.

"And in the process, hopefully [we] mold people who are not less attentive but actually more self-aware and simultaneously able to really use it to maximize productivity or efficiency or communication in a way that's stronger than what we're experiencing now," says President Novak.

The idea garnered enough support that alumni and community donations kept costs for students at a minimum. Those contributions covered some of the equipment and faculty training. Dakota Wesleyan contractually can’t share details about the partnership with Apple, and they generally don’t share programming costs with the public. But they are sharing that the new technology fee is $300 per semester.   

Novak says she knows of some universities with similar programs—like Ohio State and Maryville University in St. Louis. But she says very few have adopted this approach campus-wide, and fewer still have also invested in faculty training. That investment in all stages of the educational process is key to staying ahead of the curve when technological advances are out-pacing expectations.

"So I'd like to think that we're taking what we know is a problem and trying to creatively ask how do we solve that without suggesting that everyone sort of become Luddites about the situation," Novak says. 

As student Aaron Ahmadu rapped before the big announcement: "Times are changing. Time to find a new way!"