Digital Learning Spaces

Playing in Einstein's Lab

Universities create discreet ways to let educators test new classroom technologies.

With and hour to burn before his next class, the sociology professor opted not to catch up on paperwork or step outside for some fresh air, but instead to spend that 60-minute window in the university technology incubator, or “sandbox.”

Armed with a tablet and pen, he entered a room where desks are arranged in a way that maximizes the learning environment, and where desktop computers, netbooks, whiteboards, and the latest software programs are his to play with. An hour later, the professor emerged from the technology sandbox with a better grasp of which software applications he’d like to use with his own students, and hands-on experience using the latest netbook.

The scene described above is playing out in institutions of higher education across the nation, where the sheer volume of innovation, combined with funding and time constraints, makes the technology selection, testing, and integration process extremely challenging. Using both physical (classroom space) and virtual (where applications are housed online) technology sandboxes, educators are testing out new technology and exploring its use in the classroom in a discreet way that requires little or no intervention.

“With so much technology being developed for the education space, it’s becoming critical for schools to use these ‘Einstein laboratories,’” says Jim Wolfgang, director of the digital innovation group at Georgia College, “so that educators can get in there and figure out how the technology can be applied in the classroom.”

Building the Sandbox

With time constraints and budgetary issues taking their toll on today’s higher ed environment, technology sandboxes provide a viable way to learn if specific hardware, software, equipment, and even classroom furniture are worth the subsequent investment.

Manchester Community College (CT) built a technology sandbox for faculty and staff about eight years ago. Accessible via key code during school hours, the room is equipped with two PCs, three Macs, scanners, audiovisual equipment , and a wide range of software applications for faculty to experiment with. Because the space doubles as a technology training room, it’s also equipped with instructor stations.

When selecting technologies for the sandbox, Bonnie Riedinger, director of educational technology and distance learning, says she and her team attend conferences, sit in on workshops, and network with faculty members to come up with viable options. Some choices target specific disciplines, while others—such as tablet PCs—are applied across various disciplines. “We’re always on the lookout for new innovations,” says Riedinger, “and we’re willing to experiment.”

One piece of technology that made its way out of experimentation and into the classroom is Camtasia Studio, screen-recording and presentation software that allows users to capture an image from the computer and display it on a monitor. “This technology is one of the most useful to come from our sandbox,” says Riedinger. “It’s great for tutorials, and for working with distance learning students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to see what the instructor is demonstrating.”

Supporting the Cause

In today’s economy, it’s not easy to get funding and support for new innovations, particularly those that can’t produce a tangible return on investment (ROI). Technology sandboxes fall into this category, and often can be difficult to justify, says Georgia College’s Wolfgang, who adds that boards of directors at research-oriented institutions can be particularly difficult to convince. “These institutions are focused on what kind of return will come tomorrow for the money being spent today,” he says.

Schools that traditionally have placed low emphasis on technology also are resistant to the idea of investing in technology sandboxes, as are those where “silos” exist between departments. “If faculty and staff historically don’t go beyond what they’re comfortable with, or if they’re not accustomed to collaborating across multiple departments,” Wolfgang explains, “then it’s going to be hard to get people to think innovatively.”

Getting administration and faculty to break out of that mold requires a grassroots approach, according to Wolfgang, who at his own school has gone so far as to hand out iPods to the president’s executive staff to get them on board with new technology initiatives. “We loaded an entire multimedia presentation on iPod Touches and loaned the devices to the executive board for six months,” says Wolfgang. The second they booted up their iPods and saw what the devices were capable of, he reports, “they bought into the idea.”

Sometimes that buy-in occurs early in the game. At the University of Central Missouri, for example, the school’s technology sandbox was built at the dean’s request, virtually ensuring a high level of support from the outset. “Our dean and our top IT people set us loose to come up with this,” says Odin Jurkowski, chair for the Department of Career and Technology Education.

After a university task force examined what the “classroom of the 21st century” should look like, Jurkowski says the school developed an incubator that would serve as a test ground for new classroom innovations. In 2009, the school redesigned existing space on campus to accommodate its new technology sandbox. The room is equipped with a state-of-the-art teacher’s podium with a PC, electronic whiteboards, PCs and Macs, wireless internet access, and moveable desks and chairs for easy classroom reconfiguration.

“We put in the latest and greatest technology,” says Jurkowski, “and set it up as a premier classroom for the faculty to use.” Luckily, funding hasn’t been a challenge for the technology sandbox, which is supported by various university sources, including student technology fees and the college fund. Getting teachers through the door to use the sandbox isn’t quite so simple, however. Jurkowski adds that “getting faculty in there to utilize the technology and brainstorm” can be difficult in today’s educational environment. “They’re feeling pretty stretched, and the sandbox adds one more thing on top of everything else.”

Redesigning the sandbox to be a premier classroom, and filling it with the latest and greatest technology (some of which was suggested by faculty members), has helped lure more educators into the room, says Jurkowski, who expects more challenges ahead in his quest to get faculty on board. “Our job is to help faculty get comfortable with the idea that what we’re doing here is leading edge,” he says, “and that it will facilitate bringing their classrooms into the 21st century.”

Careful Selection

It’s not easy to show ROI from a concept that revolves around testing myriad new technologies, but there are ways to demonstrate a sandbox’s value. MCC’s Riedinger says the most apparent ROI from a technology sandbox is the advancement of the school itself and its students. When a new mobile application using iPod Touches and PDAs enables simpler, one-to-one interaction between a 200-student lecture class and a single professor, for example, it’s not hard to justify that application’s introduction to faculty via a technology sandbox.

Riedinger says careful technology selection that involves faculty is the best approach. “Make sure what you’re installing isn’t all bells and whistles, and that it has real value in the classroom,” she advises. “Enlist the faculty’s help in picking the equipment and software for the sandbox, and factor learning objectives into the selection process.” Finally, don’t be afraid to break out of the traditional, physical space when creating technology sandboxes, which don’t always need bricks and mortar to be useful. Manchester Community College, for example, is in the process of moving its sandbox online in order to gain efficiencies and open up access to faculty members whose schedules don’t allow for in-person visits.

“We’re looking to employ a combination of loaner laptops and licensed management utilities for faculty to use wherever they’re comfortable working,” says Riedinger, who also sees handheld devices as a viable option for institutions that want to open up their sandboxes to even more faculty members. “We want to make it as portable and accessible as we can for faculty members who want to get in the sandbox and play around with the latest and greatest classroom technologies.”

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