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Technology the ticket at SPJC campus

Provost Jim Olliver prefaces the story with an apology: Forgive me if I've already told this one.

But Olliver can't help himself. The overseer of St. Petersburg Junior College's new Seminole campus loves to relate the tale of a student who, on the school's opening day, was surprised to see computers in his classroom.

"He said, "I'm sorry, Dr. Olliver, I'm in the wrong class. I'm in a writing class,' " Olliver said. "And I said, "No, no. You're not in the wrong class.' "

The punch line, left unspoken, is that the technology on the Seminole campus, where computers top most every desk, is bowling students over.

Certainly there have been some gripes since the campus opened in August _ about hours, the location of classes, even what's in the vending machines.

But as the first semester came to a close last month, Olliver, several students and faculty members agreed the campus is establishing itself as an interesting and convenient place to learn.

"I'm part of the furniture here because I'm here so often," said Robert Wilson of St. Pete Beach, a teacher taking an educational technology class. "It's incredible. It's a real nice place."

The college has no precise count of how many students took classes in Seminole during the first semester. But 606 SPJC students named Seminole as their home campus, about 200 more than Olliver expected.

And based on the number of semester hours students registered for, Olliver thinks closer to 760 people took classes there. Next semester, Olliver hopes to have 1,000 students, something he considers an ambitious, but attainable, goal.

"We try to put students first. Now, it's easier because we're smaller. But I really feel we're trying to delight the customers, to use the Disney phrase," Olliver said.

That means putting hot drinks in the vending machines, as Olliver did after a student suggested it. It means giving out fruit, coffee and other snacks for students to nibble on during exam week.

The campus, student Kathy Weed said, has met her expectations "and probably in some ways did exceed them."

"The teachers and all the people I've met are all very helpful, very personable and they seem to like it here," said Weed, a Seminole resident.

Of the students who name Seminole their home campus, 71 percent are first-time SPJC students, an indication that Seminole is more conveniently located than the other 10 branches.

The figure also indicates that people who started college on another SPJC campus stayed put instead of switching to Seminole, even if the new campus, the system's most technologically advanced, was more convenient.

The college doesn't yet have demographic information that would tell the age groups and hometowns of students. But "eyeballing it," Olliver said the student body seems similar to those on other SPJC campuses, where the average age is 30 and the typical student takes classes part time.

The technology means many students old and young are studying traditional subjects in non-traditional ways.

Weed, for instance, took algebra and composition courses based on computer software. She did nearly all of her work on the computer, moving at her own pace and asking her instructor for help when she was stuck.

"You don't get that real personal interaction," Weed said. "But you can work at your own pace if you're motivated. And obviously, at age 43, I am here because I want to be here."

Common sense dictates how much instructors blend software, the Internet and spreadsheets into classes, Olliver said.

To Olliver, one of the best signs of success is the SPJC administration allowing the campus to bring on two full-time faculty members for the second semester. Olliver didn't think he would have more than one full-timer at this point.

The campus' "success in the eyes of the institution" has been a highlight, he said.

For David Bundschuh, the semester started off with disappointment.

Bundschuh, whose home campus is in Clearwater, signed up for a class in Seminole because he was curious about the technology and liked the idea of studying in a new building.

At the time, he was also living in Seminole and the campus was close to home.

But his class, it turned out, was one of a few that met not in the new campus building, but in a smaller, older building behind the Seminole Recreation Center. SPJC uses that space when it doesn't have room in the campus building.

"I was very disappointed," Bundschuh said. "My whole purpose (in registering in Seminole) was so I could utilize this facility and we got stuck with the garbage over there."

But as Bundschuh studied for his final exam recently in the new building's Information Commons, he said there wasn't much else to complain about.

"This sounds real crazy," he said, "but in the library in Clearwater, it's the old-fashioned wooden chairs."

"And here," he said, "you have the cushioned swivel chair."

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