Albion Partners with Google to Expand Educational Reach

One class, three campuses: new smartboard technology nimbly connects students, faculty

February 5, 2018

A professor standing in front of a jamboard.

Albion College professor of art history Bille Wickre teaches in front of a Google Jamboard in Olin Hall.

By Chuck Carlson

After 25 years of teaching art history Professor Bille Wickre has found a new, intriguing and exhilarating way of doing her job with the help of Google. Wickre and a handful of students from Albion College, as well as students from Alma College and Calvin College, are on the cutting edge of education through a new pilot program that partners with tech giant Google, Michigan furniture maker Steelcase and the Michigan Colleges Alliance.

Each college is offering one course that is shared across the three campuses. The courses—one in sociology, one in communications and one in art history—are designed to provide students with a way of learning that they may not traditionally have access to on their home campus, and Google technology is featuring prominently throughout.

Wickre is teaching Earth, Art and the Environment, a course she has taught before but which she has adapted to the digital world. Dr. Roman Williams from Calvin is teaching the sociology class and Dr. Anthony Collamati from Alma is teaching a new media course.

Each of the three classrooms used for the pilot program features a Google Jamboard, a 4K, 55-inch, high-tech smartboard that can link everyone visually as well as provide data, connect to the internet, clean up sloppy handwriting and so much more.

“It’s magical,” Wickre said. “You kind of have to see it to believe it.”

As well, Grand Rapids-based Steelcase has joined the pilot program, providing new furniture for the unique classroom space on each campus.

A First-of-Its-Kind Program

At Albion, Wickre’s class, which met for the first time January 30, will run for 11 weeks on Tuesday and Thursday from 6-9 p.m. in Olin Hall. Fifteen students, (seven from Albion, four from Calvin and four from Alma), meet in the classroom and are connected using GoToMeeting videoconferencing software.

Seven Albion students meet in the same room from 6-10 p.m. Monday night to connect with Calvin for the sociology class, and seven more meet Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon to take the communications course at Alma.

It is a four-credit class for the twice-weekly meetings and three credits for the once a week. Assignments are posted on the campus Moodle site.

This is the first program of its kind, and it will be used to determine if the technology is efficient and effective in the education environment and whether this would be a viable teaching option for future semesters.

It’s also a big deal for Wickre, who was asked by Provost Marc Roy last semester if she wanted to teach the course.

“Bille’s been very enthusiastic,” Roy said. “She’s spent a lot of time revising her course for this format.”

And for Wickre, it was a new challenge.

“Such a technology-mediated class is a challenge for me. It calls upon my creativity as a teacher, so of course it sounded interesting and I wanted to be involved.”

The initial push, though, came even earlier when Albion, Alma and Calvin met with MCA officials to discuss ways to share classes. A member of the MCA Board of Trustees, Cyrus Mistry, is a senior products manager for Google and thought the company could play a role.

“Google was looking for a partner to share hardware and software,” said Albion College President Mauri Ditzler, who was part of those initial meetings. “They were ready to experiment. They were looking to commercialize an internet project and this was a perfect alignment.”

With the three colleges on board, the decision was made to move forward with the course-share collaboration this spring.

‘A Whole New Exprience’

A professor standing at the front of the classroom teaching.

Wickre (background) uses the Google Jamboard as part of a new pilot program in cooperation with Google, Steelcase and the Michigan Colleges Alliance. It involves connecting remotely with students at Alma College and Calvin College as part of her Earth, Art and the Environment course.

Wickre joined Calvin’s Williams and Alma’s Collamati at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., in December for a training session.

Another training session was held in Michigan before classes started in January, and Google technicians remain in constant contact to ensure everything proceeds smoothly.

The MCA is eager to see how the initiative develops in the months ahead.

“Michigan Colleges Alliance and its member universities and colleges are consistently at the forefront of innovation,” said MCA President Dr. Robert Bartlett. “The Google-Steelcase Course Share program is a shining example. We are delighted to be partnered with these premier companies in forging new models of collaboration in private higher education. Our students, and ultimately many others throughout the country, will benefit enormously from this effort.”

While it represents a step forward in technology, Wickre doesn’t see this as a new direction for every higher-education classroom.

“It is certainly advantageous when we have small classes like this, but I don’t think it would work in a large class setting,” she said. “We can share remotely, but we would lose the essence of what makes us liberal arts.”

Sean Barlett, ’19, an art history major with a minor in business from Dexter, Mich., is taking Wickre’s class and agrees.

“I think there are limits to technology,” he said. “What I really appreciate are the people who come from many other backgrounds and vantage points. You would never do this type of class in a lecture hall. Keeping an intimate atmosphere is key. This is a whole new experience for all of us.”