Digital Education Leader Melds Hands-On Learning and Virtual Reality

Barry Eckhouse and friendsSomewhere in cyberspace, an alternate Saint Mary’s College exists. In this world, the college is an island, there’s a perfectly scaled 3-D version of McKeon Pavilion, and people can fly.

The alternate SMC is the brainchild of Professor Barry Eckhouse and several of his students, who created it on Second Life, a virtual reality website, as part of a class project to test ways to increase the profitability of McKeon Pavilion without adding seats.

It’s because of this kind of innovative teaching that Eckhouse received the Professor of the Year award this spring, but Eckhouse has been providing leadership in new learning technologies for more than a decade.

He founded the extremely successful Hybrid Executive MBA program, which combines online and in-person learning, and was recently named director of technology and online programs for the School of Economics and Business Administration. His charge is to extend to the undergraduate curriculum the mix of digital and personal learning that has enlivened the school’s graduate programs. 

For Eckhouse, who came to Saint Mary’s in 1989, digital education is all about engaging students in a world that’s full of competition for their interest: “We’re surrounded by different messages. Everything is saying, ‘Choose me,’” he says. To reach students, he believes, we have to speak their language. “Today’s students are digital natives,” he says. “There’s never been a time when they weren’t connected.”

It’s the students, he says, who will ultimately shape the university of the future. He predicts that “in 40 to 50 years, the vast majority of education will be digital.”

But Eckhouse, who came to Saint Mary’s in 1989, is not your average technophile. He is a man of many contradictions: His office is a computer geek’s dream - a cool, dark, ultramodern cave with an array of high-end computer screens stretching along two walls - but he writes with a fountain pen and has a growing collection of vintage writing instruments. And although he’s a nationally recognized leader in online learning, he delights in teaching the occasional low-tech Seminar class and is often seen sporting a decidedly un-hip bow tie.

Eckhouse has brought national recognition to Saint Mary’s by creating EMBA-Tech, a forum that draws educators and administrators from some of the top executive MBA  programs in the nation to explore the cutting edge of educational technology. This year’s forum focused on ways to engage students using the hugely popular tablet computers, such as the iPad. Its keynote speaker was Matt MacInness, founder of Inkling, a pioneering digital textbook company, and author of “The Death of the Page and the Dawn of the Digital.”

At the Professor of the Year award ceremony, Eckhouse was lauded as “a tremendous scholar, teacher and innovative thinker for Saint Mary’s College.” Provost Beth Dobkin  referred to him as Saint Mary’s “man of steel” - a reference to his passion for steel writing instruments and also the determination he brings to his crusade to meld the college’s traditional hands-on learning model with digital technologies.

After accepting the award, Eckhouse delivered a quirky, thought-provoking presentation called “Real Cats, Fake Spiders and the World of Online Learning.” It showed off some inventive uses of digital collaboration, such as 3-D web conferencing, in which participants in different offices or even different countries appear to be sitting around the same circular table, and virtual office environments where teams that interact only through their online avatars.

It also posed the question, “Should digital instruction resemble the traditional, four-walled classroom?”

For Eckhouse, the answer is clear, as evidenced by his recent forays into gaming and Second Life virtual realities. His advice to educators is: “Don’t mimic reality; create your own. After all, why walk when you can fly?”

By Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications

Learn more about EMBA-Tech.

Learn about the Hybrid Executive MBA.

 

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