WSUV program links technology with community

Associate professor’s program offers workshops to businesses, nonprofit groups

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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To those who see Google’s search engine as a form of magic, Dene Grigar is easily a master magician.

Kicking off a recent technology workshop, the Washington State University associate professor typed the letters “CMDC” into her Apple computer. Workshop participants, many of them small business owners, watched on a video projector as links to WSUV’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program popped into the second and fourth positions on the Google search engine, out of 384,000 possibilities.

“Are you going to show us how to get there?” an astonished older man called out from the back of the darkened room.

Grigar, whose first name is pronounced “dee-nee,” did precisely that over the next hour, stripping away the sense of magic and showing businesses and nonprofits how to make the Internet work for them.

The late November session, the last in a seven-week series called Technology 101, is one element of what Creative Media and Digital Culture director Grigar calls “civic engagement” between her program and the larger community. The free workshops, which will be offered again in the spring, are part of that engagement. So is the project work undertaken by students for businesses and community groups, including the Vancouver Symphony, the Vancouver Downtown Association, and Fort Vancouver. A mobile phone application that includes historical re-enactments at Fort Vancouver’s village, still in a testing phase, already is grabbing attention from the National Park Service.

Next up: Students are working on a long-term exhibit at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland that will showcase technological innovation in automobiles. Vancouver-based Dick Hannah auto dealerships has contributed $40,000 to the exhibit, scheduled to open sometime around May. At Grigar’s request, the company also donated $68,500 for scholarships to 10 of the program’s students this summer. The students created a mobile phone application that connects Hannah customers with emergency roadside services, one of two mobile apps developed during the class.

“We have a real interest in cultivating homegrown technology,” says Ken VanArnam, Dick Hannah’s marketing director.

To Grigar, 57, it all fits the university’s role of serving the community and her conviction that

technology opens a new world of possibilities. She taught her own father, who had owned a small business, how to use a computer when he was 85. She’s held workshops requiring students to live a day without technology to help them see what life is like for people who are trying to find homes or jobs without using computers.

“I’ve always been concerned about the digital divide,” she says. “Whether you’re white, black or Hispanic, if you can’t use technology, you are left behind and can’t feed yourself.”

Since arriving from Texas Women’s College in 2006, Grigar has renamed and revamped the Creative Media and Digital Culture program. Her ambitions for the program, which she calls “computer science with a smile,” are as limitless as the march of digital technology into most aspects of everyday life. “We specialize in development of any object that’s created by a computing device,” she says.

But it’s tough to keep up with technology’s rapid advances. . Even streaming video and 3-D projects done just a few years ago now seem dated as technology races forward and new horizons open, especially in mobile computing devices. That’s why students need to learn the fundamentals for developing multimedia images rather than techniques of how to use today’s software. Her program, Grigar says, will never offer a class on how to use Photoshop. “We’re not interested in the here and now, but are more interested in the future,” she says.

An artist and an ardent admirer of the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Grigar emphasizes the value of aesthetics as well as usability in her students’ work. Embracing Jobs’ philosophy, Grigar strives for simplicity, offering just 10 classes when other programs offer two to three times as many.

Hunter Crawford, 25, transferred from Clark College in 2009 and is now a senior in the program. He values its focus on research skills needed to keep apace of rapid technological change. “I think what’s important is not just a specific type of coding, but researching what you need when you need it,” he says. “That makes students really dynamic in what they do.”

Enrollment has grown from 44 students in 2006 to 175 students who are this year working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Digital Technology and Culture. Last year, the program separated from the English Department and gained independent status in the university’s reporting structure. Next year, it will offer freshman-level courses as its first expansion from its current two-year status. Grigar hopes to develop a research component in the emerging field, befitting WSU’s designation as a research university.

Eighty-five percent of recent Creative Media and Digital Culture graduates are now working in jobs tied to their academic training. Google has hired three graduates, but Grigar hopes that her students will help create local jobs in the digital, interactive niche. “I’m interested in developing a whole new industry,” says Grigar. “We have an opportunity to jump.”

Many who know her comment on Grigar’s seemingly boundless energy, and Grigar says those observations are on target. She listened at age 7 when a doctor told her mother that she was hyperactive and would never excel in life.

“I was furious,” she recalls a half-century later. “As I got older, I learned if I ran and didn’t do anything too heavy, I could calm down. I’ve learned to focus, but I have the energy of 10 people and it doesn’t stop.”

But as Grigar has raced ahead, she’s stayed grounded in the notion of civic engagement. She admits that she had misjudged the level of technical knowledge in the local community, based on her assumption that an area that calls itself the Silicon Forest would have a tech-savvy population.

“I thought people knew more than they did,” she said.

That’s where the Technology 101 series fits in. The workshops have been offered for two years and will be repeated spring term. The classes, taught by WSUV faculty and community professionals, are already so popular that people are being turned away from some sessions.

The recent search engine optimization workshops peeled back the seeming magic of making it to the top of Google’s queue. A multitude of factors feed into Google’s algorithm — the placement of words on a website, links from other websites, clicks to the site from Twitter, and an abundance of words that steer people to the site.

Paul Nevue said he’s been self-employed for 13 years as president of the advertising and marketing firm Nevue Consulting Inc. Even with a degree in marketing and 30 years’ professional experience, the Vancouver resident said he attended sessions on social media and search engine optimization to learn about the latest technology.

“What I’ve learned is that all the same principles I learned in school and in my work history are still being used, but people are applying them in new and different ways,” said Nevue, 51. “I felt kind of reassured.”

Sue Edwards, 64, also attended a couple of courses in preparation for the January launch of her human resources consulting firm, called The Training Department. During the session on search engine optimization, Grigar toyed with the name “Training Department” and informed Edwards that moving her company to a high position on Google’s search engine would be tough because both words are very generic.

“I will not be changing the name,” Edwards said after the class. “I experimented with a couple of other names that did not resonate with human resources managers and small business owners. They totally get it when you tell them you are the training department.” But she says she might change her domain name, “www.training-department.com,” to something that would more easily steer users to her site.

Edwards, who served on a site selection committee for the university decades ago and whose daughter, Brenda Alling, is WSUV’s communications manager, said she appreciates the workshops’ availability to fledgling businesses like hers. “Clearly, the increasing popularity of these classes as the word gets out is an indicator of the value of the university to the community,” she said.

Grigar says she offered the workshops at no cost out of concern for people who couldn’t afford even $10, and because she was afraid no one would show up if they had to pay. But she’s had to add extra sessions to accommodate demand, only to find vacant seats as registered participants failed to show. Now she’s considering a small fee just to reduce the risk of no-shows.

But she’ll keep reaching out, convinced that her “civic engagement” can reach even those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

“Everybody can learn,” she says. “Everyone’s worth it.”