Standardizing the eClassroom
A proactive rollout helps Florida International University build for a future where classroom technology is standard.
Technology is now so ingrained at Florida International University in Miami that faculty members depend on it in ways they never thought possible.
"Once you get used to the technology, it's hard for some faculty to function without it," says Debra J. Sheridan, director of media and technology support at FIU. "It definitely impacts how they teach."
The growing reliance on modern classroom tools is the result of the university's proactive approach to installing technology. Sheridan says today's students simply expect to have the technology available.
"At the same time, though, we've got to support that technology in a way that is time efficient and cost effective, and faculty have got to feel comfortable using it so they can be successful teaching with it," Sheridan explains.
FIU is now five years into an eight-year effort to install two distinct classroom technology configurations for undergraduate and graduate courses across its two major campuses.
The basic eClassroom includes a data projector and a screen, a combination Samsung DVD/VCR player, an Elmo digital document camera, Panasonic projectors, notebook connectivity, audio speakers and a Crestron touchpanel control unit. The enhanced eClassroom, appropriate for large lecture halls that seat more than 100 students, also features a Hitachi StarBoard interactive monitor, a PC, and a wireless lapel microphone and enhanced speakers for better audio.
At present, 128 of FIU's 214 general classrooms have had the standard configuration fully installed, according to Sheridan; the goal is to complete 12 more classrooms each year through 2013. That will bring the total to 164, or 76 percent of all classrooms.
This standardization extends to all aspects of the installation, from wiring and console programming to projector screen size and image resolution, says Robert A. Werner, chief engineer for FIU's Media Engineering Department.
"Everything is exactly the same, which makes it much easier for faculty," he says. "It really eliminates the guesswork that faculty would have in terms of such questions as: Where is the on-off switch on this VCR or this DVD player? Or where is the volume control? They're not fumbling around in front of their students, trying to figure things out. They can get right down to teaching."
A Teaching Tool
Sheridan says that the eClassrooms are improving learning at FIU.
Palmer Graves' classes are a good example. Graves, who teaches general chemistry courses in large auditoriums that hold up to 220 students, says the StarBoard interactive systems contribute significantly to student understanding of abstract or hard-to-grasp concepts.
With the StarBoard monitor, Graves says, faculty can draw and annotate equations, use PowerPoint slides integrated with animations and video clips, or show project demonstration videos. In addition, Graves is one of a growing number of FIU instructors who rely on handheld voting devices to pose quick questions to students and – based on their immediate answers – gauge how well they comprehend the material.
Patricia Theard, a sophomore double majoring in biology and chemistry, says the various classroom technologies foster an even greater enthusiasm for learning among students.
"The courses really grab you and pique your interest now because you're no longer just sitting there listening and taking notes and trying to memorize formulas about something you've never seen and don't really understand," she says. "It's much more dynamic now."
Graves says the technology helps break down learning barriers for students who lack a natural affinity for the subject matter.
"With chemistry, you're dealing with stuff that students cannot see, and to teach it successfully, you've got to develop an understanding of the molecular level and how it relates to the macroscopic level. And what bridges that relationship are the mathematical and chemical equations that describe it," he explains.
Graves says computers and the StarBoard system help him link those different levels of understanding for students, which he says is very difficult to do with just print and verbal communication.
Sticking to a formal program such as FIU's can be challenging in the face of constantly advancing technology, the unique needs of different academic departments and the ever-present possibility that funding priorities will change. But the benefits outweigh any disadvantages, Sheridan says.
That's especially true when it comes to maintaining and repairing the equipment, says Werner. "All the rooms are designed and configured in the same way. So if a professor calls and says, 'I'm in this room and I'm having a problem,' we know exactly what's in there off the top of our heads, and we can quickly troubleshoot the problem and help them get back to their teaching," he says.
To minimize lost teaching time because of technology issues, FIU relies on a two-pronged support system. Faculty can direct-dial Media Equipment Services, which offers immediate help with operator error and light troubleshooting on equipment issues.
The cost of an enhanced eClassroom at Florida International University
"We try to solve the problem by phone initially to save time. But if we're not able to solve the problem within one or two minutes, we dispatch someone to the classroom," says Michael Stuart, coordinator of Media Equipment Services. "They're usually there within five minutes."
If the problem is particularly complex, Media Engineering takes over. They can either fix the problem or bring in a substitute piece of equipment, says Oscar Rios, media and educational communications coordinator for FIU.
He adds that the Media Engineering team also makes it a point to foster a good relationship with the IT networking team. "There's an IT infrastructure underlying our classroom control systems, so it's important that we keep them in the loop on what we're doing," Rios says.
With the technology and policy foundations in place, FIU is moving forward with additional technology measures that will further improve teaching and learning, Sheridan says.
FIU is now equipping 12 classrooms with course-capture systems, and is using a new learning management system. Some classrooms also have Polycom video conferencing. And a new student technology fee will expand wireless connectivity to the entire campus, including office areas, within the next few years.
All of these advances will help the school increase its enrollment by 10,000 students over the next five years, says Sheridan. "We'll be hiring some faculty, but the course-capture technology in particular will help us do that by enabling us to extend our classrooms between campuses without having to add programs at each campus," she explains.
For all the changes, Sheridan says the eClassrooms are intended to be tools to enhance teaching, not teacher substitutes.
"How professors teach in their classroom is still their choice," she says. "We're just here to make sure that they have access to technology and media in the classroom that works and is user friendly and intuitive. Hopefully, that will have positive benefits for their ability to teach and connect with their students."
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As of last year, Florida International University has been welcoming top high school students from Miami-Dade County to its Academy of Academic Advancement program, which offers an all-day schedule of high school and college courses.
The first group of about 100 students was appreciative of the opportunity to fast-track their academic careers, but not exactly overwhelmed by the meager technology setup they found in the three classrooms used for their morning high school courses. The highlights were a DVD/VCR player and an overhead projector.
Debra J. Sheridan, director of media and technology support at FIU, recalls that when the students first arrived, "their first response was, 'Wow, there's no technology in here. This is weird.'"
Fortunately, students won't have that reaction again. Starting this fall, all three academy classrooms used for high school courses will be enhanced with the standard tools of an eClassroom, along with a Smart Board interactive display system from Smart Technologies. The latter is a mainstay in most Miami-Dade County Public Schools and uses computer software and touch recognition to create and deliver more dynamic lessons.
Sheridan says that as universities deal with the growing trend of high school students enrolling in dual-credit programs to get a jump start on college, it's important to accommodate the technology expectations associated with K–12 education. Those expectations include not just the Smart Board, but also digital content.
"We felt that the program would be more successful if we implemented the technology tools that high school teachers and high schools students are familiar with and most comfortable with," she explains.
"At the same time, though, some of our faculty are interested in seeing some of those technologies. So they can go in and have a class scheduled in there and try it out and see if they like it. It's really a win-win opportunity for everyone."