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Published November 13, 2007 | Multidisciplinary

Shared Drive - Venerable IT?

Hélène Descamps is an academic advisor at Cégep du Vieux Montréal. She is bracing herself for a rough start for the Winter Session 2008. Why? New software is being installed in her service and she's not quite sure how it's going to work out. She's already discovered a bug; the program can't make a link between two German courses. That will probably be fixed before students arrive, but she can't help wondering what other problems will be discovered in the line of action and at what cost.

Dr L. Nixon

Meanwhile at Dawson College, Profweb interviewed Laurence (Laurie) Nixon, head of the Religion Department this autumn following a discussion about his use of the intranet system which is called the Shared Drive at the college. Laurie is justifiably proud of a large collection of virtual documentation that is currently available to students. Furthermore, he can easily transfer new material to the ‘intranet' or Shared Drive by moving documents into a folder located on his personal drive in order to keep his information up-to-date. Laurie posts new information in .jpg, .doc, and .ppt formats. The virtual drive also accepts .mp3 formats directly as well as video clips. The intranet system is not indexed by web search engines, yet is accessible to students on a non-write basis by file transfer protocol using a web browser even from computers outside of the college.

The Shared Drive was a wonderful transition from this traditional system because it had almost no learning curve and was much simpler to use than a personal web page.

Laurie's information has been painstakingly constructed over a long period of time. Technically, it is far from leading edge technology. The system was originally created to replace slides from courses that deal with religious art which used to be left at the library for students to review. Slides could be damaged or lost.  The Shared Drive was a wonderful transition from this traditional system because it had almost no learning curve and was much simpler to use than a personal web page.Certain factual information on the drive was directly transcribed from notes copied by hand from information at local museums. With the intranet, students, who were being asked to discuss certain works of art, could safely use the system to gain a valuable second look at what they were reviewing. Students who missed class were not totally without resources thanks to this system as well. Everyone also got additional basic information beyond photos including Laurie's own articles as well as references to other reviews online from sources such as Wikipedia that could help them to sharpen their own critical senses.

There are always 2 or 3 ways to skin the cat.

At Dawson, Laurie was not the first, much less the only, faculty member to use the Shared Drive to put up materials for students. The geography, economics and sociology folders on the Shared Drive have an abundance of this type of material. When questioned about this system, Dawson technician Kirk Fontaine replied, "Dawson is an environment with many work flows. There are always 2 or 3 ways to skin the cat. It is easier to work off the ‘S' drive certainly in terms of a learning curve on the teachers' part. WebCT is feature rich. There are different ways that the faculty and staff share information." The Shared Drive at Dawson was around years before WebCT was an option at the school. Now, Dawson technicians see the Shared Drive as a vehicle for departmental and administrative communication. They had no objection, however, to teachers using the drive for their own needs, particularly when this kind of task had been standard practice for years.

Marleigh Greaney

Profweb also spoke to Marleigh Greaney, the dynamic new IT Representative at Vanier College. Among her many goals this year is an attempt to rationalize the use of learning platforms at her school. Currently Vanier uses four of them. DECclic is there and is an integral part of the project in Humanities that Vanier is doing with Cégep de Sept Îles. There are also classes given on Moodle, Léa and First Class. Besides being technically challenging, the use of so many platforms creates problems for students who must learn how to use the student interface of more than one system, sometimes during the same semester.

Sonia Zylberberg on the faculty of the Religion Department at Dawson asked her students whether they preferred to use the Shared Drive or WebCT in their classes. The overwhelming response was a preference for the Shared Drive in two of three classes. In a third group, it was mixed. Among the reasons for the preference are that students do not have to login. For the classes that they had with Sonia, the easy access was more important than the features on the learning platform.

Teachers spend time learning a pedagogical strategy and creating material that works with it. They have years of experience in teaching students how to use their system. And, the system works; all the bugs and surprises have been eliminated. Suddenly, a new development is adopted by the school. The teacher is asked to discard the procedures that they have learned and possibly to face reformatting much of the information that works perfectly on their older system. There may also be a sharp learning curve for the new technology.

Does the teacher adopt the new technology? Like Laurie, there may be a very strong case for sticking with a more tried and true solution. Stacey Katz of the computer department at Dawson felt that, "Hesitation to use technology is generational." He finds that staff who have had more exposure to different technologies tend to be more comfortable with emerging trends.

Your IT Rep is certainly a good source of information to help you in making technical decisions. His main mission, unlike manufacturers' representatives, is to help teachers to effectively use IT and not to sell you on the latest thing to appear on the market. He also will be aware of the technical limitations faced by your school's computer department and is hooked into a province-wide network where scuttlebutt about new applications is a constant.

In our collegial system the operating principle is not to let the buyer beware but more likely to let the user beware.

More and more software developers are offering teachers the ability to integrate their existing material into a new format with little or no effort. In our collegial system, the operating principle is not to let the buyer beware but more likely to let the user beware. Computer departments try to rationalize the use of software. The time necessary to learn how to use new technology as well as its ability to incorporate existing resources are now important criteria in software choice. The second criterion will become increasingly critical as teachers develop an important corpus of IT material that they wish to continue using while satisfying the needs of system administrators.

There are no easy answers in the process of IT integration, but one thing has become apparent - All IT has to prove its value in the classroom, and conversely, not all new software can succeed where earlier models blazed the trail.

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