Academic Innovation Team Leads Efforts to Integrate Emerging Technologies, Game-Based Learning in Student Instruction

As the demand for technology-savvy business school graduates increases, universities are continuously seeking new ways to improve academic instruction. At the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, a team of intellectually curious and highly-collaborative professionals lead efforts to develop and implement multidisciplinary approaches to improve the academic experience for students in both the graduate and undergraduate business programs.

Headquartered in Miller Hall, Academic Innovation is led by Karen Conner and her colleague Terry Trojak. The duo identifies new opportunities for improving the student experience through the use of technology and facilitating its integration into various programs and initiatives.

“We help to evaluate emerging technologies and think about how they may be used to improve student learning outcomes. Our goal is to better the student experience,” said Conner. “We work with faculty who teach online, face-to-face, and in the blended space. We consider how the needs in business are changing and therefore how we need to change as educators with regard to how we use technology to help students learn.”

With the introduction of the Mason School’s online programs, the Academic Innovation team realized that faculty needed a space to create higher quality video. The team identified an opportunity to transform a former video conference room into an audio-visual production studio. Through research and collaboration, they installed a green screen and acquired lighting equipment and cameras which are compatible with existing technology used by the Swem Library Reeder Media Center.

“We build the first lightboard on campus which allows us to create engaging videos where faculty are able to record instruction while looking straight through the glass into the camera,” Conner explained.

But the demand for their expertise spans far beyond the video production needs fulfilled by the studio. In recent years, Conner and Trojak have been integral to the execution of major initiatives. One example is the residential full-time MBA week-long Sprint crisis simulation. Students were immersed in a real-time, fictitious scenario involving press conferences with the media, managing breaking news alerts and social media notifications, and reporting to stakeholders.

“We serve in a consultative role,” said Trojak. “We assist in rethinking and adding value. We’re involved in a broad spectrum of projects that change each academic year. We’ve produced live debates, hosted Tribe Talks, and brought 3-D printing to Miller Hall, though our emphasis over the last year has been on supporting faculty needs around remote learning.”

Pandemic-Driven Innovation

Prior to COVID-19, faculty would typically approach their office on an individual basis regarding teaching concepts or a curiosity about a new technology. But when the university was forced to shift all classes to a virtual environment last spring in response to the pandemic, their previous efforts accelerated to meet the remote teaching demands required at a massive scale.

“No one could have anticipated or been fully prepared for the last year,” said Conner. “But we were well-positioned to help address this crisis because of our work over the last several years partnering with faculty and the Online Programs team. We helped to develop tools which aided faculty as they shifted from face-to-face to virtual instruction. We curated information that we knew would be helpful to first-timers who had only taught in-person and were thrown into this situation.”

Both Trojak and Conner are veterans of William & Mary and have extensive backgrounds working in the technology space. Trojak has served at the university for over 25 years in a variety of information technology (IT) roles before assuming his current position as the Senior Creative Producer of Academic Innovation.

Conner has worked at William & Mary for over 15 years, serving first as a senior software engineer before becoming the Associate Director of eLearning at the Mason School and then the Director of Academic Innovation in 2018. She received her Ph.D. in Educational Policy, Planning and Leadership in Higher Education and the College Teaching Certificate from William & Mary in 2019.

Their combined expertise in information systems, innovative instructional design, and digital applications has brought creative solutions to their stakeholders who, as a result, have embraced the adoption of emerging technologies within the classroom.

Leveraging Partnerships and Gamification in Education

Perhaps the largest contribution their efforts have brought to the Mason School is access to a wide network of partners both within and outside of the William & Mary university system.

“We collaborate with so many different people, and one of our strengths is that we have built really strong relationships across campus. We know who has their fingers in the latest technology or what innovative things are happening which allows us to move forward without recreating the wheel,” said Conner. “If somebody is looking for a solution to a particular challenge and we haven’t already come up with something ourselves, we can often connect them with someone who has. We build bridges.”

Conner and Trojak leveraged this network of partnerships to launch a university-sponsored esports initiative, the first of its kind at William & Mary. The idea came to them after attending an IT conference where esports was highlighted. In addition to the Mason School, they brought together a team of colleagues from Arts & Sciences, the School of Education, IT, and the Studio for Teaching and Learning Innovation, all with support of the Provost’s Office. They have been integral to the launch of a new esports initiative, which offers students opportunities to compete in varsity esports titles, to participate in new academic esports courses, and to become part of a vibrant gaming community.

“Necessity is the mother of invention, or innovation,” Conner said. “I like to improve things – make them more efficient or exciting or rewarding and we see an opportunity in game-based learning as a way to attract the next generation of students.”

And their efforts have certainly done so, particularly in the business school where innovation, simulations, and experiential learning activities have been integrated into instruction.

“Our work involves the intersection of technology and education,” said Trojak. “Years ago, I’m not sure anyone could have imagined how video games could affect education. Now looking forward, we’re asking ourselves how can Artificial Intelligence affect education? Our task ahead will be to look at emerging technologies and determine how they may be best incorporated into improving instruction at William & Mary.”