Tonjia Coverdale — Central State University
It was the fall semester of 2018 when Tonjia Coverdale stepped into a freshman English composition class at Central State University in Ohio. The room was bustling with activity, with students taking turns sharing the short stories that they had written with their peers using iMovie on iPads to create a video illustrating their creations.
The university’s CIO since 2017, Coverdale says it was a watershed moment for her, to see students so engaged by bringing their words to life with the use of technology.
“Education has been historically out of reach for many of the students here, who are often the first in their family to pursue higher education,” Coverdale says, noting 84 percent of the students in this part of the Corn Belt require financial aid. “We think these initiatives will help change all of that.”
Those initiatives aren’t just limited to tech in the classroom.
One of them—new technology-enabled classrooms to support remote education called Classrooms Without Walls—was recently awarded a million dollars in state funding. Another, called the myPAD (my Personal Academic Device) Program, will put iPads in the hands of first-year students to connect them (and the university) to free and low-cost digital course materials. The programs, Coverdale hopes, will aid the school’s mission to support student retention and increase graduation rates by making education affordable.
Real time, any time
Coverdale says the first wave of remodeling is already underway for Classrooms Without Walls. Up to 30 classrooms will be outfitted with telepresence technology, and some rooms could be finished by fall 2019, with the remainder slated for completion by the spring of 2020.
Using the upgrades as well as Cisco’s Webex Teams, students will be able to video in using their personal devices, meaning they can attend class during a lunchbreak or when their child is napping.
The rooms—some of which are designed as ‘cyberlounges’—will be decked out with new furniture, special microphones and speakers to best capture classroom lectures. The design will even allow students videoing in to meet in groups and interact with other students and professors just as if they were in the classroom.
“This really opens up a world of education by decoupling learning from time and space,” Coverdale says. “Now we can stream the class. A student can even hit pause or go back and download the class to watch it again. This might be an everyday opportunity for a big industry, but for us it is revolutionary.”
One way students will be able to access that new world of remote learning is through the myPAD pilot program, initiated by Coverdale at the end of 2018. She saw it as a great opportunity to follow the lead of Ohio Governor John Kasich who supported a textbook affordability initiative before his term ended in 2018.
Through the initiative, freshman students are given an iPad to gain access to free digital textbooks, and the ability to communicate directly with the university. Coverdale hopes the project will be fully funded next year. Currently, 139 students are in the pilot—and by all accounts love it, she says.
“Our goal is to provide a platform that will give everyone a head start. What good are free digital textbooks if the student doesn’t have a device that supports it?” she says.
The iPads can connect students to the university system 24/7—granting them access to the entire learning management system, and offers them the capability to contact their advisors during office hours. They can also provide access to Webex Teams for group projects or be used for project presentations.
Coverdale explains allowing students to attend classes remotely is an economic necessity. Students unable to afford living on campus are faced with prohibitive commuting costs since larger towns are more than 30 minutes away.
“Our university’s location presents a challenge,” Coverdale says. “I want to retain students by minimizing costs and preventing them from dropping out. Technology can support our objectives.”
Dry run in the sun
Coverdale started her journey by earning her bachelor’s degree in information science and systems from Morgan State University in 1998. She earned an MBA from Georgia State University’s J. Mack Robinson College of Business in 1999, and returned to Morgan State to earn her doctorate in information science and systems in 2010.
Coverdale says she got her first opportunity to bring technology to a remote location right after earning her doctorate, working as a director of summer and special programs and as an assistant professor of computer information systems at the University of the Virgin Islands (USVI) in St. Thomas where she remained until 2016.
It was during her time there, that she was appointed by the governor as President and CEO of the Virgin Islands Next Generation Network, leading a broadband initiative across the islands. With technology still on dial-up, a grant helped fund a community education initiative to support 33 computing centers.
“You can’t just put technology into a setting and then not show people how to use it. It would be like giving someone keys to a Ferrari without them having a driver’s license,” she says.
She returned to the mainland in 2017 to take the job at Central State as CIO and vice president of information technology. It was facilitating those objectives again that attracted her to Ohio where she felt she could make a difference.
“I have a belief in the power of providing opportunity, educational attainment and economic empowerment through technology,” Coverdale says. “Transforming the lives of students in our community and seeing firsthand how peoples’ lives can change … that is what I love.”
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