BRAD TOUSSAINT at Drake University puts PCs, Macs and parallel software on carts in classrooms for more flexibility.
Oct 08 2008

Classroom Smarts

Smart classroom technology spans a lot of territory, but the goal is the same.

Teaching at colleges and universities is no longer a dry lecture drawn from an instructor’s aged, crinkly, yellow paper notes. It matches the world that students grow up and learn in with its myriad resources accessed proactively through any number of devices.

Instructors collaborate with multiple sources inside and outside the classroom, including electronic whiteboards; digital screens; mobile workstations; large video monitors; permanently mounted projectors; advanced networking capabilities; and lecture podiums with electronic writing tablets and high-definition video playback capabilities.

Tracy Gray, director of the National Center for Technology Innovation and managing research scientist at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., which tracks education trends, says more teachers are creating multimedia modules that they can expand, enhance with audio or video and post online to complement their course offerings.

There’s no such thing as a standard technology classroom setup, Gray says. However, universities are focused on purchasing hardware and software that will enable students to access technology everywhere on campus, from the classroom to their dorm room.

“We’ve seen more colleges and universities use all kinds of tools, from whiteboards to wireless technologies,” says Gray.

While all this technology opens up a new world of possibilities for instructors and students, it pre­sents IT departments with a learning curve, because adapting technology to individual classroom environments requires not only technical know-how, but also some understanding of how teachers teach.

Flexible Options, Solid Support

Teaching styles, technology and classroom setup preferences vary from instructor to instructor, explains Brad Toussaint, director of the Drake TeleMedia Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, which supports 5,000 students.

Toussaint contends that schools need technology with a small footprint that can accommodate multiple teaching styles. To allow instructors to move freely around classrooms as they go through presentations and lectures, Drake is mobilizing its static classroom teaching consoles.

The setup for each classroom includes a single wall-mounted cabinet containing all the room’s control systems, connected by an “umbilical cord” that stretches from each rack to a Bretford cart, which is a mobile workstation that contains both a Mac and a PC. Each computer is loaded with parallel software, enabling users to bounce back and forth between computers.

With Bretford carts, instructors can arrange classroom furniture in nearly any configuration and can wheel the cart to wherever it will be best used in the room. Toussaint says the umbilical cord connected to the cart is long enough to cover three-quarters of the front of the room.

“We actually use two carts,” he says, explaining that one houses a computer and space for papers or books while the other holds a visual presenter. “Both are mounted as if they’re one unit, so we don’t have to worry about the connection between them.”

The school recently installed NEC NP1150 projectors in some classrooms to provide similar flexibility. With built-in wireless inputs for Video Graphics Array (VGA) capabilities, Toussaint says teachers now have a third way to project information. Instructors using a tablet PC or notebook with Wi-Fi capability can connect to the projector from anywhere in the room.

Sympodium Symbiosis

“We’re trying to develop flexibility in classrooms, which makes them a very dynamic and interesting place to learn.”

—TIM O’ROURKE, Temple University

Flexibility is also the reason why Henderson Community College in Henderson, Ky., recently installed ID370 sympodiums from Smart Technologies in nine of its 28 classrooms. The sympodiums are large monitors equipped with electronic pens.

“They’re 22-inch computer monitors that replace the teacher station monitor,” explains Kimberley Conley, chief information officer at the college, which has an enrollment of approximately 2,000 students. “Teachers are now able to do all the things they did on a [Smart Technologies] Smart Board with just a pen and a monitor.”

Sympodiums, Conley says, give faculty members the flexibility to stand at a podium or sit at a desk, writing their notes on a computer screen. If showing a PowerPoint presentation, teachers can also make notes on the slides. The software captures and pastes this information into the teacher’s notes along with the URL for student reference.

From an IT perspective, sympodiums are easier to install than Smart Boards, Conley says.

“We don’t have to hang them like a Smart Board or offer alternatives to faculty who want to write on a white board,” she says. “Smart Boards are also limited in size, sometimes not large enough for classrooms. So if teachers want to show a movie or video, they pull the screen down and try to readjust the projector, which is mounted in the ceiling. When the next teacher wants to use the Smart Board, the projector would not be aligned correctly.”

Conley adds that IT doesn’t have to worry about dismounting sympodiums as they do Smart Boards. Sympodiums are portable; users simply unplug them and carry them to another classroom.

The school’s technology department also purchased Bretford tables for some classrooms and attached a flat-panel monitor to each. The monitor folds into the table. Conley explains that faculty members wanted more versatility with classroom setups. Now students can either use the tables as a computer station or convert them to a flat surface, making it easier to take notes.

“If our budget allows, that would be how I do all future lab installations,” she says. “The tables give us the flexibility to use labs and other classrooms in different ways.”

Flexible Future

Sympodiums offered KIMBERLEY CONLEY at Henderson Community College a way to give instructors more options in the classroom.


Smart classroom technologies apply even beyond the classroom walls. Dance instructors at Temple University in Philadelphia and the University of Liverpool in England employ a standard video camera, video monitors and Adobe Connect web-based conferencing software to exchange images of their respective dance students via high-speed Internet (known as Web 2.0), explains Tim O’Rourke, vice president of computer and information services at Temple. The capability allows instructors an ocean apart to compare and contrast students’ movements and even choreograph routines together. “A split screen showed the dancers in both classrooms side by side,” he says. “It looked like they were doing choreography together, dancing with each other in one environment.”

A similar scenario works in music class. Temple invited a famous pianist in New York to teach both his students and those at Temple using Web 2.0 technology. “It was like he was right in the room and teaching both classes to harmonize and sing at the same time,” O’Rourke says.

“If [classrooms are] more interesting, students will be more motivated to learn and faculty will be more interested in teaching,” he adds.

Smart classrooms aren’t about technological dazzle. But in a classroom with multimedia learning facilities, where students are networked with each other and the instructor, and with access to almost infinite resources both in and out of the classroom, things do get a little bright. At its heart, the technology is a tool in the age-old instructor’s endeavor to make learning richer, more inclusive and engaging for students.

Who’s Going to Pay for This?

Since 1997, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge has charged students a $5 technology fee per credit hour, up to $75 a semester. Last year, it collected almost $4 million. While other schools do the same, at LSU, the student technology fee oversight committee decides how to spend it.

The committee is composed of 10 people. Six are students who either belong to or are appointed by the student government association and graduate student association. The others include the school’s vice chancellor of finance and administrative services, vice provost of academic affairs, vice chancellor of information technology and a faculty member who’s appointed by the faculty senate, explains Pam Nicolle, director of instructional media services at LSU.

Each year, the school’s Information Technology Services (ITS) creates a proposal for how much money should be allocated to support existing technology on campus and presents the proposal to the committee. “Many times, we have had to go back and rework it based on what the committee believes,” she says.

Over the years, the committee has approved wireless nodes across campus, campus licensing agreements that enable students to download basic software for free, such as Microsoft Office, and classroom technology ranging from sympodiums and document cameras to six-input switching systems and ceiling-mounted LCD projectors.

Nicolle believes the committee empowers students by giving them a voice in how technology funds should be spent. What’s more, she says, by working with this committee, “ITS is also able to reach outcomes that reflect our very strong flagship agenda and strategy.”

Virtualization Magnified

Virtual microscopes give a broader view

The 180 students at the Boston University School of Medicine no longer lug their microscopes between class and home, nor do they squint to see a blurry blob under a dirty lens in class. Since last fall, the school has been using virtual microscopes on their computers that provide sharper, clearer images for everyone in class.

Here’s how the microscope works: The technology scans a glass slide at a very high resolution. A computer then sends the slide’s image to a screen or Smart Board. Students can then view the slide together, learning to identify anatomy or structure, for instance, or determine if it’s healthy or abnormal tissue. The image is no different than if the slide were viewed through a traditional microscope. Instructors can also change the magnification and manipulate the image by moving it or circling specific parts.

“It’s very dynamic, very interactive,” says Domenic Screnci, executive director for educational media and technology at Boston University. “It takes less setup time than a real microscope and makes it easier to deliver content.”

Other classroom technologies include Echo 360, which digitally captures lectures — both audio and video components — in real time, then posts them online within minutes of the lecture. The school’s computer lab also installed Smart Technologies software, which connects the teacher’s computer with every computer in the classroom. Because they’re stored on the university’s server, students can interact with images and access them from home or the library.

He says the primary purpose of such technologies is not to cut costs or increase efficiency but to boost student learning.

“Pedagogy and content should always drive technology. It shouldn’t be the other way around,” Screnci says.

Scott Sinklier