Academic Tech Officer Seeks to "Capture Peoples’ Imagination"

Picture of Catheryn Cheal, new Senior Academic Technology Officer, wearing a black jacket and light pink dress shirt. Her hair is light blonde, short and feathered.

Associate Vice President and Senior Academic Technology Officer Catheryn Cheal (Robert Bain photo)

As San Jose State embarks on reinventing the classroom experience through its Next Generation initiative, our new Associate Vice President and Senior Academic Technology Officer Catheryn Cheal talked to SJSU Today about her passion and vision for the field.

An expert in classical archaeology, Cheal has extensive experience with academic technology. She was an assistant vice president of e-learning and instructional support at Oakland University, Michigan, and she helped create and direct the Office of Online Instruction at CSU Northridge.

The following was edited for length and clarity.

Our president emphasizes “agility through technology” and “blended learning,” which combines in-person and online classes. Can you tell us what you meant when you said “the efficiencies of online teaching are not as important as the variety of good online pedagogical methods available?”

Certainly you need to choose between the vast amount of software that is out there and adapt to the constantly changing landscape of what is available and what students are interested in and the direction things are going. You need the agility to hop from one thing to the next and to determine how to use it in teaching. One tool might be good for a specific subject matter but not work for another. It varies a great deal as to what people do with it and so we are going to try to provide as much as possible from a central unit in academic technology.

Learning management systems are good at offering different tools within one program. I think teaching hybrid courses means that a university needs to offer an entire suite of tools such as learning management systems with course evaluations, web conferencing systems for synching, virtual worlds such as Second Life, iclickers, and GPS software. With these tools, you improve efficiency and pedagogy. Both are important.

You talk about using discussion boards as a method of teaching. Do people like to teach each other?

People love to teach each other. Just go online in any community. People like to say what they know and they like to ask questions of others to find out things. We can take advantage of that ability among people. The lecture doesn’t take advantage of that in quite the same way. When you have 50 people seated in a room, they all can’t talk at once. It’s just chaotic. The discussion board, which has always been the heart of online teaching, can do that in an orderly fashion that you can’t do in a classroom. Basically what I am trying to find was a way to keep people active and interested in their learning and realize the fun of it. And they get that when they begin to share with one another. There is something about the back and forth that gives people energy.

Tell us about a course you taught online — subject, number of students, methods. What worked? What didn’t?

I started with art history. It was a general art appreciation GE course. It was about 40 students. The method was: do the reading, and then take an online quiz. Then they did a discussion board, activity, or we all got online at the same time and did small group chats. It worked. Everyone got to the same place at the end and they learned just as much as in the classroom. A lot of them felt better about it because they did a lot more one-on-one talking with me. The textbook was useful because students had to go through the textbook to do the online work. There are always things you can refine. And then there are always some technical difficulties gradually over time, but these things worked out. I became very interested in making things very clear and very simple to follow for the student, and that way I got a lot less questions over time.

Tell us about the ideal online course. What’s in it for students? for faculty?

There is not really an ideal because every subject matter has to use different methods and there are a lot of different methods out there. You can do a class that is entirely synchronous-video conferencing that has much the same teaching methods as a live class. Or you can re-conceptualize your lectures as discussion boards, where an interactive discussion board becomes the lecture. Other choices include videos, followed by quizzes. There are many different teaching methods out there. The goal is to be very supportive of the subject and what the faculty member thinks would be the best method. Maybe the ideal is what captures peoples’ attention and imagination and projects that are exciting to do. Real-life projects are usually what engage people; that’s always the ideal I think we’re aiming at.

What is your mandate here at SJSU? What’s the first thing you would like to change?

My mandate here is to initiate a number of different technological implementations. We have a new learning management system called Canvas. We have a new video conferencing system through Cisco called WebEx and a new lecture-capture system called Show and Share, also through WebEx. We are also updating a lot of the hardware in the classrooms to support the new and different technologies. One of the things I want to do is reorganize our web pages to show faculty everything that is available to them. Right now, it is not as clear. We have a lot to offer on campus. I would like to have a unified front for everything that is available so that any faculty member that is new on campus can chose from all of these different possibilities.