Smart Classrooms, Dumb Decisions?

Our campus teaching environments are changing, slowly. Students toting personal technologies from cell phones to laptops to Pads are invading the classroom. The rooms themselves now sport video projectors and at least podium connections to the campus network. In the heydays of the turn of the century—the 21st century—many campuses implemented port-per-seat systems. We're now putting more and more technology into our classrooms, hoping it makes the learning experience more effective and the teaching options more flexible.

What are the implications for us today? Are we better off now than we were four or more years ago? The truth seems to be we don't know—and that's too bad. In particular, the question is what are the teaching and learning outcomes that can be achieved when physical meeting spaces—classrooms—are augmented with technology? This may seem like a question from the mid-1990s when we were debating whether we should invest in expensive, dim, noisy video projectors or leverage our overhead transparency projectors with an LCD panel to make the computer screen visible to our students. After all, we already had the light source and optics from the overhead and that wasn't going away.

It soon became clear that the optical quality of LCD panels was nowhere near that which video projectors could achieve, and the price differences narrowed. It became obvious that we needed computer projectors in classrooms, but in every one? They are still relatively expensive, both in acquisition cost as well as maintenance (bulb replacement budgets are not trivial). Sharing expensive resources is often done in classrooms using the Just-in-Time medial cart delivery system. Of course that often translates into Usually-a-Bit-Late delivery wasting unrecoverable minutes of the Already-Too-Short 50-minute class.

We're in a transition period. I suppose that means we're alive since the fact is that we're always in a period of transition. To plan and act otherwise is to either embrace Luddism or to deny reality. However, in this case we're moving from the notion that being able to see a computer-generated image in a group is an extra benefit of occasional value, to the notion that it is an essential element of today's instructional toolset. It is very similar to the arguments in the past about the introduction of other new technologies. You've heard similar assertions. For example, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." This is attributed to Thomas J. Watson (1943). Or, "640K ought to be enough for anybody," a prediction of Bill Gates in 1981. You can imagine others; "Do we really need more than one network jack per building?"

Today we've broken the technology enhancements installed in classrooms into levels, often from one to four (or five). Level one classrooms are very basic. Level four classrooms are marvels of technology-transformed spaces. What's in a basic "level one" classroom? These are usually pre-computer, technology-enhanced teaching rooms with a videotape/DVD player, TV set, screen, slide projector and overhead projector.

The next level up (level two) is a room that supports plug-in and display computer images, either from a podium computer or a laptop. Typically they'll sport an audio amplifier and various audio input sources, CD player, videotape/DVD player, video/data projector, recessed media panel and lectern, large screen, and a slide projector and overhead projector. Controls for these are often placed on the podium, or hidden on a wall somewhere near the front of the room.

Level three classrooms begin to merge with computer labs in that they offer computer resources at students' seats, in the form of a computer or port for a laptop that was brought to class. They often support the ability to display student computers on a large screen and send a selected image to all student computers. Of course each level up adds on to the technology baseline, so these will also have a videotape player, video/data projector, recessed media panel and lectern, slide projector and overhead projector.

Finally, level four classrooms are mini-TV studios. They support origination as well as display of two-way video conferencing. They have TV cameras (usually more than one, often mounted with robotic drives to either follow the instructor around the front of the classroom, switch to a pre-set visual field, or both), microphones, and a codec for video compression, plus the stuff described in the prior levels.

You may argue whether there is a need for the multimedia input sources (video tape players, CD players, DVD and audio inputs) and multiple display devices (TVs, video/computer projectors, slide projectors and overhead projectors). However, the basic classroom of today is probably some subset of the level two classroom. The cost of installed classroom technology is becoming less than the cost of supporting a human-resource-intensive cart-delivery system.

The challenge is that classrooms are still conceived and executed with technology considered as an add-on. We've slowly gotten to the point where networks are beginning to get consideration during a building design or retrofit planning. But the tools faculty need to teach with are not and should not be considered afterthoughts. They directly affect the construction or renovation of the spaces. They are the reason the building or room is being built in the first place.

This is all very confusing to the people responsible for campus facilities because the life expectancy for things that have become core elements of a teaching space in the classroom have replacement cycles approximating consumer electronics. That used to differentiate equipment put into a classroom from capital construction of the space itself. Things have been turned upside down.

One response to this is the idea of building classrooms as theatres—reconfigurable spaces that provide flexibility for the "performances" that will be staged within them. Good teaching is often theatre and the attributes of such spaces—lighting grids and power in the ceiling, as well as networking in the floor and walls and flexible layouts—are elements needed in today's teaching spaces.

Core technologies for teaching are going to be integrated into our classrooms. But that integration must be componentized, serviceable, replaceable, and consistent. Students will increasingly bring their own technologies into these spaces as they must work there. The challenges are great, but the smart part of the classroom should be in our approach to the solution and not solely in the equipment we install.


CREN Tech Talk—The Smart Classroom, What D'es It Look Like Today?

Classroom of the Future: Open Planning Forum for a Digital Cultures Casebook resources.html

Building the 21st Century School

Smarter College Classrooms Home Page

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