February 08, 2018 | Matt Kucinski

Jamboard, Google's 55-inch, 4K interactive display, is spurring collaboration through linking up digital whiteboards at Calvin, Alma and Albion.

A 90-minute drive … replaced by a single click. Thanks to Google, the course catalog is expanding, and students at three colleges, separated by 100 miles, are learning together.

“This isn’t happening anywhere else on this scale,” said Roman Williams, assistant professor of sociology at Calvin College.

Leading the way

In collaboration with Google, the Michigan Colleges Alliance is piloting the Google Course Share Collaboration, a new approach that aims to expand course options at smaller private colleges, while still retaining the faculty-driven teaching model.

Calvin, Alma, and Albion are participating in the pilot in spring 2018, each offering one course available to all three campuses.

“The whole idea is to offer courses that might not otherwise be offered because they are so specialized that student interest on one campus might not be enough to achieve the desired level of enrollment,” said Williams, who is teaching his Visual Toolkit course on Monday nights to six Alma, seven Albion, and six Calvin students. “Adding compelling technology to the mix amplifies students’ experiences.”

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How it works? Each campus is making a Google Extended Classroom available, complete with Hangouts Meet—Google's video meeting softwareand Jamboard—Google's 55-inch, 4K interactive display, which is spurring collaboration through linking up digital whiteboards across the colleges. And each student has been given a Chromebook from their respective institution.

“The Jamboard is an interactive whiteboard that you can all share,” said Emma Chung, a junior digital communications major at Calvin who is taking “Media Theory and Culture” via Google Course Share through Albion College. “So, if Albion students are writing on it, we can see what they are writing, kind of like a Google Doc in a portable whiteboard form, but it’s still treated like a whiteboard. It’s pretty neat.”

The classrooms have two large monitors, each showing students from the other two participating colleges. Steelcase, the largest office furniture manufacturer in the world, has also joined the effort, and will be outfitting each classroom with comfortable seating and in helping create collaborative spaces for students to thrive.

Collaborating across colleges

Learning how best to collaborate from a distance takes a little time, says Williams. But, he says that students having the unique experience of helping pioneer a new way of learning, combined with the novelty of working with “cool technology,” are already going a long way in producing higher levels of student participation, engagement, and enthusiasm about these courses.

Students agree.

“I think it’s a really enriching experience. You get a chance to interact with students from another campus that isn’t yours, who you haven’t spent four years with,” said Taylor Hartson, a junior sociology major at Calvin. “It’s also a good experience for people considering going to grad school. ‘How do I interact with strangers for the first time? How do I adjust to a class that isn’t taught in a way that’s the way I’ve been taking the last several years?’”

Hartson, who is taking Williams’ class, is looking forward to more opportunities to hear from classmates representing various disciplines and multiple institutions. “It’s interesting to hear the perspectives of those not in this field on an up-and-coming methodology, to kind of explore that together, to see what it looks like to use this methodology in communications or in biology. It’s cool to hear all these perspectives.”

Opening more options

The pilot program is testing the viability of an academic-resource-sharing model between colleges, giving students and faculty more access to resources. The Michigan Colleges Alliance represents an ideal platform for launching a new course delivery system like this one. The MCA consists of 14 smaller private institutions. But, collectively, the alliance comprises the third largest student body in the state of Michigan.

What Google Course Share allows is for private institutions to keep their student-centered learning and close faculty interaction—hallmarks of the experiences they currently offer—all while expanding their course options for students.

One Calvin student wrote in her reflection after the first class, ‘I LOVE THIS TECHNOLOGY! That’s all I have to say for now. I feel like I’m living in the future.’ 

“On many levels she is correct,” said Williams, “she is living into the future. Increasingly a company’s workforce is spread across multiple locations and using meeting/collaboration technology like Google’s Jamboard and Hangouts Meet are the norm. A student who experiences a course like the ones we’re offering gains aptitudes and skills for thriving in the global economy.”

Calvin College’s Center for Social Research (CSR) has been tasked by MCA with evaluating the pilot program. Through surveys, focus groups, and research, CSR will provide an evaluation by the end of April 2018. The plan is to publish these results after the final evaluation.

Michael Le Roy, Calvin College president

“At Calvin, we are dedicated to student success, and that drives us to constantly be innovating and reimagining the ways in which we deliver an academically excellent, Christ-centered education to our current students, while pushing us to think creatively about how we can extend that education to new audiences. This new collaborative initiative is exciting, because it provides us an opportunity to work alongside innovators like Google, Steelcase, and MCA, as we together create a new path promoting the flourishing of students.”


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