Higher education meets modern technology

TRU’s director of innovation has lofty goals for the future of the university, and technology plays a major role

Mark Hendricks, Science & Tech Editor Ω

Brian Lamb is the director of innovation at TRU. Fittingly, his office has a wide array of technology scattered around. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

Brian Lamb is the director of innovation at TRU. Fittingly, his office has a wide array of technology scattered around. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

Director of innovation is a vague title, one which doesn’t do much to explain what the role of such a person would be. Brian Lamb holds the position at TRU, and in large part has great say over the direction of TRU’s technological progress.

“Unless it’s an official document, I tend to call myself the ‘re-director of innovation.’ It would be really limiting to think that one person can come in and have the innovation vision for an entire institution,” Lamb said. “I’m actually a little embarrassed by the title.”

Lamb’s primary role at TRU is to help assist with the integration of technology and online learning in classrooms.

“Technological change is happening very rapidly, and institutions often struggle with [figuring out] is this new thing a big deal, should we be using this? If you make a bad technology choice it can be extremely expensive,” Lamb said.

Technology isn’t the only thing that’s changing. Lamb envisions the role of the university also changing in the future.

“I think the role of the university is really being challenged right now, and I think we need to be more flexible, more participatory,” Lamb said. “I think we need to understand that the university has this role of fostering inquiry and research and knowledge building, but not just for the people who are enrolled right now.”

Lamb is currently working on a project that TRU students could see very soon. It’s a university-wide wiki website, the same type that UBC has, which Lamb also developed.

“I’m hoping we’ll be quietly rolling that out to users this fall. It’s the same software that runs Wikipedia but it has a few features that I think make it more useful for educators,” Lamb said.

The wiki is a powerful tool at UBC which can be used to find anything from course material to campus bars. Lamb is hoping that the TRU wiki will be even better, as there are things about the UBC program he wishes he could fix in hindsight.

Lamb is also a big advocate of using Wikipedia in every way. He said it can be used as a constructive outlet for the work that students are doing in class.

“I worked with a professor at UBC who said the Wikipedia entries in his discipline, Latin American literature, were really bad. So instead of giving [the students] term papers, their assignment was to create really good Wikipedia entries on the topics they were studying.

“The students were working collaboratively, they were using an online technology, they created really good articles. Three of them did reach featured status, which at the time there were only 1,000 featured articles. But not only that, they’re being challenged from all directions to make sure their stuff is really well sourced and that they’re using neutral tone.

“We’re writing anyway, we’re researching anyway, why not put something that isn’t garbage on the web. The idea that you’re not pretending to be a researcher, you are a researcher, that you’re not pretending to be a writer, you are a writer, that your work is being read by people … it’s a powerful idea,” Lamb said.

Another potential idea for students at TRU is the use of open source free textbooks. These books can be localized, modified, adapted and distributed to students free of charge. Lamb has been very active in pushing this subject but says that he needs examples of professors at TRU using them before the idea will really catch on.

“I’m not suggesting open textbooks are an ideal fit for every course, but if there is a comparable resource that’s just as good as what you’d get if you’re paying, I think that’s something we need to look at,” Lamb said.

A major obstacle in the way of progress is the unwillingness of the university to change, according to Lamb.

Lamb cited an aversion to change as a major obstacle preventing progress.

“I think a lot of what’s really preventing people from engaging their potential is fear. When you’re afraid, you tend to stick with what you know because it won’t get you in trouble. Fear of criticism, losing their job … even a tenured professor needs to get that next grant.

“The best educational technology implementations I’ve seen usually involve a certain amount of relinquishing control on the part of the instructor,” said Lamb.

The future could see some even more radical changes at TRU that will have students working with their hands to create something real.

“I am collaborating with our research department and IT to set up some sort of makerspace,” Lamb said. “We’re looking at 3D printers, for example.”

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