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The Grill: Andy Pratt

To keep pace with traveling students, this IT director is creating a virtual classroom.

May 23, 2011 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - Andy Pratt, director of technology at The Lowell Whiteman School, has to support some unusual schedules. Many of the students at this college-prep boarding and day school in Steamboat Springs, Colo., are competitive skiers and snowboarders who travel the world for training and competitions. Teachers and students had relied on paper-based assignments and occasional phone calls and, later, a patched-together recording system. But this year, Pratt implemented a videoconferencing system to create a much richer academic experience for students while they're away.

Andy Pratt

Favorite nonwork pastimes: Endurance athletics, and performing with a comedy juggling troupe called We're Not Clowns.

Second job: Professional musician, playing piano, guitar, banjo, bass, French horn and drums.

What piece of technology are you never without? My BlackBerry.

And he's not stopping there -- Pratt is building a technology plan to better use mobile phones and the Internet to create a virtual campus that can reach students wherever they may be.

How do you deliver academics to your student-athletes while they're traveling? Primarily over the Internet. The lectures are videotaped using [Logitech] LifeSize equipment and stored so they can deliver it anytime. We use Google Docs for documentation transmission, syllabuses, assignments and homework.

How do you ensure that these traveling students get the fullest academic experience? I think video and teleconferencing makes all the difference. [Experts say] 80% to 90% of a message is conveyed through facial expression, and the LifeSize equipment conveys that -- much more than just audio. And all our teachers use whiteboards to transfer complex concepts using drawings, and that's something that an audio or an email may not deliver as well as a video.

Does the work you do to support students on the road influence the types of technologies you deploy at your school's main campus? Absolutely. We're at the end of our life cycles with pretty much all our technology, but my current plan is to host the website here and host all of our documentation. We're currently using software as a service for our school management, but it's a failed experiment as far as I'm concerned -- it's just not working out. So I'm bringing everything here but making everything available on the Internet. My plan is to make this accessible from anywhere in the world.

How will you achieve that? A few different ways. We'll have a server here, most likely Microsoft. We're looking into SharePoint, and we're experimenting with Moodle, free Web-based software, where the entire curriculum is laid out and all documentation and assignments are run through there. So it's kind of a curriculum manager, and since it's a Web-based product, kids could be anywhere and use it. One of my other ideas is to use smartphones for more educational purposes. You can write a paper on a phone now, you can use a spreadsheet on a phone now or create a presentation on a phone. It changes whether we need a computer lab or students need a laptop. It's an interesting and exciting time to be doing what we're doing. There are ways to get the phone to interact with software to answer surveys, so teachers can get students to answer questions and then the teachers can see the results on a graph. My thought is that there are ways to compress LifeSize videos so they could watch them on the phone, and that wouldn't even require an Internet connection. And the phones could access Moodle, which would have all their documentation and lecture notes. That's the direction I want to go.

How do students respond to the technology you use to support their learning? Some of them think it's really cool, and some of them think it's expected. They grew up in an age when this stuff is normal, and using this sort of technology to get whatever they want when they want is very common. It's a far cry from trying to tell a teacher who has been here for 30 years to embrace this new technology. It's scary to them, but it's not scary to a teenager.

What advice do you have for the companies that will hire today's students in the next decade or so? Because they are exposed to this technology so early and so consistently in their lives, they're going to be quite prepared for the future. But my main concern is that [students] know the process that came to create some of these software solutions. I think what can happen in today's world is not knowing why something is -- what's the guts behind something, or knowing basic math without having to use a calculator, knowing the rules of grammar not because Word corrected it for you but because you just know it.

You have a dual title of director of technology and director of music. Does your work in one field influence your work in the other? Certainly, the technology background makes it so I'm savvy with a lot of digital recording, which I do share with the students. And [music] is a brand-new program, which is part of why they hired me. The music does influence the technology part, because reading music is an abstract skill. Taking written notes and making a physical animation of sound -- it's a language of its own. It coincides with abstract ideas in technology.

Which student demands most influence your IT operations and choices? That comes down to social networking primarily. They're mostly concerned with YouTube and Facebook. Should our connection go down, that would get them fired up a little bit. But thank goodness I know what I'm doing, so that doesn't happen too often.

Read more about Internet in Computerworld's Internet Topic Center.



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