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The 21st Century Classroom

Incubating Next-Gen.Edu

Great ideas for teaching and learning come from faculty, students--even other schools. Here's how two universities are bringing those ideas together in special classrooms, for campuswide impact in the years ahead.

Incubating Next-Gen.EduGiven a blank slate, what should the 21st century college classroom look like, and how should it be operated? Answering those questions is the idea behind setting up "incubator classrooms," spaces dedicated to trying out new technologies and new ways of teaching and learning. By incubating new ideas, faculty members and IT staff discover which teaching approaches and tools work best, before they're rolled out more broadly across campus.

Two newly launched initiatives--one at a large public university and the other at a smaller, private institution--demonstrate the unique journey incubator spaces take from conception to setup and use, even when they've been designed with similar goals. In both cases profiled here, many of the actual trappings are almost laundry-list: flexible seating and tables, portable computing devices that can be stashed away, broadband connectivity, collaboration software, interactive whiteboards, and easily viewed displays. But the details vary regarding evolution of design, technology assessment and choices, and space usage.

An Evolutionary Approach

The 17,000-student University of California-Riverside, east of Los Angeles, is no stranger to experimental instruction. It started with smart classrooms, which were introduced five to six years ago when the campus began a four-year, million-dollar upgrade for all 80 general assignment classrooms, recalls Leo Schouest, manager of academic computing. "We standardized all technology to a certain level. It didn't matter what room you walked into: the VCR, the panel, the computer were all the same," he says.

UC-Riverside's Hyperstruction Studio provides an environment where everyone is engaged with everyone else. Students may be looking in different directions, but the information is following the student, not vice-versa.

Then, two years ago, working closely with the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Registrar, the school developed a plan to upgrade three rooms with technology above and beyond the smart room standard. Called "flex classrooms," the spaces employed wraparound whiteboards, movable tables and chairs, and dual projection systems with multiple points of control. But the initiative has evolved further, with the development of the school's first Hyperstruction Studio, which debuted its first class at the end of January 2008. As the website for the new space explains, "The Hyperstruction Studio allows faculty to explore innovative pedagogies and thus create a campus ‘road map' as UCR considers how to best enhance teaching and learning in the years ahead."

The cost to furnish and outfit the Studio came to about $175,000, according to Israel Fletes, manager of UCR multimedia technologies, who adds that much of the equipment being used in the Studio reflects technology the faculty is already familiar with. The project came about spontaneously: During the remodel of an existing building, the vice provost of undergraduate education repurposed a classroom and compiled a modest budget to allow Schouest and Fletes to pursue what turned out to be parallel dreams for each. Fletes and his team were seeking a better way to try out new technologies before introducing them into classrooms. Schouest wanted to reexamine assumptions regarding how instruction in a classroom should transpire for optimal learning.

"There's a culture of a student walking into a room, and the instructor is over there, and we're over here, and it's almost antagonistic," Schouest explains. In an effort to replace that, he says, "We ripped up the room completely; moved everything out of it. Then, before we brought anything into it, the question we had to ask was, ‘What's the pedagogical value of it?' If we were able to come up with a way it could be used in teaching, it would go into the room."

Outfitting from the ground up. Technology has not been the only consideration. For instance, in the Studio, the carpeting is composed of contrasting squares. That, says Schouest, allows the faculty member to say to the class, "OK, if your chair is sitting on a light-colored square, you're part of this team. If you're on a dark square, you're part of that team." The flooring thus becomes a mechanism for creating groupings, he explains.

Incubating Next-Gen.Edu

UC-RIVERSIDE's Fletes and his team conceived of the Hyperstruction Studio as a way to try out new technologies before introducing them into classrooms.

The classroom component assessment then moved to the tables: Steelcase Turnstone models in both slate and maple providing flexible groupings. In fact, the room itself is highly configurable, and though it was constructed to accommodate 24 students, it can hold 46 seats in a traditional classroom configuration, or can be divided in half. Chairs ("Uno" design, also from Steelcase) and tables are arranged in groupings for four students, and those can be merged for larger teams. A Bretford rail system allows six whiteboards to extend across two walls, or be pushed out of the way when not needed.

The presentation controls include a video wall that consists of a Panasonic 42-inch plasma display, two projection systems comprised of Sharp XG-C430X LCD projectors with two Da-Lite 84-inch Cosmopolitan Electrol electric motorized screens, and a 3M 9200IW Plus electronic whiteboard. Each presentation display is connected to a Dell OptiPlex GX280 PC. The video wall has full videoconferencing capabilities, says Schouest; that will allow people in remote sites to see and control what shows up on the screens, as well.

The instructor workstation includes a Dell GX280 PC, a WolfVision VZ-8plus document camera, and a Toshiba DVD player and JVC VHS VCR tucked inside a custom management station--all in keeping with the campuswide classroom equipment standards.

The room and its technology were arranged, says Schouest, to create an environment "where everyone is engaged with everyone else." And even though "everyone tends to be looking in different directions," he points out that it doesn't matter where a student is looking; he or she will see a screen. "The information follows the student, rather than the student following the information."

From the student's point of view. Behind this setup was careful assessment of how students learn, and how instruction should be delivered. "We started segmenting how instructors deal with information and knowledge, Schouest recalls. "We realized that in teaching, it's a dual process: You're first creating new ideas, then presenting those new ideas." To get that concept across technologically, Schouest and Fletes physically separated the two processes--and the technology controls.

"We wanted to add a bit more chaos to [the way education is delivered]," says Schouest. That meant both instructors and students would have the ability to present information and make annotations on any or all of the displays in the room, from any of the computers in the room. (Schouest likens presentation and annotation control to a baton passed from faculty to student, from student to student, or from student group to student group.) Master display controls are orchestrated by a Crestron DTT-17 touchpanel and UPX2 Universal Presentation Processor.

Since "students actually are creators of new knowledge," says Schouest, "we wanted to give them the ability to control any one of the screens in the room." So the school outfitted the Studio with 24 Gateway M285-E tablet PCs, which, when not in use, are stored and recharged on a Spectrum Industries H3 laptop cart. The tablets' batteries have a life close to seven hours and they can be recharged in less than an hour. Students also can bring their own wireless computers into the Studio.

To shift control of what's being displayed where, the Studio uses Tidebreak TeamSpot, a collaboration application. It enables the instructor, a group of students, or a single student to share the presentation on any display in the room. For instance, an educator can assign three groups of students to create a presentation, and then take turns sharing their work on the main display. Each group also can modify the others' work; as Schouest explains, "The instructor might say, ‘Team A, now I'm giving control of your presentation to Team C, and they're going to comment on it and make changes.'" He enthuses, "There's no single point in the classroom where students direct their attention. Instead, there are multiple points where information is shared, depending on how far the instructor wants the collaboration and engagement to go. There's a constant change in control."

For the anticipated day when podcasting and vodcasting will be requested, the room includes equipment for that, too: two Sony EVI-D70 room cameras for videoconferencing, which work like robotic cameras and can be controlled via a web interface managed remotely (e.g., by a member of Fletes' IT team, located elsewhere on campus); three JBL ceiling speakers; a Telex FMR-500 wireless microphone; an H-ITT classroom response system; and Abyss Media i-Sound software for MP3 audio recording.

Although the details may make Studio operations sound complex, the room was designed to be as user-friendly as possible, says Fletes, to prevent a class from feeling as if support people were there to monitor their use of the equipment. But in case of technical difficulties, he says, "We do have staff that can assist at a moment's notice." What's more, the first group to try out the Studio on a regular basis (a 200- level sociology class) only took a couple of sessions to learn how the equipment operates; they're flying solo now.

Robert Hanneman, the professor for that course, has blogged on the Hyperstruction Studio website about his experiences, and for the most part, he agrees that the format of the class is keeping participants "active." "I'm impressed by the extent to which most folks seem to be engaged," he reports, adding: "The other thing I like is that there seems to be a lot of ‘peer teaching' going on--fancy word for helping others."

8 Incubator Tips from the Trenches

JACQUELINE GILBERT, Middle Tennessee State University professor in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business Department of Management and Marketing, recently published an article describing her campus's process in creating the Advanced Computer Technology laboratory, an incubator classroom. Faculty participants, surveyed about their experiences in using the lab, provided the following suggestions for improvements, many of which are applicable to any incubator setting. See the complete article here.

  1. Use the same brand of equipment already in use on campus, to enable in-house IT staff to both repair and maintain the equipment.
  2. Make sure chairs are light enough to be moved and have multidirectional wheels.
  3. Make available a dedicated IT staff member who can help faculty when needed, and train them on equipment.
  4. Have a backup whiteboard, for times when electronics fail.
  5. Include flipcharts for brainstorming.
  6. Make sure tablet computers provide sufficient performance and are placed back into the recharging system by default.
  7. To keep clutter off the floor, make available a closet with a set of wall hooks for coats and backpacks.
  8. Consider which hours the building will be open and what technical support will be available-- particularly after regular school hours.

Still, Schouest doesn't recommend the Studio for hour-long class sessions. "You need blocks of time," he says: two or three hours apiece.

Professors at UCR have three ways to gain access to the Studio: 1) via a formal application process (proposals are submitted to the vice provost for undergraduate education; funding is provided to cover additional expenses); 2) via ad hoc use for workshops or seminars that can exploit the physical and technological resources of the room; or 3) for use as a computer-assisted instruction lab.

At Santa Clara University, incubator rooms are configured for power and networking, and to accommodate a great variety of potential applications--even if many of them will fail. The successes get rolled out across campus.

Big Rooms, Small Rooms

Santa Clara University (CA), an 8,000- student campus in Silicon Valley, dedicated its new Learning Commons, Technology Center, and Library this past March; faculty and students will begin to occupy the experimental classroom spaces of the $95 million facility in the fall. It's clear to see that the building's technology-enhanced spaces are dramatically different from almost every other classroom on campus. And while many ideas were borrowed from among those tried out in other schools' incubator spaces, many arose from Santa Clara's own incubator classrooms, says CIO Ron Danielson.

Experiment, experiment. Today, the four-story, 194,000-square-foot learning commons structure includes several spaces where instructional experimentation can take place. The smallest is a set of three rooms that originally were SCU's own incubator rooms, now termed "educational experimentation rooms." Two of the rooms hold eight people and one holds six. At roughly 200 square feet each, they are not classrooms in the traditional sense, since they're not big enough to hold class in. Rather, "They're dedicated to exploring new technologies that particular faculty bring in," Danielson explains. In fact, the idea is that a faculty member will submit a proposal to use one of the spaces for a term, or perhaps an entire school year. Funds are made available through a technology innovation fund.

"Maybe somebody in the sciences will have instruments that aren't ‘wet lab' kinds of things, but he doesn't have space to set them up," says the CIO. "We'll let him play around for a while. Or someone in the humanities might have a computer music lab that she wants to experiment with. We already have one, but there might be some new facilities that will enable people to do things that our existing facilities don't allow. The faculty member could set that up in there and make it accessible to music students only, so we don't have the entire university coming around and playing with the equipment there."

The "experimentation" rooms are outfitted with ceiling-mounted DW5100U Panasonic projectors and Da-Lite Advantage Deluxe Electrol electric motorized screens at one end of the room. (The smallest of the rooms houses the 57-inch LCD5710 flat panel display from NEC) There are a range of audio-video hookups in the rooms so that students can use laptops and software that will enable them to project their work up on the screen. In addition, each room is set up for video recording of whatever transpires in the space. (The video is stored on a network drive so that students can access it at any time.) The equipment in the experimentation rooms is the same that the school has used to outfit 25 sixand eight-person group study rooms in the same building.

Incubating Next-Gen.Edu

THE TECHNOLOGY-ENHANCED spaces in SCU's new Learning Commons, Technology Center, and Library are dramatically different from almost every other classroom on campus.

The rooms are configured for "a lot of power and networking," says Danielson. "We wanted them to be able to accommodate a great variety of potential applications--even if we don't know right now what those applications are going to be four years from now. That's the whole idea." He admits that while some "experiments" will be highly successful, the school expects many of them will fail. But, "We'll gain experience and roll out [the successful experiments] more broadly across campus," says Danielson. Maybe what they're incubating, he concedes, is the idea that a campus needs more such experimental spaces. "Three isn't many," he points out, "but it's an awful lot more than zero."

Class-size, but different. Beyond the small experimentation spaces, the new center includes three classrooms that were deliberately designed to be "different from any other rooms at the university," says Danielson. One of the rooms is configured as a multimedia lab, where students are seated in front of Mac Pro computers with 23-inch Apple Cinema Displays in "pods" of four. Each pod also has a 40-inch NEC Multeos M40-AV LCD, which can be controlled by any student in that pod. The professor can push out images to any or all of the LCD projectors from the control podium, a Computer Comforts Universal Lectern 1, or else a student can do so. "There is no attention wall in this class," says Danielson, meaning that the traditional classroom setup--in which a faculty member stands at the "front" of the room with all students' eyes facing forward--has been avoided (a common design principle for incubator spaces).

The other two rooms, one designed to accommodate 32 individuals, the other for 48 people, are intended to be flexible in that they can be set up so that the class faces one wall, or can be divided into units of four or eight individuals working together. Although these spaces will be used primarily by Danielson's staff for information literacy instruction, they're also available to faculty for class use and utilization of the room's special services, up to a few times each term.

A grid of power and data boxes concealed under the floors (accessible by picking up a piece of carpeting that camouflages the box) allows the room configuration to be changed in about 30 minutes, but that's not fast enough for Danielson, who sees electric power as the limiting factor. "You can't ‘broadcast' power, or make power wireless. That's what we really wanted; to be completely untethered." In order to reconfigure the room, he says, "You pull up the lid to the floor box, you unplug the power and data connections, and you roll your equipment someplace else and plug it into another floor box."

Beg, borrow, or steal. Danielson's staff has decided to limit possible configurations in these rooms, because they need to be able to "plug people in" quickly. The idea of having a limited number of configurations was borrowed from the Stanford University (CA) School of Medicine; in fact, many other ideas for the learning commons also were inspired by other institutions. The concept of the small, highly configurable labs, for instance, came from Cox Hall at Emory University (GA). A congressional grant enabled Danielson to send out teams of two or three shared-services individuals to visit other schools' new or extensively remodeled media centers and classrooms. In total, the teams comprised of 20 people altogether visited more than 20 campuses.

"It really opened the eyes of many of our staff," says Danielson. "We had librarians with 30 years of service behind them, who were all of a sudden embracing new ways of doing things."

Incubating Next-Gen.Edu

AMONG THE EXPERIMENTAL classroom spaces at SCU are group study rooms where students can project collaborative work on-screen.

Now, he adds, "As we begin to remodel other buildings on campus, some of those lessons will go into the design of those spaces, as well." What he's really hoping, he emphasizes, is that faculty will begin to think differently about the kinds of classroom spaces they want and need. He's also anticipating that exposure to the new equipment and flexible structures will lead to broader adoption and experimentation elsewhere on campus.

UC-Riverside's Schouest crystallizes that aspiration: "The success of any incubator is the portability of the technology outside of it," he explains "Just because you have something in an incubator, can it port to a general use environment? Once it's no longer being incubated, it has to be productive."

Don't miss these sessions and workshops at Campus Technology 2008:

  • 21st Century Learning Spaces: Making Your Dreams Come True
  • Driving Research in Technology and Pedagogy: Faculty in the Incubator Classroom
  • Next-Gen Classroom Model: Emory University's (GA) Cox Center
  • The Learning Commons: Next-Gen Learning Spaces for the New Way Students Work
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