Media Cloisters: Technology Center

By Jessica Winum

Media Cloisters. A place where nuns read newspapers and catch up on the evening news? A retreat for burned-out and broken-down journalists? No to both. Vassar’s Media Cloisters is just one of several campus initiatives that are creating a high-tech liberal arts for the 21st century.

The Media Cloisters is a sophisticated technology center at the heart of the Vassar College Library designed for collaborative academic work using high-tech tools. In name, location, and function it symbolizes the meeting of traditional values of liberal arts learning with the most up-to-date computer and communications equipment. It is where students, faculty, librarians, and information technology specialists meet to explore emerging pedagogies made possible by the latest technologies. It is also brand new; Cloisters hardware was installed in mid-October in the heart of Thompson Library, an important milestone in the ongoing renovation of Thompson and construction of the Ingram Library Addition.

"In monastic tradition the cloisters were a place where one would come out of one’s cell and converse," says Michael Joyce, assistant professor of English and faculty director of the Media Cloisters. The name, coined by Joyce, is intended to imply a high-tech version of such a meeting place. The Cloisters will, he explains, "serve as the ‘public sphere’ for networked interaction."

The Media Cloisters has all the trappings of a typical computer lab–disk drives, keyboards, scanners, and a wide array of sophisticated software and display devices. But its purpose is not to provide yet another place for students and faculty to sit for hours as they word-process papers or design elegant presentations. It is instead where they might go with a project in-progress, demonstrate it on Cloisters hardware in the company of librarians, faculty, or other colleagues who can offer advice–technological, pedagogical, or research–then take their projects back to their home computers for additional work. The Cloisters thus offers an alternative vision to a darker view of high-tech education: that of a brave new world in which students work on computers in isolation and are educated via courses programmed some distance away. At Vassar, remarks Joyce, "we talk about extension of the classroom and not distance education."

Situating the Cloisters at the heart of the library–it is on the second floor just south of Thompson’s central axis–was a deliberate affirmation of Vassar’s commitment to the importance of place in education. Those busy at Cloisters workstations may catch the tangential Gothic glow of the Cornaro Window and the gaze of its 17th-century subject, Elena Piscopia, who herself pushed the possibilities of education when she became the first woman to earn a doctoral degree. "The place of learning matters," says Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English Barbara Page. "It [Vassar] is itself a cultural institution, and presence is an important part of learning."

She notes that the Cloisters will be "the place on campus where we achieve the highest level of integration of digital resources for use in teaching and learning." It will emphasize, Page says, "the continuum of technologies of writing and learning." To oversimplify, the Media Cloisters will offer new possibilities for feedback on the very latest in high-tech manuscripts.

Those are the dreams and intentions behind the design. "It will be interesting to see what the concrete version ends up being," says Virginia Jones, an instructional computing consultant for the project from the Computing and Information Services (CIS) department. Certainly, the excitement with which students and faculty were awaiting the new center bodes interesting times ahead.

A Virtual Year Abroad

It is the fall of 1999 and Vassar students are conversing and laughing with their German peers in a dorm room in Muenster, Germany. People come and go, entering other students’ rooms or going to classrooms or a nearby café. They discuss research assignments or social activities planned for the evening. Sometimes the conversation is in German, sometimes in English. Eventually, they all go out together for a beer.

Well, not quite.

The revelry and exchanges described above (minus the beer) happened virtually, on MOOssiggang, a computer-based, German-language learning environment developed by Assistant Professor of German Silke von der Emde and Assistant Professor of German Jeffrey Schneider of Vassar. (A MOO –Multiple user domain-Object Oriented–is a program that allows multiple synchronous discussions via computers in spaces that are described, in words, by users and that continue to exist even when the computer is turned off. According to von der Emde and Schneider, who are pioneering the use of MOOs for foreign language study, MOOssiggang is a pun on a German word that translates loosely into relaxation, idleness, and leisure and is meant to capture the playful and imaginative aspect of a MOO.

During the fall semesters of 1998 and 1999, Vassar students in their third semester of German practiced grammar and vocabulary usage by creating their own virtual places in MOOssiggang. They then met in these virtual places to discuss German culture and language in real time. During the second half of the semester they were joined in their virtual territory by German students learning English at the University of Müenster, and of course visited the German students in exchange. The groups combined to do research projects and present them to their classmates, all in MOOssiggang. It was the first time that an entire course at Vassar had been structured around a MOO, and participants agreed that the experiment was an incomparable success, both for the teachers and the learners.

"It [the MOO] made learning German fun and easy, because it so closely resembled a chat room," says Debbie Warnock ’02, a student in the class. "That is, in effect, what it was: an educational chat room. The MOO made learning fun and gave me a chance to be creative, something that unfortunately is missing from many traditional classroom settings."

Schneider comments that he thought students who worked in MOOssiggang were more in control of what they learned and how they learned it. "In that sense," he says, "this kind of course really meets the goals that a liberal arts education sets for every kind of course: self-reflection and awareness of the intellectual, social, and even institutional context for the kind of work that is taking place."

It was not junior year abroad in Germany, but it was, perhaps, the next best thing. In fact, Schneider says the virtual experience did lead several of the students to actually go to the University of Müenster as part of Vassar’s summer program there. Others are applying for study elsewhere in Germany. "We feel strongly that contact with native speakers in the MOO made many of the students both more curious about German culture–enough to see it with their own eyes–and more confident that they could communicate successfully with the people they encounter there. After all, they had experience working with native speakers."

And that’s not all

Technology has become critical to learning in almost every discipline of the liberal arts. Anthropology students use film and editing computer software to study the craft and issues of ethnographic documentary making. Art history students are able to closely examine works of art held both in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center and in museums around the world through digital image databases. Students of math and the sciences are at work in Vassar’s newly established science visualization lab.

The latter–which became operational this past summer– is equipped with state-of-the-art computers and discipline-specific software that provides a "teaching space in which computers are the main focus," says Robert Suter, professor of biology and director of the independent program. "This way we can find out how things work, which is what science is all about."

A host of questions must be answered when determining how technology is to be used in classrooms and libraries on American campuses: How will it mesh with the pedagogical mission of the institution? How will it affect the working relationship of students and faculty? How will it change the role of the library on campus? And how will the college deal with the financial demands of keeping up with technological changes?

Since 1993 the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has been helping liberal arts colleges answer these questions by granting a total of $35 million through its technology and teaching initiative, according to the Mellon Foundation report "Teaching and Technology 1993—1997" by Alice F. Emerson and Elizabeth A. Duffy.

In 1997 Vassar received a $350,000 Mellon grant titled "Teaching with Technology in the Undergraduate Curriculum." In a letter to the Vassar community, Robert DeMaria, professor of English and chair of the grant’s steering committee, explained that the grant was intended to "assist faculty who wish to implement, explore, or evaluate the use of traditional and emerging technologies in teaching the liberal arts; to increase coordination among the various groups and individuals who presently help faculty to understand and use technology; and to enrich communication between faculty and campus information specialists."

More broadly, the purpose of that and subsequent grants–Vassar has since received three additional Mellon Foundation grants–was to help the faculty and information specialists explore the role of technology in the academic life of a small and highly selective liberal arts college. "We wanted to improve the quality of teaching, learning, and scholarship through the use of multi-media technologies," said DeMaria. But Vassar wanted to do that "skeptically," he explained, placing "teaching and learning ahead of actual use."

Grant money funded a series of workshops, lectures, and formal and informal conversations, which helped the faculty further projects already in progress and develop new ones inspired by visiting experts who shared their knowledge of software, hardware, and pedagogy. During this time, the faculty also began to build collaborative relationships with members of the CIS department, who contributed the technical knowledge that helped turn theoretical ideas into tangible programs such as MOOssiggang and the Media Cloisters.

Integrating technology into the curriculum has also fostered increased collaboration among faculty, a way of working that has long been characteristic of Vassar. Rather than cultivating a community of loners who never emerge from their rooms or offices because they can get everything they need off the Internet, innovations such as the Media Cloisters and projects such as MOOssiggang bring students and faculty into fruitful cooperative working relationships. As Michael Joyce remarks, they have found it to be true that "technology leads to collaborative interaction."

Jeff Schneider, speaking of his experience teaching in the MOO, agreed. "It has turned teaching into something that is usually done in isolation with one group of students into something that is very collaborative."

No matter how wonderful technological innovations might be, however, they don’t come without costs and challenges: financing, upgrading, training. Diane Balestri, director of CIS, says, "At some point you have to take risks. You have to determine the trajectory of change" and then decide what the institution is going to do to accommodate that change.

Because of the importance and impact of technology decisions, Balestri’s position was elevated to the rank of senior officer of the college effective this year. As a senior officer, Balestri will be better placed to help administrators and trustees think strategically about what kind of financial sacrifices, plans, and obligations the college will have to make to maintain its position "someplace slightly behind the cutting edge," as Fergusson puts it.

"Where we like to be at the forefront," she explains, "is intellectually."

Focusing on its technology will not only forward the college intellectually, the president notes, it will also ensure that Vassar will remain a top choice for potential students. "Incoming students come with higher expectations of what the college will offer technologically."

Confirmation of that comes from Liza Trinkle ’02, who studied on MOOssiggang: "Technology is extremely important in enhancing a liberal arts education. It allows students to have an additional outlet for their ideas and professors to have a different method of instruction."

Through projects such as MOOssiggang, in places such as the Media Cloisters, with the help of technological innovations of the future, it is likely that students and faculty at Vassar will continue to remain at the intellectual forefront throughout the next century.

"We fundamentally believe that the education that we give at Vassar is much more than just the transference of knowledge that can happen by computer as well as by people," says President Fergusson. "It would gut the very purpose and reason of what a liberal arts education is all about to think that it was transmittable simply by technology." Nevertheless, she acknowledges that each step down the silicon-chip path "has been strongly enhancing for Vassar as an institution."

"We believe that technology is important here as it forwards the mission of a liberal school," says Balestri. "It will not become a technological institute and we won’t substitute technology for the face to face encounters that characterize our education."