Paul Fisher – Seton Hall University
As the university’s associate CIO, he should. From his days of helping to develop one of the first 1:1 laptop programs in the U.S. to assisting Seton Hall quickly shift to remote learning in March 2020, Fisher has been a guiding influence on how the university uses technology to teach.
“Seton Hall has been, and continues to be, an innovator, but we pick and choose what will be appropriate for our students, staff and faculty,” he says. “Our slow and steady strategic innovations have served us very well.”
Innovation and equity
Founded in 1856, by Bishop James Roosevelt Bayley, Seton Hall University is in South Orange, New Jersey, about 30 minutes from New York City. The Catholic University has almost 6,000 undergraduate and 3,900 graduate students studying in more than 90 majors and programs.
Seton Hall’s 1:1 laptop program began in 1997. Fisher says the university has considered ending the program in the age of IT consumerization, and every year it’s reassessed. The biggest change that’s been made, though, came in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
In the past, incoming freshmen and transfer students were provided laptops as part of tuition and fees and then exchanged them after two years. Now, they’ll use the same laptop throughout their time at the university. The change was made in part because laptop processing speeds no longer increase so dramatically. One in its fourth year of use looks very much like a 2-year-old laptop, Fisher says. Also, eliminating the exchange helps Seton Hall keep costs lower for students.
Throughout the 1:1 program, Seton Hall has used Lenovo Thinkpads because of their affordability, quality and some practical considerations, he says. The university has supplied the same type of laptop to all students to create equal access to technology. A common device also helps Seton Hall faculty incorporate technology into their teaching.
“Faculty need to integrate tech into curriculum with ease, and know what equipment students are using to make that innovation work the best,” Fisher says. “Standardization is the best tool for innovation in the classroom.”
The common choice also means he and his staff only need to worry about one type of device to support—he says they can maintain a higher level of service while encountering fewer new problems.
Fisher and his staff survey students and faculty annually on how they use technology, and one surprising development is that students use laptops less in class than outside of it. He says it’s rare for students to take a seat and log on, even though the IT team has made sure the university network and bandwidth are strong enough to support a class filled by laptop users.
At the same time, surveys show 85 percent of Seton Hall faculty use technology in class, whether to post a syllabus or make use of online content.
In the summer of 2019, he and his staff launched a pilot project with Microsoft Teams, exploring how well the technology would work if used to hold classes remotely during inclement weather. Later, when COVID-19 led to remote learning, everything was in place because of that project—and the transition took just three days. Because the university was already a Microsoft shop, it didn’t have to buy more user licenses to implement Teams, Fisher says.
The shift to remote learning required classroom upgrades, he adds. Seton Hall students now learn in a “HyFlex” modality arrangement that evenly splits remote and in-class attendance as the university observes social distancing requirements. Again, he worked with Microsoft systems, as well as Crestron AV, to deliver the in-class lecture remotely. As a result, all classes can now be accessed through a “start my meeting” tab on a computer, enabling students to participate remotely around the country and the world.
Fisher says Microsoft helped make that a productive approach by upgrading Office 365 throughout the summer of 2020, to include School Data Sync management and application programming interface and videoconferencing tools that also integrate with the Blackboard LMS.
Been there, done that
While working near the area of north New Jersey where he was born and raised, he has also made himself a campus fixture. In fact, he jokes that some of the first instructors he guided into the digital age are now among those he counts on to help other faculty make technology a part of their instruction.
He has worked outside academia, holding a full-time job in insurance while studying accounting at William Paterson University of New Jersey. He was more interested in tech, though, and because of his interests and skills, he became the company tech guy, he recalls.
In 1996, Fisher decided to pursue his master’s in criminal justice, which brought him to the campus for the first time. He earned his degree in 1998, but by then, he’d also begun assisting faculty build web pages for their courses at Seton Hall’s Center for Academic Technology.
It was here he also helped to administer the laptop program, and by 1998, some faculty were offering courses entirely online, he recalls. Fisher became the Center’s director in 2005.
As Seton Hall moves into the post-pandemic world, he expects the changes COVID-19 brought will be a part of education and work—he also expects half his staff will continue to work remotely.
“For 25 years my job has been to help faculty transform teaching with the use of technology. The pandemic has accelerated that transformation tenfold,” Fisher says. “We’ll continue with our sustained and appropriate innovation.”
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