Jun 05 2018

UBTech 2018: UNC Classroom Redo Reflects New Generation

Today’s students learn differently, yet learning spaces have stayed the same. Gary Kayye explains why he embraces change.

A year ago, Gary Kayye taught in what was arguably one of the most undesirable classrooms on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. It had been more than two decades since the last renovation. The room was located in the basement of Carroll Hall, home of UNC’s School of Media and Journalism and itself more than a century old. The space was doubly challenging because Kayye is a professor of new media, yet he lacked the technological capabilities to demonstrate those tools to his students.

That classroom tells a very different story today, a journey Kayye described in Monday’s opening keynote address at the 2018 UBTech Conference in Las Vegas. 

He began his presentation with an observation that will likely ring true to other educators: The traditional classroom arrangement, which has changed very little since the early 20th century, doesn’t work for the current generation of students. In fact, that approach may be so outdated that, as Kayye asserted, it simply no longer works.

“It comes down to this: We have a totally new generation of students who learn in a whole new way,” he said.

Design a College Classroom for The Modern Age

Both millennials and their up-and-coming counterparts, Generation Z, think about collaboration, communication and content much differently than previous learners, Kayye said.

“We’re still forcing them to sit in a room designed for the way things were done in the 1940s instead of the way they do it,” he said.

Many colleges and individual educators, he said, aren’t catching up quickly enough or are simply unwilling to adapt. 

Kayye’s ambition to rethink his own classroom began with recognition of just how much has changed in digital communication in the past 10 years. He wanted to figure out, he said, why his students weren’t responding to content in the way that he was delivering it. In talking with other educators, he realized that changes would be required to serve a generation of students who are constantly connected to each other, in both analog and digital channels, and who naturally gravitate to group work. 

For Kayye, the necessity of change also includes a competitive element. “We have to quickly figure out how to adapt to this. Otherwise, these exclusively online delivery systems are going to kill us all and rightfully so, because they have the key, which is delivering content where students want it to be delivered when students want it to be delivered to them.”

Enter Kayye’s next-generation classroom, which he designed and developed at UNC based on his own assessment of the status quo and research into available solutions. The big question he faced when considering how to transform that basement-level, traditional classroom for the learners of today and tomorrow: How does one take a classroom like this and turn it into a truly collaborative classroom, where students can interact with the content when and how they want to?

Kayye’s initial needs analysis yielded three main priorities. He wanted his classroom to:

  • Be reconfigurable, so faculty members can use it in both new and traditional ways
  • Support collaboration by both students and remote guest speakers
  • Support the sharing of content no matter where instructors or learners are located

Tools for Next-Gen Teaching and Learning

Kayye’s first tool was a relatively low-tech one: a screen-based paint that let him create a projection screen coating on any wall in the classroom. Instead of large physical screens, he could transform every wall into a screen onto which he could project content using an Epson 4K projector and other tools. 

The next big piece was connectivity, built around tools that let him wirelessly broadcast content to any device in the room and customize a display with content from several sources. Other solutions supported connectivity by remote experts. 

Kayye also wanted to solve the problem of class absences when students were sick, which set them back and required him to spend time catching them up. His solution was to stream all of his classes so students could “attend,” if necessary, from their dorm rooms. Most importantly, he said, the solution needed to be easy and fairly automatic, so an instructor wouldn’t have to worry about programming or plugging in complicated systems.

“This kind of stuff has to go away,” he said.

Streaming video also had to be easy for the students, so Kayye decided to use the channel where students were already spending lots of time: Facebook. 

“Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel and use some proprietary system out there, I decided to bring content to them,” he said. He automatically streams all of his classes on Facebook Live. However, he also created a system that records those live streams at a higher resolution so students have access to content later in a high-quality format.

Kayye also considered his travel schedule when planning video streaming. He didn’t want to have to cancel classes when he was away. To that end, he deployed a camera that gives him a 180-degree view of the classroom, including enough insight to gauge whether students understand the material.

The final piece? Audio. Or as Kayye said, “Can I hear them and can they hear me? Audio is the most often overlooked thing in a room like this.” His solution was a device that picks up audio from anywhere in the classroom.

Connected Classrooms Continue to Evolve on Campus

Kayye’s classroom today is a far cry from that staid, unpopular basement classroom of a year ago. It’s in demand by both students and fellow faculty members, recognized as a highly collaborative space and valued by students who know they never have to miss a class. It has also drawn attention from curious educators throughout North Carolina who want to see the classroom in action.

Although the physical layout of Kayye’s new classroom may be complete, he said it remains a work in progress. 

“So far it’s been awesome,” said Kayye. “I think this has a lot of potential.”

Read more about active-learning classrooms. For more UBTech coverage, check out our events page.

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