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Creating a Smart Classroom from Scratch

When Mark Jones learned that South College's burgeoning medical programs were going to be moving into a new home, he saw the expansion as a chance to introduce a host of new classroom technologies on campus. As director of IT for the Knoxville, TN institution, Jones set his sights on $650,000 worth of IT equipment and smart classroom technology that included secure wireless Internet access, lecture capture software, videoconferencing tools, and sensor pads.

Getting the Infrastructure Right
The new Parkside Drive facility, which occupies about 35,000 square feet of physical space, houses the college's new physician's assistant program. To address the IT needs for that new campus, Jones said his first step was to set up several meetings with a local, Cisco-certified vendor. During those pow-wows, he said plans were laid out for the installation of switches, routers, and the vendor's new telephony program.

"We wanted to make sure the entire infrastructure could be tied together, from the IP phone setup all the way through to the videoconferencing that will take place in the classroom," said Jones. Other moves included the installation of two new storage area network (SAN) servers, which would support the campus' database and data backup requirements.

By implementing a secure wireless access controller that requires 12 access points (instead of a previous 21 access points), the institution saved money on equipment, and is able to manage and administrate the entire campus from a single, centralized management console. "Even with all of the network growth," said Jones, "we've consolidated most of the management time it takes to administer the data endpoints."

Immediately after the IP phone system was installed at the new campus, Jones said, the setup was also rolled out at South College's primary, 56,000-square-foot campus, where the equipment was switched out, and all users were trained on the new system. "Our goal was to connect the two campuses by putting them on the same domain," said Jones. "As a result, we've been able to make the network work more efficiently and increase the ease of administration."

Classroom Systems
With the underlying infrastructure in place, Jones and his team outfitted the school's classrooms with new technology equipment, tools and software. Being able to record, monitor and communicate with every classroom was a top priority, he said, and one that was enabled with recording software, cameras, microphones and computers--all of which are integrated into a single podium.

When investigating South College's podium options, Jones said he checked out similar setups at two other colleges, neither of which were happy with their integrated tools. "It basically took a rocket scientist to operate the things," said Jones, who decided to start from scratch with an easy-to-use podium that an instructor could access with a user name and password, and that would do everything from lower the shades in the back of the classroom to dim the lights in the front of the room.

The integrated design allows the instructor to control the entire room (shades, screen, projector, and lights) from the podium. The instructor logs into the computer with a network admin account and has access to personal and department volumes, eliminating the need to carry their files on flash drives. "We accomplished this by adding two 20 TB servers, one at each campus," said Jones. "Information ... is replicated from each server, giving us an offsite backup of data."

Under the Gun
Getting the infrastructure and the related IT components in place within a short time frame was a challenge for South College, which runs on a quarterly basis. "We can really only work during the time between the quarters, which made the project a bit difficult to manage," said Jones. "We literally had four weeks to get everything done."

To manage the deadlines and the tight time frame for installation, Jones spent the eight months prior setting up, planning, and testing the technology that would be put in place.

"We had everything up and functional long before the actual installation," said Jones. He said all systems that were impacted by the move were up and running on the first day of class in January 2011, at both campuses.

The pre-planning and testing paid off. Jones said there were no reported failures, with the exception of one bad patch cable and one power strip. "I attribute that success to good planning, good partners, and everybody paying attention," Jones said. "I was holding my breath that first day; and then I went home, went to bed, and finally got some sleep."

There's more classroom technology in the cards for South College, which recently partnered with a local Microsoft SharePoint user group and is considering the Web application platform for online storage and development. The institution, which will be expanding its Doctor of Pharmacy program in the near future, is also considering a collaborative videoconferencing project with the University of Tennessee.

"These are just a few of the projects we'll be working on this year," said Jones, "as we continue to grow, and find new ways to use technology to enhance the educational process."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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