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Charles Grisham
Tom Cogill

Grisham leads the charge to advance A&S technology

When Edward L. Ayers was appointed dean of Arts & Sciences this summer, chemistry professor Charles M. Grisham sent him the final report of the Task Force on Faculty Information Technology Skills. Ayers — no stranger to innovative technology, with his award-winning "Valley of the Shadow" Civil War history Web site — responded by asking Grisham, who had chaired the task force, if he’d become the school’s chief technology officer.

"It was clear to me that while we have terrific people in information technology at U.Va. — many of whom I have worked with over the last decade — the College could take a more active role in coordinating activities in this area," Ayers said. "Charlie was the first person I approached because I’d seen him in action as chair of the University Committee on Information Technology and as a Teaching+Technology Initiative fellow, and was deeply impressed."

"U.Va. is the perfect place to lead the technological revolution in higher education," Grisham said. That’s why he accepted the newly established position, easing into it part time last semester. He will devote himself to the job full time starting this semester.

Grisham, who joined the U.Va. faculty in 1975, has witnessed — and been part of — the University’s growing commitment to using technology in education. He was among the first faculty members to take advantage of efforts such as the Teaching+Technology Initiative, the Instructional Toolkit, the Classroom Improvement Project, the Desktop Computing Initiative and the Digital Media Lab.

"These programs are the envy of other schools," Grisham said. "We need to use these fine programs as a springboard to seek additional funding for technology needs in the College, particularly from private foundations and corporate sources.

"The challenge of this job will be contending with the rapid changes in the field," he added. With that as a given, his goals are to solve the problems U.Va. currently faces in using technology for research and instruction and to lead Arts & Sciences into the digitally enhanced future.

"I thought it was important to have someone paying close attention to technology and how it might help us teach better, conduct more effective research and communicate more efficiently," Ayers said.

The planned Arts Grounds and South Lawn projects offer a golden opportunity to be more innovative. The latter will include a new building touted as the centerpiece for technology in Arts & Sciences and cross-disciplinary work. In the new and revamped buildings, Grisham would like to see an open environment, with interior windows for laboratories and classrooms, where students could be seen working on experiments or group projects and where technological conveniences could easily be made available. Large computer video screens might be mounted to display coming events, feeds from classrooms around Grounds and conferencing links to distant sites around the world. Students could order concert tickets from nearby terminals or drop in to participate in a videoconference or a class at another university.

Since academic computing used to mean primarily using technology for research, that area has gotten more attention over the years. But research and teaching uses share some of the same needs: more high-level technical support; larger bandwith, or pipeline, for Internet communications and data transfer; and more data storage.

Although Grisham gives the University high marks for improving technological proficiency and praises ITC and all its efforts, he noted that the uses for technology are multiplying at a rapid rate. "The demands will be staggering in the next few years," he predicted. Besides funding, the other resources needed to meet those demands are time and talent.

Despite the army of more than 230 ITC workers, there’s still not enough support. "We absolutely have to find mechanisms to increase the number of staff who work daily with researchers and instructors," Grisham said.

"The investment of time required to create one’s own instructional software is enormous," Grisham said, "and few faculty are able to divert their attention from scholarly work to develop software and media for their courses. We have to seek more innovative approaches if we hope to expand the role of technology in the classroom, as many students are demanding these days."

One solution may be to develop software that enables an instructor to create software for a course quickly and easily. "We might call this ‘software that creates software,’" Grisham suggested. He envisions a center at the University that would be devoted to development of instructional software tools and course content. "We plan to seek funds from several sources to support this center," he added.

In fact, Grisham just received a grant from the National Science Foundation to put his idea to work. "Even though I have two other active NSF grants devoted to instructional software development, I'm very excited about this one, since it will open the ‘software that creates software’ project. I am hoping that we can leverage and combine this funding with additional money from private foundations to get the Instructional Software Design Institute up to speed," he said.

Other administrative services in Arts & Sciences need to be upgraded, too, such as undergraduate advising. It should be greatly improved with a computerized system Grisham and other Arts & Sciences administrators are working on. This spring, for the first time, advisers will be able to use a Web page to track their list of student advisees, with direct e-mail links to each student, and a appointment calendar that will allow students to sign up for selected advising times that advisers would designate. Eventually, Web-based information will reduce or replace the mountain of paperwork that Arts & Sciences’ hundreds of advisers have to deal with each semester.

"We want the advising site to be as easy as logging onto amazon.com," Grisham said. One down-the-road feature he mentioned: a program that will suggest other courses matching interests from those previously taken.

"We have to be ready to make technology work for students," Grisham said. "We have the responsibility as educators."


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