Christopher Waters, Rebecca Pope-Ruark and Joe Davis are leading efforts at North Carolina's Elon University to deploy classroom technologies that teach students real-world skills.

Aug 06 2010

Elon University's Progression Towards the Smarter University

By pioneering collaborative classrooms and teaching students real-world skills, Elon University is taking instructional technology to the next level.

By pioneering collaborative classrooms and teaching students real-world skills, Elon University is taking instructional technology to the next level.

There's a growing consensus in the higher education community that classroom technology needs to evolve, but what's next?

The strategic moves toward next-generation classrooms already under way at North Carolina's Elon University may offer some insight.

Right now, about 200 of Elon's classrooms are equipped with technology beyond wired and wireless network access.

Of the tech-based classrooms, roughly 90 percent have achieved the highest technology level possible under the university's deployment plan. This includes a computer, notebook connection, a wide-format NEC projector, a DVD/VCR unit, a document camera and a sound system – all controlled by Crestron controllers and touchscreens.

“Over the past decade, we've systematically added technology in traditional classrooms until it's become ubiquitous and standardized,” says Joe Davis, Elon's assistant director of campus technology support for classrooms.

“Consequently, professors only need one lesson plan,” he adds. “Previously, faculty had to prepare multiple plans because technology varied from room to room.”

Davis says the Crestron systems are an important component of Elon's classroom technology efforts. On the front end, the Crestron controllers offer users a standard interface that lets them access a function or device by pressing a button on a touch panel. On the back end, deploying Crestron lets Elon add new technologies easily and customize configurations based on the room.

“For example, we offer lecture capture in three rooms, but will be expanding it to learning spaces across campus,” Davis says. “Once a space is enabled, all a user will need to do is press lecture capture on the ­touchscreen.”

Tech Evolution

Elon made much of its great progress in rolling out classroom technologies following a reorganization of its IT department. Traditional academic computing was merged with academic support units to form a new division called Teaching and Learning Technologies.

Previously, functions were in silos and users complained that resources were confusing to access. Following the reorganization, expertise was distributed across the new division. Now, users simply explain what they need at the division's front desk, and workgroups are formed based on the resources required to meet that need.

The number of how-to video shorts created by English department students during the 2009–2010 academic year on behalf of the Elon University library

“The reorganization permits us to view classroom technology from a higher level,” says Christopher Waters, Elon's assistant CIO and director of teaching and learning technologies.

“For example, we previously had an instructional technology unit working directly with faculty,” Waters says. “Now, we have broader collaboration between instructional technology, faculty and IT.”

The reorganization also established a formal structure with which IT and academics can coordinate and share ideas. This includes a weekly meeting between Waters and the director of Elon's Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL), an academic unit charged with helping faculty incorporate learning innovations into their curriculum.

“Since the center has the faculty's pulse, my regular meetings with its director help the IT department discover technology needs that might not be communicated via traditional paths,” Waters says.

New Pilot Programs

Elon's CATL is also an important proving ground for new technology configurations.

In the center's most popular classroom, three large-format displays receive separate or composite content from three data projectors. On one wall are two 150-inch Da-Lite Cosmopolitan projection screens. On the opposite wall is a 180-inch version. The ceiling-mounted projectors are all NEC: two NP2000 series and one NP4000 series. The entire technology setup is controlled by Crestron touchscreens.

“Our faculty members use the room in creative and thoughtful ways,” says Peter Felten, assistant provost and CATL director. “For instance, it's difficult for our astronomy faculty to visually represent distances on a single screen. But in the multidisplay room, they can simulate a planetarium.”

Felten says a communications professor uses the room to show documentaries on one screen and simultaneously hold online discussions with students about the film on the screen next to it. The art history department uses the space to demonstrate how art can be viewed in three-dimensional contexts. “The department loves the room so much they are working on an initiative to build one of their own,” Felten adds.

Collaborative Classroom

Elon's English department is also piloting a new type of learning environment, the collaborative classroom. The rooms contain 20 to 35 computers, grouped into pods of two to five. Each pod includes individual computers and an LG, NEC or Samsung LCD collaboration screen that ranges in size from 32 to 40 inches.

The collaboration displays permit students within a pod to work on one activity together, says Rebecca Pope-Ruark, assistant professor of English, who is also pursuing research on the impact of collaborative classrooms and technologies.

“Since the screen output can be controlled, students can switch between screens within their pod,” she adds. “As the instructor, I can project my display or any individual's display onto all of the other pods' collaboration screens. I can also blank the collaboration screens.”

Felten says instead of working on textbook scenarios and making presentations to an instructor, the collaborative technology lets Elon students pursue real-world projects in which they interact with and receive feedback from external audiences.

“As a result, students learn the hard and soft skills required for negotiating a professional work environment,” he explains.

According to Pope-Ruark, one of her advanced classes assisted a nearby exotic wildlife rescue organization with producing a coffee table book and a children's book. Another class worked with the university's librarians on a series of instructional videos to help students navigate library resources.

“My pedagogy really is based on the collaboration rooms,” Pope-Ruark says. “With them, I re-create professional environments with tools that professionals actually use. In doing so, I teach that technology is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.”

For example, for the library's instructional videos, Elon uses Flip video cameras for recording and computing tools for editing. “Although video isn't my area of expertise, the project helped me show students how to learn technologies and how to decide which technology to use,” she adds.

On the Horizon

Other developments at Elon include video conferencing and incorporating mobile devices.

For video conferencing, Elon uses Polycom and Tandberg equipment over its Cisco Voice over Internet Protocol infrastructure and plans to continue building out its capabilities.

“One of our management professors is already using video conferencing extensively,” Felten says. “In one course, he has Elon students connecting with Australian students to collaborate on solving business cases.”

In addition to fixed technologies, the college is also considering the impact of mobile devices on learning in college classrooms. One possibility for the future is for students to offer feedback with their mobile phones that's then projected onto a classroom screen.

Because all of these new technologies also mean new classroom configurations, Elon is determining what the new top-level technology classroom will contain. In the past, technology was divided into a simple three-tiered structure.

Moving forward, standards will likely reflect the type of classroom – whether it contains multiple projectors or is a collaboration room. “The nomenclature and standards are still being discussed to ensure we cover the variety of learning spaces we're developing,” Davis explains.

In fact, Elon has a planning initiative under way to form its next set of long-term technology goals and strategies. “It's a comprehensive process that includes faculty, students, administration and staff,” Waters says.

Such thoughtful attention to detail isn't lost on Elon's faculty. “Elon takes technology very seriously and works with faculty who want to integrate it educationally,” says Pope-Ruark. “I feel very supported here.”

Student Appreciation

Photo Credit: Image Source/Photolibrary

Over the years, Elon University has worked extensively with faculty to integrate technology into the curriculum, creating a tech-savvy culture that students appreciate.

Nick Friederich, a senior with a double major in history and computer science, says that during a course on ancient Rome, the class watched a documentary on an excavation in England. Seeing an archaeologist's passion for his work was contagious and much more compelling than reading about an archaeological dig in a book, he says.

Friederich says Elon's recent deployment of an advanced document camera is a big help. “The doc cam significantly improved my ability to present the Android application I was required to create on a cell phone,” he explains.

“First, I could use the actual phone to demonstrate, instead of screen shots,” he continues. “And I didn't have to worry about the mechanics of passing the phone around the room, so it helped me develop real-world skills in a modern and professional way.”

<p>Forrest MacCormack</p>

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