Dr. Norb Thomes has always enjoyed technology and the opportunities it presents to enhance learning. He found fulfillment in teaching web design, graphic design and programming, but realized he wanted to share his passion for education with a wider audience of students, beyond just a single classroom at a time.

“That led me into faculty development, a chance to help many faculty impact all of their own students,” said Thomes, who joined the Winona State University community of learners in 2012. “WSU had an opening for a faculty developer, along with a philosophy and environment I liked, so the fit was easy.”

In his role as Learning Services and Systems Coordinator, Thomes assists faculty in utilizing technology to further the classroom-learning experience for their students.

“Technology is a vehicle, much like the cars we drive every day,” Thomes said. “Technology in and of itself is not education, nor should it be the focus of what happens in the classroom. Instead, like your car, it should be a way to get you places you could not get without it and a lot faster than the older methods.”

In working hands-on with faculty at WSU, Thomes recognized a conflict between continually advancing technologies and the limited resources schools had to invest in exploring new opportunities for digital learning. He decided the process to introduce and integrate new technology into the classroom could be made more efficient and conceived of the Mobile Computing Laboratory (the McLAB), a cooperative of schools across Minnesota that tests out and reports on new educational technologies to save other schools time and money.

“The McLAB is a place where schools can work together to test, collaborate, and publish their findings,” said Thomes. “Because it is a collaborative effort, each school learns more than they would have on their own. These data are then available to other schools in the system.”

In 2016, Thomes received $12,500 in startup funding from the Minnesota State Shark Tank Initiative to make the McLAB a reality. Currently the McLAB is working with eight partner schools in the Minnesota State system on mobile technology projects ranging from recording and sharing lectures, to meeting student technology expectations, to using robots in the classroom.

At WSU, Thomes is collaborating with Dr. Mary Anderson in the WSU Education Department to integrate a robot student substitute into the classroom environment. The robot’s intended purpose is to assist students who cannot attend classes for extended periods of time, such as those with long-term medical issues. In trial exercises with the robot, a student is removed from the classroom and the robot is put in her place. The student then “attends” the class remotely and collaborates with classmates via the robot from another place on campus.

Looking ahead, Thomes hopes to continue sharing and growing opportunities for technology and digital learning. He serves on several Minnesota State system-wide committees, like the Academic Student Affairs Technology Council and the Learning Environment workgroup, and hopes that the McLAB can continue to make a difference in how education and new technologies evolve and intersect.

The McLAB received a second round of funding—$15,500—after once again competing in the Minnesota State Shark Tank competition in 2017.

“I’m really excited about what this means for our mobile computing lab,” said Thomes. “Mobile technology is everywhere in education, and this funding will allow us to continue our current projects as well as welcome new ideas and explore new technologies.”