Oct 08 2008

Building Smart

Plan for tomorrow's classroom IT, but use a solid foundation and an eye for efficiency.

The technological and pedagogical needs of 21st-century students and instructors demand that higher education institutions rethink what campus classrooms can be.

Technologically and physically flexible class­rooms will prove essential to satisfying the growing student and faculty appetite for new technology, as well as helping schools cope with changing teaching needs and the tightening economic environment in which universities find themselves.

The University of Minnesota’s Office of Classroom Management is piloting projects in this area to gain insight into how to scale up instruction technology without busting the budget. OCM recently designed and built two Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) on its Twin Cities (UMTC) campus to focus on the evolution of interactive and flexible multimedia learning spaces.

The ALCs take the SCALE-UP classroom that a number of universities are currently experimenting with (based on the Student Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Program, begun at North Carolina State University) and advances the design a few steps further. SCALE-UP aims to fundamentally change the way large-scale classrooms at universities operate by introducing new collaborative, hands-on and interactive technologies.

The ALC design at the UMTC campus incorporates additional critical pieces — common standards, mobile computing and physical features — that will provide more flexibility and economy to future classrooms. Here are three lessons we learned:

1. Standardize to ease acceptance.

Although each ALC tests new technological and physical construction concepts, the university built each classroom on a foundation of common technology infrastructure, called the Projection Capable Classroom (PCC) standard, to control costs and build upon systems already familiar to faculty. First implemented in 2000, PCC standardizes — among other things — fixed data/video projection systems, wired and wireless Internet connectivity, notebook interfaces, networked performance monitoring and optional modular add-ons such as document cameras and departmental computers. It’s comfortable and familiar to users because it’s in use in 282 university general-purpose classrooms and more than 150 other instructional and meeting spaces on campus.

Faculty consistently comment positively about having the trusted and familiar PCC interface and operator protocols in most rooms they teach in on campus.

2. Standardize to ensure savings.

The application of economies of scale and lifecycle cost management based on the PCC standard, the use of buying best practices and the rollout of common technology have reduced the cost of classroom upgrades by 29 percent while significantly improving available tools and performance.

For operational, cost and leveraging reasons, the university’s PCC system design is based on faculty notebooks, not classroom desktop computers. Rapid installation of classroom technology at a planned rate of 50 classrooms per summer, along with estimated lifecycle costs to operate and maintain computers in more than 300 classrooms, made a desktop computer standard problematic and unaffordable.

The new ALC pilot extends the basic PCC-standard notebook interface and operator protocols, but adds more student-centered interactive capabilities and cost-saving features such as low-profile flooring for internal cable management and moveable, acoustically reliable wall systems to allow classroom size to change as needed.

3. Future-proof your plans by thinking mobile.

The university believes mobile computing is fundamental to the future of interactive student learning.

As a result, each ALC not only leverages the existing program built around faculty notebooks but also can incorporate student-owned mobile computing devices. The design dovetails with the notion of a future when “person-based” computing overtakes a room-based computing infrastructure of installed desktops in most classrooms. Leveraging mobile computing makes sense from both an economic and a functional standpoint, given emerging technology and convergence trends.