University Libraries’ Tech Academy helps incoming students bridge technology gap

two students sitting together at computer stations, student at right smiles with arms raised joyfully

A student in Pattee Library and Paterno Library’s Sidewater Commons computer lab celebrates an achievement. By completing University Libraries’ Tech Academy online in Canvas, Penn State students can feel more confident with technology as they start college classes.

Credit: Photo by Steve Tressler/Vista Pro Studios

ALTOONA, Pa. — When Penn State leaders made the decision to shift to remote learning for summer 2020 classes, Penn State instruction leaders realized they needed to rethink strategies for student support. Students and faculty would need to use online learning tools, including some they weren’t familiar with, more than ever. Fortunately, an already-successful Penn State University Libraries-based technology training initiative had been introducing basic technology tools and skills to incoming students since 2017. 

Bonnie Imler, head librarian of both the Robert E. Eiche Library at Penn State Altoona and the DuBois Campus Library, had developed the Tech Academy training program based on her experience assisting students with basic technology tasks at the library’s reference desk. Through a research study conducted in 2013, she confirmed that undergraduates were struggling with technology requests commonly made by instructors.  

Imler also knew from discussions with students and their parents that many were unaware of free and loanable technology provided by the University, and they were making unnecessary purchases as a result. These observations led to an invitation by a campus administrator to create a Tech Academy to instruct Penn State Altoona students in the PaSSS summer start program offered at Penn State Commonwealth Campuses. These in-classroom sessions were held from 2017 to 2019; however, COVID-19's remote learning environment necessitated a shift to online learning.   

For this new Tech Academy format, a group of librarians, instructional designers from Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology, and student success staff were brought together over Zoom to share their expertise. Cori Biddle, Eiche Library’s student engagement and outreach librarian and Imler’s colleague, also was a member of the working group charged with shifting the Tech Academy online.  

“Utilizing the University’s learning management system, Canvas, we were able to quickly switch Tech Academy to an asynchronous instructional environment,” Biddle said. “We were able to keep its goals of providing a basic introduction to the essential technologies students need in their coursework and building their awareness of the free resources available to them through IT, Media Commons and the University Libraries.”  

Tech Academy’s online training takes approximately 90 minutes and can be completed in one or more sittings. According to Imler and Biddle, Tech Academy’s content makes sure that each student has a foundational understanding of the vital, free and loanable technology available to Penn State users, much of which is needed from the very first day of classes.  

“The content and assignments are meant to be a halfway point between just giving students a passive list of technology links and offering them all-inclusive workshops on individual software packages,” Imler said. “The assignments are designed to provide proof that the students have explored the resource while also giving them experience using the many features of Canvas.”  

Because the academy intends to prepare new students for the start of their academic experience, it is most often offered during New Student Orientations or First-Year Seminars. To date, it has been adopted at 19 campuses, four University Park colleges, and has even become part of University Park’s summer Learning Edge Academic Program (LEAP). More than 12,000 students have been enrolled in the Tech Academy as of the fall 2023 semester.

“We are excited for adoptions to continue to grow as more see its benefits to student confidence and success,” Biddle said. 

The University Libraries has remained committed to the Tech Academy, through the time and dedication of Libraries’ employees who serve as program facilitators throughout the state. Recently, the program also received additional support through an endowment gift from Penn State alumna Mary O’Neill Marsh.

More information on the Tech Academy, including a more detailed description of its content, examples of student feedback, and additional publications on the program authored by Biddle and Imler, can be found at the Tech Academy’s website