Tech and Trek at Hiram College

President Lori E. Varlotta discusses mindfulness and technology

This fall, Hiram College becomes one of just a few universities in the country—and the only four-year college in Ohio—to launch a campuswide mobile technology program. Thanks to a $2.1 million gift, Hiram will issue all full-time undergraduates and all faculty and staff an iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and keyboard bundle in an effort to promote “mindful technology.”

As we see it, mindful technology is more than simply knowing how to use technology. It is also about delving into the when, where and to-what-extent questions that are sometimes out of sight or overlooked in the technology-saturated world we now inhabit.

The program, dubbed “Tech and Trek,” is designed to mitigate the fears many parents and educators harbor regarding the increased use of technology by today’s youth.

Many of those concerns are corroborated by research that claims the heightened use of technology thwarts young people’s development of interpersonal skills, and also diminishes—sometimes in significant ways—their mental and physical well-being.

To ward off those potential dangers, faculty and administrators are leveraging the use of mindful technology in the literal and figurative treks that mark a Hiram College education.

Video reflections

At Hiram, experiential activities—“treks” if you will—are not just rhetoric. They are requirements that students must complete an internship, study-away trip or guided research project.

Tech and Trek ensures that students not only participate in one or more of these activities but that they practice making the most of the experience “in the moment” and reflect on its impact once it concludes. Students traveling abroad, for example, make their journals come alive with photo- and video-enhanced entries.

Their real-time understanding of historical buildings and natural wonders will be sharpened as they access location-aware apps to answer on-the-spot questions. Later, students can use various forms of social media to send multimedia presentations to friends and family thousands of miles away.

Students also make videos to show the immediate impact their service-learning project has on the community they are serving. Interns record presentations they delivered to their bosses and play them for the faculty member who is supervising the internship. Student teachers and nurses record interactions with their respective students and patients.

After viewing their own performance, they make adjustments to improve future interactions. To help obliterate the sedentary lifestyle correlated with the frequent use of technology, Hiram students also receive a top-end pair of Vasque hiking boots.

This part of Tech and Trek has been made possible thanks to a partial corporate gift from Red Wing Shoes, plus private donor support.

Tech-free treks

Our design of Tech and Trek prompts students to explicitly consider cultural mores, privacy concerns, institutional (hospital, museum, theater) policies, and other factors at play on their treks.

As such, it also helps them determine when it is better—more natural, more humane, more sensitive—to put the device down and keep their eyes, ears and (most importantly) their hearts open.

For treks closer to home, we plan to institute campuswide “Trek Time”—an hour or so each week when all members of the community are encouraged to put their devices down and “be present” without technological interventions.

During this time, many of us will lead hikes through the trails at the college’s 550-acre Field Station or organize a walk along the three-mile square around the campus. The treks described above have long been the hallmark of a Hiram education.

Now we are engaged in stimulating conversations about how and when technology can help students navigate these transformational journeys.

Lori E. Varlotta is president of Hiram College in Ohio.


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