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WIRED: University of Kentucky’s Connected College

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The University of Kentucky’s A&S Wired Residential College provides its incoming students with iPads and digs in a super-connected dorm as well as a bevy of tech-connected liberal arts classes as an experiment in bringing higher education into the 21st Century. Here is a video introduction to the effort:
 

Overview of WIRED Residential College from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.
 

Is this really what residential colleges will be like in the near future? A closer look at what this program offers reveals its potential as a future model for higher education.

The Social Dimension

The social aspects of this program are just as important as the technology and curricular elements. The purpose of this project is to create a learning community in which students are connected with each other, their professors, and the local community. This type of connection makes students more engaged with their academic work, the university, and learning in-general. What is unique about the Wired Residential College is that it incorporates both social media and actual physical connections to achieve its goals. Students are actually physically living together in one residence hall which houses them, their social spaces, and hi-tech classrooms. Essentially, they never have to leave their dorm. Except that the technology itself and the curricular design are constantly pushing them to connect beyond their living space, both virtually and in-person.

Informal learning connections are also emphasized within the space through peer mentors who live in the building, the regular presence of faculty outside the classrooms, movie nights, and coffee talks with faculty members from across the university. These informal conversations with people from different disciplines are intended to spark further interests and connections beyond the immediate coursework.

The Technology

The hi-tech effort starts with the personal technology of each student in the program. iPads were distributed to students at move-in to make sure that every participant is on a level playing field in terms of having a device that they can use in the classroom and for educational experiences beyond the residence hall. When in the dorm, the iPads connect to 20 access points in the building which can provide 75 high-bandwidth connections. In addition, there are 11 wide-screen TVs in the building which can connect to the iPads to display student work. There is also a gaming room and two smart classrooms with interactive whiteboards and the capability to conduct international video conferencing. (Alex Campbell, Sept. 23, 2011)

All of this technology is designed to allow students to easily access information, synthesize new knowledge, and share that learning with their peers, professors, and the world. They accomplish this through the use of technology tools that allow for research, capture, editing, and distribution in one easy-to-use package in working through innovative curricular offerings.

The Curriculum

The A&S Wired Residential College features a liberal arts-based, technology connected curriculum that engages students at every possible level. Courses within the college are designed to be interactive, relevant and project-based in order to connect students to each other, their professors, and the UK, Lexington, and global communities. Courses such as “Documenting Community,” “Between Shadow and Light in a Global Village,” “Eating Kentucky,” “Migration Stories,” and “The African-American Experience in Kentucky” use technology to move learning beyond the classroom and out into their communities. The following interview with Cristina Alcalde (“Migration Stories”) and Jeff Rice (“Eating Kentucky”) explains how they use technology in their classes:

Dean’s Channel: A&S Wired with Cristina Alcalde and Jeff Rice from UK College of Arts & Sciences on Vimeo.
 

In Alcalde’s course students interview each other about their own migration stories and venture into the local community with their iPads in tow to tutor immigrant children, work with ESL learners, and set up community events. Members of the “Eating Kentucky” class take their interest in food as a guide for exploring Lexington in person, where they learn about local culture, history, and the culinary culture of the region. They use their iPads for taking notes, recording and editing video, and recording oral histories which they share.

These efforts, as well as many others in the curriculum, are designed to allow students to be self-directed, empowered learners who interact in deep and meaningful ways with each other, their instructors, and the community. This rich interaction serves as a foundation for a deeply connected social experience that is also essential to the overall success of the effort.

A Model for the Future?

The program just opened in August of 2011, so it is too early to tell if this model is a success or not. From my perspective as an educational technologist and liberal arts graduate, this is exactly what residential and online learning should strive for. A natural way for students to gain technical skills, interpersonal skills, rich content knowledge, and communication skills all rolled into one active and engaging experience. This hits all of the objectives for an excellent educational experience, and one that will produce well-rounded, lifelong learners.

Hopefully this initiative from the U of Kentucky will inspire other schools to take the plunge into making their living spaces into something much more – community-connected learning spaces that also happen to have beds.