Affording the Future

Can you afford to build ‘smart’ classrooms? Pondering some issues up front may make all the difference.

JUST WHEN CAMPUS TECHNOLOGISTS think they’ve got a handle on daily campus IT needs, demands to develop smart classrooms come along and spoil everything.

Tech FundingBetween admissions officers demanding smart classrooms in order to prove to prospective families that the institution is up to speed, and professors asking for smart classrooms so that they can teach like their colleagues at higher tech institutions, many CIOs are now under pressure to add all sorts of media equipment to classrooms and lecture halls as soon as possible. But often, these directives come without checks attached, or without any clear understanding of the best way to go about spending that money when it d'es materialize.

So how do you find those dollars? And how do you make sure they are wisely spent when you secure them? CIOs and other experts who have been through smart classroom campaigns have some suggestions.

Before You Fund, Plan

Despite the pressure to start building smart classrooms right away, experts say that as with any other major purchase, it’s important to undertake some careful planning to make sure the investment will pay off. A few questions to ask:

What do we really need? Although common configurations typically bore an $8,000–$18,000 hole in an IT budget and encompass a projector, screen, set of speakers, DVD and video players, networked Internet access, and either a computer or an easy way to hook up a computer, it’s easy to spend far more if document cameras or high-tech whiteboards are added to the list.

In fact, certain bells and whistles may not be essential, smart classroom builders say. One frill that New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice (associated with the City University of New York; CUNY) decided to do without: a motorized screen. A manual screen was a bit less convenient, but scrimping there reduced costs both up front and in terms of maintenance, says Bill Pangburn, John Jay’s director of Instructional Technology Support Services.

And Henry DeVries, CIO and CFO of Calvin College, a small Christian college based in Grand Rapids, MI, says that administrators at his school chose not to bother with a master controlling system to operate the technology, and instead, simply locked a number of remotes to the professor’s desk.

Some experts are even more skeptical about the value of the whole “smart classroom” enterprise. While the general consensus today seems to be that smart classrooms are a good thing, there actually is no evidence that the addition of smart classroom technology has made any difference to student learning, according to Carol Twigg, president and CEO of the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), an organization based in Saratoga Springs, NY, that focuses on the effective use of information technology to improve student learning and reduce the cost of higher education. “I don’t know of any evidence of that increasing student learning,” she says.

What are we going to do with it? Smart classrooms can be used “to reinforce some pretty ineffective pedagogical strategies,” says Ed Barboni, senior advisor and independent consultant for the Council of Independent Colleges. “A boring lecture is a boring lecture whether it’s done in PowerPoint with a projector or done with paper and pencil.” Bottom line: If the instruction needs improving, no amount of money spent on smart classroom technology is going to improve it—tackle first problems first.

By itself, Twigg warns, technology d'esn’t accomplish much without more innovative teaching to go along with the new hardware. “Technology d'esn’t help students learn more; it’s what you do with it. You can have the smartest classroom and it wouldn’t make one whit of difference—if you use it to automate a bad teaching process,” she explains.

Who will use the technology? “Who is it for? Is it for a sage on the stage, or is it for the students?” asks Barboni. “Many of these smart classrooms are built for sages on stages, as opposed to students being able to use the equipment in their own presentations to their peers.” Asking this question is important, because the physical design of the classroom can easily defeat even the best-laid technology plans, experts say.

One case in point: Barboni says he once watched a professor trying to engage his students in a computerized market simulation in a high-tech classroom that had been designed with oldfashioned tiered lecture seating. “The tiered seating was cast in concrete,” he explains. “It was a monument to the sage on the stage.” Instead of supporting the simulation, the architecture served as an obstacle. “The kids were jumping over the rows of seats, huddling, buying and selling, and trying to overcome the impediments of the physical space they were in,” Barboni recalls.

Pangburn at John Jay points out that the importance of items such as furniture is often underestimated in smart classroom design. A badly designed podium, for instance, can make a technology device all but unusable.

Dan Paulien, president and founder of Paulien & Associates, a Denver-based facilities-oriented campus planning firm, agrees that furniture is becoming a critical factor as classrooms go high tech. Many schools now want long oval or even round tables, he says, to accommodate laptops and more interactive team-learning techniques.

Henry DeVries"Sometimes, the best smart classroom
technology deals are consumer-grade
components."

Henry DeVries, CIO and CFO of Calvin College

Forging a Consensus

Answering questions such as those above isn’t just the work of the IT department, but the entire institution, classroom planners stress. Experienced smart classroom builders say that it’s important to work through plans in a way that includes a variety of stakeholders.

Facilities planners at Indiana University always try to include a variety of stakeholders on every planning committee. Garland Elmore, deputy CIO and associate VP for Teaching and Learning Information Systems, says that, typically, before IU begins any project, representatives from the University Architects’ Office, Physical Plant, IT, Building Maintenance and Housekeeping departments, and faculty are all consulted.

Including a wide range of perspectives is important, Elmore stresses. He has overseen the development of nearly 700 smart classrooms at IU, and points out that he just never knows who will have something important to contribute. For example, one smart classroom improvement plan at Indiana called for changing the tile floor outside some of the rooms. The architects had selected a textured tile Elmore liked, but Housekeeping, surprisingly, had important objections. The staffers there insisted, “As you walk on it it’s fine, but if you push a mop bucket across it, it sounds like a DC-3 on the runway, and the tile is also difficult to clean because it has little cavities. You’ll have to close the doors of every classroom when we push a trash bucket down the hall or when we’re trying to clean.” Those are the kinds of things that seem insignificant, but for the individual whose job it is to roll equipment down a hall, the decision would have been a bad one.

Of course, professors should also be at the table. Ignore them at your peril, advises Barboni. “Leaving them out is a huge no-no,” he cautions. “That’s the ‘build it and they will come’ approach to things, and it almost invariably leads to the design of facilities that are not optimized for the kinds of flexible pedagogies that need to take place in the room.”

‘Smart’ Financing

With the cost of a basic smart classroom— at its most basic configuration, a networked computer, a projector, a screen, DVD and video players, and speakers—running around $15,000, CIOs and other administrators have employed a variety of tactics to come up with the money they need.

Grants for this kind of initiative are hard to win now and may be an even harder win down the line, when the equipment will need to be replaced, says Barboni. “For quite a long time now, it’s been harder and harder to raise money for technology per se, and certainly nearly impossible to raise it for replacement technology,” he adds. The most successful requests are built around the purposes for the technology, not the technology itself, he continues. “If you’re going to make a difference in, say, your communication arts program, and to accomplish that you need a particular technology, then those arguments are still valid and can be used for raising funds,” Barboni says. “But the money is focused on, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ That’s the compelling argument.”

A technique that appears to be more successful is to try to establish a regular, separate source of funding for IT, and earmark some of the proceeds for smart classrooms. At John Jay, financing came through a systemwide technology fee of $75 levied on each CUNY student, each semester. Says Pangburn: “It’s been a godsend to our college. We couldn’t have done a tenth of the things that we’ve done without the technology fee.”

A few years back, Calvin College made a similar move, raising tuition campuswide to yield a total of $600,000 to pay for smart classrooms and other technology initiatives, according to DeVries.

And for schools where money is especially tight, leasing is one option that can help reduce the up-front cost, advises Barboni. It can also yield other benefits down the line. “One of the advantages is that it essentially forces life cycle budgeting because the lease becomes part of your operating budget,” he says. A lease provides a way to build in replacement cycles without going out to find additional money, he adds—an important factor in a world where Moore’s Law still holds true. [Ed note: Moore’s Law, based on the 1965 observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years.]

Leasing smart classroom technology can reduce up-front cost and can force life cycle budgeting because the lease becomes part of the operating budget.
Making the Deal, and Delivering

When it comes to ordering the equipment, the standard institutional purchasing advice seems to hold true: a) Order a bunch of redundant models to make support easier and cheaper down the line, and b) look around for ways to boost your institution’s buying power.

This second bit of advice can make a big difference. According to J'e Sartin, speaking for the Higher Education division of technology-purchasing agent CDW-G, within large universities, for instance, purchasing is divided among different schools, making it more difficult to get a volume discount— and that’s counterproductive. What’s more, colleges large and small can save money by participating in buying groups, many of which are based on the athletic conference in which their school participates.

Sometimes, though, the best deals can be just around the corner. DeVries at Calvin College says that he decided to buy consumer-grade components, which could then be purchased through any discount electronics store.

Most smart classroom builders also warn that it’s better to start building a few rooms at a time on an ongoing basis rather than trying to upgrade all the classrooms at once. Just start, advises Kathie Sigler, the recently retired provost for Operations at Miami-Dade Community College (FL).“You’ve got to do [the upgrades] one at a time, because if you don’t, you’ll never get to the end.”

Beyond making the task more manageable, Sigler found that a room-by-room approach had ancillary benefits as well: It helped create a kind of “bandwagon” effect. In Sigler’s experience, the more smart classrooms are built, the more faculty want them, and the easier it is to find the money to fund additional upgrades.

Adjusting toa New Cost Structure

Schools with smart classrooms find that some of their ongoing costs change once the classrooms are installed. More technology support and maintenance help is needed to care for the new technology, but the amount of staff time involved can vary a great deal. One variable: whether the projectors themselves are networked—a more recent product innovation that allows IT managers to remotely monitor whether a bulb needs replacing, for instance.

Still, beyond the cost of maintenance, hardware, and even furniture, it’s important to consider some soft costs as well. There are additional costs in training professors to use the equipment, CIOs agree, but there don’t seem to be any hard-and-fast rules of thumb about how much that training will run.

Peter Saxena, CIO of Roberts Wesleyan College (NY), advises smart classroom planners to expect that the number of staff required to maintain their IT systems probably won’t change in the first two years after installation of smart classrooms. However, he says, you should anticipate the need for more support staff down the line, once professors start using the technology more heavily. One approach to training that may or may not have a direct impact on cost but can certainly improve training effectiveness is to enlist a faculty member to provide the training, rather than someone out of IT. Saxena says his department found it helpful to have an adjunct faculty member teach the faculty how to run the new classroom equipment, because their peer was someone who “could speak to them in an academic language as opposed to an IT trainer language.”

At Indiana, one of the biggest sources of cost savings is in the reduced need for equipment to be wheeled to classrooms, says Elmore. “It used to make sense to deliver equipment to various rooms, but this d'esn’t make sense anymore.” With so much technology rolling across campus, “it’s now just too costly for labor,” he says. In this way, smart classroom installations have been a major savings for the university, he explains, since media equipment no longer needs to be wheeled in and out and all over the place.

Other costs change over time as well, as professors learn more about how to use the technology. At John Jay, the need for equipment deliveries may have declined, but deliveries of DVDs and videos “have gone through the roof,” says Pangburn.

Security needs are also increased, since projectors and other high-tech equipment are a much more tempting target for thieves than are a few whiteboard erasers. Sigler at MDCC says a rash of projector burglaries in South Florida schools was thwarted by her institution only because the intruders were caught on video cameras that she had recommended be installed.

Getting Even ‘Smart’er

Of course, few IT projects are ever really finished, and smart classrooms are no exception. Even when construction is complete, there’s likely to be much more to worry about. And that’s because when it comes to smart classrooms, the definition of “smart” is something of a moving target. At Indiana University, where 88 percent of the university’s 687 general classrooms have been “smart” in a basic sense since 1998, an upgrade to more advanced equipment has been underway for several years. At other schools, educators are starting to have fresh ideas about new opportunities the latest equipment might create. Saxena at Roberts Wesleyan, for example, says there are discussions now at his college about using video conferencing over the Internet to enable professors to teach remotely, but the idea will have to pass through a number of logistical hurdles before it becomes a reality—such as training faculty to use the equipment, and working out technology agreements with other schools.

Ultimately, Saxena sees the challenge of planning and funding smart classroom innovation as a process with two horizons. First, IT planners must devise an orderly evolution for rolling out the technology on campus. Then, they have to anticipate the impact of new demand once those tools are installed, and start looking for ways to find the dollars that will be needed, going forward. “The idea is to plan to manage the exponential growth,” he says.

comments powered by Disqus