Staff Spotlight: Jaya Kannan

Jaya Kannan is the Director of Technology for Curriculum and Research in the IT Department.

Q: What is the specific role that you perform with IT? What is your daily routine like?

A: My specific role is to act as the nexus between academic technology tools, pedagogy and research support for faculty and students. A large part of my work involves faculty development, that is, working with faculty to meet their digital teaching objectives. In terms of daily routine, I spend a lot of time doing macro-level strategic planning for digital teaching and learning at the institutional level, meso-level program administration (workshops, materials development, collaborations with relevant units) and at a micro-level, handling faculty queries (say about Moodle, Google tools, podcasts, etc.), and doing problem-solving within the team. 

Q: What drew you to work at Amherst? How did you get involved with the college, and how long have you been working here?

A: I was first drawn to the job because it related to my work in education technology and also because it offered me the opportunity to build meaningful bridges between faculty and academic support services here. I was also impressed by seeing two women, the president and provost, as leaders of the institution. As a woman of color, I also found Amherst’s institutional goals of building a diverse and inclusive community very welcoming. On a more personal note, I totally romanticized the literary wealth of Amherst. I actually consider myself more a student of literature than someone who is very technology-oriented. On my first visit to campus, I was inspired by the Robert Frost statue, the fact that Emily Dickinson lived here and that David Foster Wallace was actually a student at Amherst.

Q: Where did you work before coming to Amherst?

A: I started out as faculty and had 15-plus years of teaching experience before fully moving to academic administration and faculty development. I taught at a Science and Technology University in India and at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore before coming to the U.S. in 2000 and working in U.S. higher education. My first positions in the U.S. were as an adjunct instructor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and University of Connecticut in Stamford, Connecticut, before working as an Associate Professor at Metropolitan College of New York. In 2011, I moved to Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut as director of the learning center there. I was then appointed as head of the Office of Digital Learning at Sacred Heart in 2013, an office equivalent to the Center for Teaching and Learning at Amherst College that I helped to create and led for five years before coming to Amherst.

Q: I read that you have been involved with integrating technologies into campus to improve our educational experience, but were you involved with this work before coming to Amherst?

A: Yes, my field of research has always been in this area, starting with my Ph.D., which was in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). This was more than 25 years ago, when I did some early work in AI [artificial intelligence]. Since then, I have continued with teaching, management of learning centers and action research in education technology. My main field of interest is digital pedagogy, namely how to meaningfully integrate technology into the curriculum. This includes face-to-face, online and blended learning. 

Q: How has your experience been working with IT here?

A: I have found working on digital pedagogy from within IT very advantageous because it gives me easy access to technological infrastructure, combined with excellent collaboration with the CTL and other partners on the academic side. When I first arrived, the CIO [chief information officer] already had a clear vision for digital accessibility, and the department was doing solid work in this area. We have been able to build upon this expertise and also appointed an IT accessibility person. In the process of my work here, I have learned about new concepts of educational technology, such as computing clusters, and virtual reality applications by our faculty in STEM and the humanities. There is also an Academic Resources Team (ART) chaired by the provost to coordinate efforts in these areas. Although our unit, Academic Technology Services (ATS), is from the non-academic side in this team, we have felt  very included. I feel this demonstrates the value of ATS for contributing to the use of technology in academic work.

Q: Have you changed anything about your role as the Director of Technology for Curriculum and Research since coming to Amherst? Have you changed anything about the department as a whole?

A: In terms of the department itself, we have expanded the team size, built in process mechanisms for responsibility and collaboration and increased the resiliency of academic technology platforms by moving Moodle to the cloud in summer 2019. Because of the expertise that my teammates Asha Kinney, Andy Anderson and Shivaji Kumar bring to the department, the range of projects within our work portfolio has widened. We have also changed how the department is perceived by faculty, emphasizing our role as a digital pedagogy resource that can understand a faculty member’s specific teaching scenario and provide optimal solutions. In other words, we are offering pedagogy-driven collaboration rather than just tech support. Part of that is to build awareness within the college about the high level of digital teaching and learning that already exists. Just because Amherst College is a residential college with no online courses, one must not assume that we are behind with digital teaching and learning. Our newly launched project Teaching and Learning with Technology is designed to showcase the innovative practices of our faculty and students.

Q: What is the most rewarding experience that comes from your work?

A: I have really enjoyed connecting with IT colleagues from such diverse backgrounds, including other women and minorities. My own ATS team also brings a range of strengths and perspectives to the table, which motivates and inspires me to aim high in setting goals and accomplishing them. And of course I love to work with the faculty. My conversations with them, understanding their different approaches to teaching and learning in the classroom and across so many disciplines, are always a joy!

Q: You have numerous published works detailing how technology can be used in education. Have you collaborated with other Amherst faculty and staff or students on your work?

A: Yes, I have! Here is one example: two faculty members and I recently submitted a paper in March 2020 to be considered for publication in a prestigious journal in my field (Language Learning and Technology). This paper was co-authored with Professor Sara Brenenis in the Spanish department and Professor Sanam Nader-Esfahani in the French department. It has also been enriching to work with the student workers who have provided able support for projects in data visualization, VR and 3D objects and digital accessibility.

Q: How has your role changed to adapt to COVID-19? Are there things that you miss about working with students (if your role previously involved them) or is there anything that you miss about campus running “as normal”?

A: I am thankful that we are able to continue our work as effectively as possible while working from home during these crazy COVID-19 times. That said, the socio-affective aspect of my everyday learning is greatly hampered by having to limit myself to the remote environment. Most of all, I miss being away from campus and the simple pleasure of being surrounded by faculty, staff and students. 

Q: Is there anything else you would like the Amherst student body to know about you?

A: As a huge tennis fan, every time I walk past the Amherst tennis court, I cannot help but think of Amherst alum David Foster Wallace and his brilliant essay, “Roger Federer as a religious experience”!