Integrating teaching and technology
Behind the scenes in Tufts’ UIT Academic Technology department
By Annie Soisson | Photo by Kevin Walsh
Melanie St. James is a renaissance woman. Among her many interesting facets: She is French Canadian; a photographer; a mother; she is learning to Flamenco dance; and, on top of all that, is an interface design specialist who brings a wide range of professional experience to her role at Tufts.
She began her career in the private sector as a photographer, and then became a web designer before transitioning in 2002 to Tufts’ UIT Academic Technology (AT) department where she helps make educational technology accessible to and usable for faculty, students and staff.
Soon after coming to Tufts as an interactive media designer, St. James earned her Masters Degree at the Harvard School of Education’s Technology Innovation in Education (TIE) program.
“I really enjoy what I do,” she says. “It is a wonderful creative outlet, and has great substance. I get to work with a wide range of people and projects, from the Classics Department to the Medical School. I am always learning new things.”
St. James works between the user and the developer to make programs as user-friendly and intuitive as possible. While often behind the scenes, a rewarding aspect of the job for her is helping to develop efficient, easy-to-use ways for people to interact with technology.
As part of the AT group, she also provides consultation services to faculty on how to integrate technology into their teaching and research. “In AT, most of us have a background in instructional design,” St. James says.
“We look at goals and challenges and try to match a tool or technology to meet those needs. It’s satisfying to go out and help people adopt new technologies into their work and have success.”
One of St. James’ current projects is continuing to develop the interface for the Visual Understanding Environment (VUE), a concept and content mapping program. VUE helps users create relationships between concepts and ideas and contextualize digital content. The program provides a concept mapping interface, building on years of cognitive science research. What is unique to VUE is its presentation tool, allowing users to create linear or non-linear presentations using content from their map. The presenter can then switch between content (the slides) and context (the map) and highlight how all this information hangs together.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on how simple VUE is to use,” she says. “VUE allows us to see how things fit together and to understand relationships. This is how we learn best.”
Another AT project on which St. James is working is developing web-conferencing capability at Tufts. Currently in a pilot phase, this web-based tool with video and voice capability allows participants to share materials, give presentations, and collaborate remotely on projects in large or small groups. This technology can benefit both the academic and administrative sides of the university, and has the potential to facilitate meetings across the three Tufts campuses, mitigating some concerns about where to meet and expensive, time-consuming travel. Web-conferences can be used for distance learning, to easily bring speakers from around the world to campus, and to support research collaboration between Tufts faculty and researchers in other locations.
“One very exciting shift for AT in the last few years is that we have moved from working mostly on ”boutique” projects and into developing initiatives that are university-wide and impact more people,” St. James says. Although we still help faculty on individual projects, we now have a more balanced approach.”
Though based on the Medford/Somerville campus, AT is a university-wide service, working across the three campuses in both academic and administrative areas.
St. James can be contacted through AT if you would like any more information on these or other projects on which she is currently working.