Barry Eckhouse — An Unlikely Techno Prophet

Somewhere in cyberspace, an alternate Saint Mary’s College exists.  In this world, the college is an island, with 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 he has been providing leadership in new learning technologies for more than a decade.  He founded the 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.

However, 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 seldom seen without his decidedly unhip bow tie.

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, no doubt, to the determination he brings to his crusade to meld the college’s traditional hands-on learning model with digital technologies.  Eckhouse has also brought national recognition to Saint Mary’s by launching 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 in San Francisco focused on ways to engage students by 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.”

For Eckhouse, digital education is all about engaging students in their own language. “Today’s students are digital natives,” he said. “There’s never been a time when they weren’t connected.”