October 4, 2012

Amid a constantly changing technological landscape, Amherst has hired Gayle Barton for the college’s new position of chief information officer. Barton is charged with developing and implementing a fresh vision for instructional technology, and her appointment and membership on the president’s senior staff are recognitions of the significant role that IT plays across campus and the need to integrate IT throughout all operations, planning and decision-making, said President Biddy Martin. 


HED: The 2012 Amherst College IT Index

Every year, Amherst’s IT department provides a snapshot of how members of the campus community use technology. What follows are just a few from this year’s so-called IT Index:

Percentage of applicants to the Class of 2016 who applied online: 99.

Number of applicants without an email address: 1 (out of 8,461).

Number of film titles in the college’s digital video streaming collection: 3,673, nearly triple the number from 2008.

Number of Apple TV units in classrooms (used to project from iPads): 53, up from zero one year ago.

Total bandwidth between campus and the Internet: 500 Mbps (million bits per second), up from 145 Mbps four years ago.

Average daily number of emails received on campus: 155,000, down from 180,000 in 2008.

Percentage of email that arrives as spam: 80, down from 94 percent in 2008.

Number of email messages stored on our systems: 36.5 million.

Percentage change in calls placed from college phones in the last four years: -30 (from 1.1 million to 773,000).

Following AmherstCollege on Twitter: 3,838, up from 543 in 2009.

Following Biddy Martin: 5,477

Read full index...

Barton, who was director of Instructional Technology at Williams for seven years and then chief information technology officer of Swarthmore from 2008 to 2012, brings to Amherst “a keen sense of the full range of IT functions and needs in a liberal arts college context,” according to Martin. Barton comes by that honestly: she is herself a graduate of a liberal arts college. (She holds a B.A. in economics from Bryn Mawr College.) 

In addition to her roles at Swarthmore and Williams, Barton served as director of administrative computing at Clarkson University and held multiple positions in administrative and academic computing at St. Lawrence University, from which she also received a master of education degree.

“Our own conversations with Gayle, and with those who have worked with her most closely, revealed her commitment, in her words, ‘to bring Amherst to a new level of excellence with regard to technology use in teaching, learning, research, residential life, administration and outreach to alumni,’” Martin wrote in an email announcing her appointment. “We are delighted that Gayle will bring her experience, expertise, leadership and imagination to Amherst—and that we can now add ‘CIO’ to our campus lexicon.”

Barton moved into her new Amherst office in Seeley Mudd on July 1 and has spent the past few months getting to know the college and its staff and faculty.

Public Affairs caught up with her recently and spoke with her about her background, goals and plans. (She is also responding to comments and questions online at her Tell the CIO page.)

How did you become interested in information technology?

It was completely an accident. When my husband went to graduate school, I had a new degree in economics and absolutely no idea what I wanted to do next. We had moved to Rochester, N.Y., and I started temping at various companies, including Xerox. At Xerox, someone approached me and said, “We have a computer programmer training initiative, and we think you would be a great for it. Would you like us to pay you to go to programmer school for six months?” As it turned out, I loved programming, and I did end up being good at it. I found it creative, interesting and challenging. Later, I taught programming and systems design as an adjunct faculty member at a community college. Then I went on to St. Lawrence, where I led the team that designed the administrative systems they still use today. It was there that I realized how much I like being in higher ed, both teaching and supporting, and I became more intentional about my career.

What excites you about IT?

It’s such an interesting field to be a part of. It attracts creative people with a variety of backgrounds who like to learn all the time, don’t mind change and are energized by a challenge. A big part of my job is to sustain an environment where these talented people can be successful. I feel the same way about working with faculty and students: We want them to have the resources, the space and the support they need so they can learn, create and express themselves.

What are your goals in this new position of Chief Information Officer?

I would like to help people on campus make informed choices about technology. It can do so many wonderful things. It can facilitate a conversation between a faculty member and a colleague in a far-off country. It can help scholars manage, store and analyze massive amounts of image data. It has helped make new fields of research possible. I sometimes think there’s a misconception that people here are averse to using technology. I’ve actually found the opposite: People have embraced new technology well on this campus. Very few people here—and in this world—would choose to go back to a typewriter, for example, or depend on snail-mail for routine communications. Very few people would choose to stop using software for statistical analysis or give up their iPads. We embrace technology because it serves us and makes things possible that we couldn’t have imagined 10 years ago. What is great about Amherst is that the college continues to preserve what’s important: the conversations between a professor and students and among students. At the same time, Amherst doesn’t shy from using technology when it serves teaching, research and creative endeavors.

What is in the works now in IT?

We are talking about how we can transform the spaces in Seeley Mudd to provide additional support for multimedia development. We want to make it easier for students, faculty and staff to do more video, audio or graphics—more visual communication. Another thing that we’re working on is the Global Classroom Initiative. Through that program, we’ll support Amherst faculty working with colleagues around the world, videoconferencing and sharing materials and ideas. The goal is to bring a more global perspective into Amherst classrooms.

The things people are doing here with mobile devices are also incredibly exciting. We have Apple TVs in most of the classrooms this year, enabling people to project to a large screen from an iPad. One of this year’s Spanish classes is using the iPad to record video, edit it and play it back in class using an Apple TV.  Our classroom-and-lab team have been working hard on this for some time.

The IT staff just gave presentations on current projects, and it was amazing to see. We have a new digital repository, virtual computing lab services, a “citizen science” app for the iPhone—lots of innovative projects. The college created Amherst Mobile (m.amherst.edu), which has shortcuts to Web pages that are popular with people who are on campus, and we’re promoting that with iPad kiosks in key locations, such as Valentine Dining Hall and Alumni Gymnasium. We’re also rolling out Moodle, an open-source course-management system, and are working with Public Affairs on reconfiguring the college website to work well on mobile devices.

What are some of the challenges that you and your staff are facing?

There are enormous opportunities, and it’s exciting to support President Martin as she helps the college look ahead. I think the biggest challenge for IT will be prioritizing the many possible projects and tasks and ensuring that we stay focused on the most important ones.

What do you see on the horizon for Amherst and IT?

I think the trend toward mobile devices and cloud computing is very strong, exciting and inevitable. We’ve talked for years about “any time, any place” computing, and now it’s becoming “any time, any place, any device.” With more access to our data and services through a Web browser, we can share files and services across devices and among colleagues. Another exciting area is the move toward “open”: open courseware, open textbooks and open access to scholarly publications. I’m thrilled to be a part of it all.