Updated March 25 at 6:25am

Five Questions With: Stephen White

Dean and professor of the Roger Williams University School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation talks about a how technology is changing the classroom at the school.

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Five Questions With: Stephen White


Stephen White has served for 16 years as dean and professor of the Roger Williams University School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation.

Last year, White helped lead the pilot program of a collaborative effort between RWU and Samsung Electronics America Inc. to install 100 27-inch Samsung LED monitors in architecture student studio workspaces.

White spoke to Providence Business News about how technology is changing the classroom at Roger Williams University, and how university partnerships with the corporate community can drive educational innovation.

PBN: How has technology in the classroom changed since you took over as dean of the RWU School of Architecture in 1997?

WHITE: Technology in the classroom has changed almost completely – and for the better – over these 15 to 20 years! In the mid-’90s, the school had only one computer lab with 25 stations for 300 students, and no other access to computing for students. Things have changed dramatically since, and with the implementation of the new cloud computing setup and the Samsung Education Case Study this year, we have extended access to 500 students simultaneously and at a vastly higher quality – and students can utilize this vastly extended and higher-quality setup 24 hours a day via their own machines, instead of competing for seat time with each other in our labs.

This is a whole new environment – more accessible, more affordable, higher quality. Along the way, classroom projection facilities have been installed in all Roger Williams University instructional spaces over a three-year period in the early-mid 2000s, and the university has implemented an open-source course management system over the past four years that provides digital resources for all courses, which also was first piloted in the School of Architecture, Art and Historic Preservation.

PBN: What feedback have you gotten from students about the new technology and having access to advanced applications like AutoCAD on their personal devices?

WHITE: The students are ecstatic about it. They see the immediate benefit in the quality and the reality that they can do high-quality digital work in the design studio itself rather than having to leave when they want to do this kind of work. They are very excited that this is something that the university has provided for them. There is only one other school of architecture currently doing this in the U.S. – at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, a leading research university. Roger Williams has the further great benefit of partnering with Samsung on high-quality monitors, interactive large-format touch screen displays for group work, and recommendations to students on their own devices. For students to achieve the best work, they still need to utilize a laptop with a measure of resources that is beyond a tablet, but they do have access from any of their personal devices.

PBN: In what specific ways does Samsung's cloud computing technology in the classroom help prepare students for the professional world?

WHITE: All of the students now have access to the highest quality server, software and display monitors, so that there is now every expectation that the advanced undergraduate and graduate students are producing professional quality work. This is one of the great breakthroughs at Roger Williams – the model means high-quality professional computing performance within the constructive scale of a liberal arts university. This is remarkable, and helps transform our students’ potentials in the professional world. The new environment also allows much more collaboration among the students anywhere in the building, or wherever they may seek to work together. Large monitors, collaborative learning spaces instead of directed learning spaces, shared software releases so that student working on group projects don’t face compatibility problems in sharing files – these are all great changes that mirror how people work in the professional world. Coupled with the School’s Career Investment Program—where students are supported with university funds in paid internships for an initial start-up period with external firms and organizations – we can now say that our students are positioned in a way for success beyond graduation in ways that other schools cannot currently match.

PBN: How does RWU's focus on affordability for students guide its strategy for bringing instructional technology to the university?

WHITE: Roger Williams University’s Affordable Excellence initiative can make use of technological advances to improve our work – in the humanities, the social sciences, the sciences and the professions. A key element of Affordable Excellence is its consideration of the individual student, and all students. A key rationale for RWU in pursuing this solution was to bring higher-quality computing to all students, at lower cost. Advances such as cloud computing technology basically allow a very large server to reach many more students with the quality that previously could only be provided in a computer lab with limited numbers of machines. This was the key ultimately in making the decision to proceed with this approach. This is so exciting, with the ultimate goal of college graduates achieving more, and offering more to society, at less cost while they are in school and with less debt when they graduate.

PBN: Universities are increasingly forging alliances with corporate partners to connect students to the world outside the classroom. In what ways do you think such alliances are changing the face of academia?

WHITE: Partnerships with those beyond the university are of great transformative value – for several reasons. First, advances in knowledge and application of knowledge sometimes happen first in universities, sometimes beyond the university. If there are not connections and partnerships between us, either one or the other is left out or behind.

Second, connecting universities and external partners is fundamental in bringing along a next generation – it is a much smoother and productive situation if the thresholds are permeable between academia and society/the professions, for the emergence of students as professionals, and for the refreshment/re-energizing of inquiry that comes from practitioners/professionals engaging with an academic setting.

Third, in many fields – if not in general – what may be called clinical instruction is of great value. It is one of the hallmarks of the medical profession, with the interchange between doctors, residents, interns and teaching hospitals, and similarly these kinds of engagements are very valuable for fields such as architecture.

Fundamentally, the forging of alliances with between academia and corporate partners indicates the value of shared endeavor, shared investment in education, the testing of assumptions, and the emergence of the newly educated into meaningful work. It is tremendous that Samsung has agreed to work together with Roger Williams University, and vice versa. Each sees the value of collaboration – each receives something in the partnership that they could not achieve independently.


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