Creating Tomorrow’s Classrooms

When you think of what college classrooms might look like a few years into the future, you probably tend to focus on technology. We imagine wireless devices all around, the absolute latest interactive technologies, lots of sound and color, and instant information access from every seat.

But what happens when we talk with real educators who are actually working on building tomorrow’s classrooms? While technology is important, for many of them, it’s not the focus. What excites these education visionaries isn’t necessarily hardware gizmos, hot software, or fatter bandwidth, although those are important. What energizes them is what happens between and among students and teachers, both inside the classroom and out—and how individuals and small groups can use technology to enhance that.

At the University of Washington, a professor is watching what happens in the classroom when faculty can mark up PowerPoint slides in front of the group and share student work on the fly. An assistant provost at the University of Florida is figuring out new ways of ensuring face-to-face contact in his school’s distance learning programs—whether delivery is around the state or across oceans. A community relations officer for Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS believes her school’s future success lies in the input it receives from the local business community. And a planner working out of the University of Michigan envisions a day when partnering among schools will be the norm rather than the anomaly.

Although each story helps define the classroom of tomorrow, each has at its foundation an individual or a small team working out the details. And each focuses ultimately on personal interactions and the learning process—the technology is merely an enabler.

University of Washington: Archiving Interactions

Richard Anderson, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, says the campus of tomorrow will still be recognizable. “I believe the traditional face-to-face classroom has tremendous staying power... Fifty years from now, the classroom is going to look quite a bit like it looks today.” He bases that on his belief that a big part of education involves instructor and student discussion and interaction—most of it taking place verbally.

Yet, that hasn’t stopped Anderson from envisioning a new form for those discussions and interactions.

He has spent about three years developing and applying Classroom Presenter, a presentation tool built on some of the facilities of ConferenceXP, a distributed classroom platform created by Microsoft. Classroom Presenter, which enhances PowerPoint, has two types of uses. “One is strictly as a presentation system, where it’s allowing instructors to incorporate electronic ink on top of PowerPoint,” says Anderson. Teachers can spontaneously write on the slides and have the notes appear on the screen. “This is important in giving instructors additional flexibility in explaining topics—to write out equations, do quick sketches, write out examples,” he explains.

The other aspect, which is the “long-term direction,” according to Anderson, is what happens when Classroom Presenter is integrated with student devices. “The instructor presents slides and writes on slides, but students have laptops or tablets or other machines receiving the slides and the digital ink in real time... They get the materials as they’re presented and do their own annotations.” Then the student annotations can be submitted back to the instructors.

The application of this, says Anderson, is that the instructor can pose a classroom exercise on the slide and then have the students do the exercises and send the results back. In turn, the instructor can quickly go through the responses and select some of them to display on the screen anonymously. “It gives the chance to discuss student work,” he says.

To test the method, Anderson worked as a guest lecturer in another instructor’s class—so they weren’t students he worked with customarily. He arranged for each student to have a tablet PC at the desktop. Anderson calls it “the most fun lecture I’ve ever given. The students were incredibly engaged in the material, not on the device.” He admits that a few students played and were distracted by the devices, but “by and large, [they] were engaged in the topic of the class.”

Anderson believes this mode of instruction connected the students in a way that “just sitting and listening to the instructor drone on” can’t. As he explains, “It closes the loop for the instructor and allows the instructor to see how the material is getting across with the students.”

Beyond that, it also changes how the teacher approaches the teaching, he says. He bases his conclusion on his own experimentation with the system. “The first thing I had to think about was, what were the students supposed to learn in this, and then figure out how I would evaluate those learning objectives.... Instead of thinking about how I presented all the details, I was thinking about what the students were supposed to understand and how I would evaluate this.”

Anderson d'esn’t believe the mode of instruction matches everybody’s style. “The instructor has to be somebody who can think on his or her feet.” Also, the exercises shuttling between teacher and students need to be problems that can be quickly eyeballed by the instructor to make sure the submissions are worth analyzing by the group publicly.

The role of applications like Classroom Presenter is to make course materials easier to display and manipulate. “It makes it easier to archive it and share materials and analyze and display things that people are communicating and interacting with,” he says. “But there’s still the basic person-to-person interaction.”

Behind the Scenes: Data Projectors and Networking

On the infrastructure side, Richard Anderson’s application, Classroom Presenter, assumes the presence of data projectors. Anderson says he’s been “struck” by how quickly data projectors have become fairly ubiquitous in the classroom—and how easy they are to connect to instructor devices. “That’s a mundane but incredibly important detail.”

The other key aspect is network access. Anderson says the system works in wired and wireless classrooms.

And although tablet PCs have been the target up to now, his long range view is that it will have to work on a wide range of platforms to succeed—whatever the students are bringing in, “laptops, tablet PCs, smaller form-factor devices such as Pocket PCs”—and across different operating systems.

Anderson sees innovation being driven by instructors who are “enthusiastic about using the technology.” In his vision, campus IT takes a supporting role, to make sure the software is available on the classroom computers.

University of Florida: Looking Outside the Local Campus

To William Riffee, building the classroom of tomorrow means partnering—both with educators all over the world and with third-party service providers that really understand what the solution, technological and otherwise, should look like.

“When people ask, what is the number one reason for having distance education program, that is access,” says Riffee, Dean of the College of Pharmacy and Associate Provost for Distance Continuing and Executive Education at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “I say, we are allowing around 6,000 people get degrees from the University of Florida—high-quality, top-notch degrees—[people] who would otherwise not be able to do that. We’re changing the world one life at a time, because we’ve allowed them to have access to our programs.”

But imagine a classroom that extends from Florida east across the Atlantic to Scotland and Germany, west across the Pacific to Korea and Australia and south to Brazil, Ecuador and Peru. That’s the vision Riffee keeps in mind as he g'es about his work overseeing the campus’ efforts to globalize education, which, he says, are intended for “students who can’t, for whatever reason, come to the United States for residential study, but who want to participate in a degree program.”

While the presence in foreign countries might simply be considered another form of distance learning, the University of Florida takes a different approach: educating the faculty there and using them as support systems for students.

“We don’t want to export the American way of doing things,” says Riffee. “We spend a lot of time developing relationships with people primarily in other educational institutions. We believe very strongly in a hybrid approach to distance education, where we have face-to-face—teachers meeting with the students periodically.”

The development of these programs is long term. A current initiative underway in Brazil illustrates the process. “We’re working with the Centro Universitário de Maringa (Cesumar), a private university center—in between a community college and a full doctoral university. They’re interested in our doctor of audiology and doctor of pharmacy programs.” Over the last couple of years, joint meetings have taken place.

Shortly, the school in Brazil will identify three faculty members in each of the disciplines to obtain their degrees from UF—under a full UF-funded scholarship. “They will get their degree at no cost to them, other than some travel maybe once every couple of years to do some clinical stuff,” explains Riffee. “Once they get the degree, then we have some built-in facilitators at those institutions, that will then help us recruit new students and so forth. We will blend our science with their culture.”

When the program is proposed, the candidates “cry,” says Riffee. “‘Nobody’s ever come down from the US and said: We are so interested in working with you that we want to provide this opportunity to you so you can get a degree and you can help us work with your country to improve healthcare.’ That’s the bottom line: to improve justice or healthcare or whatever.”

The hope, Riffee says, is that in three, five, or 10 years, those same instructors will be building a base of paying students. Of course, to succeed, the pricing model is different. “Whatever their students would pay for a degree program there is what they’ll pay for a degree program here. And then we work out a financial split with that institution. We actually collect the money and pay the institution back their percentage for their marketing and student support.”

Face-to-face interaction will always play an essential role in education, Riffee believes. It’s currently being manifested for US-based UF distance students via Apple’s iChat AV, a full-screen personal video conferencing service that works over a broadband connection. Groups of students who want to speak to an instructor set up a meeting time, then sit in their offices or conference rooms, turn on their computers with the iChat cameras and interact through instant messenger. “So you have a small group, geographically separated, having a very intimate interaction in a small classroom,” says Riffee. In the future, he says that sort of thing won’t have a “Gee, whiz, is this terrific?” feel to it—it’ll just be standard operating procedure.

Behind the Scenes: Selective Outsourcing

Technology’s role in the University of Florida’s version of distance learning is to serve up the content, a mix of streaming video, text, animation, and simulations. “Every technology you’ve seen on the Internet, we use in our programs,” says Associate Provost William Riffee.
But rather than relying on campus IT to supply specialized services, Riffee has chosen to work with third-party service providers in many cases. “I have outsourced where I have felt it was important to get the best quality, the best turnaround.”

The outsourcing of streaming video was done to obtain 24x7 support. “In over three years [of operation], we’ve been down a total of two hours,” he says. “If a student calls one of our IT people, one of our instructors and says, ‘I’m having trouble with this streaming video,’ within 45 minutes we will know what the problem is—and it’s usually something in their apartment building. We can trace it back to where they live and what part of town. I needed that kind of support.”

Riffee has also outsourced marketing and customer service functions. On the marketing side, Riffee chose a service provider with a propriety system for tracking students. “Twenty eight to 30 percent of [distance learning] students took five years to make the decision to enroll in the program, after first contact,” says Riffee. “[The marketing partner] kept contacting them and keeping them up to date.”

The same company d'es quality assurance work. Riffee says they’ll call students and ask how things are going. Then he gets a spreadsheet of results. “And we say that within 48 hours every problem that has been identified will be fixed.”

Riffee believes the campus of tomorrow will turn to outsourcing for many of its non-educational services. “There are companies that are building niches out there that do a better job than we can do it and end up costing overall less than it would take for us to build it inside.

Johnson County Community College: Flexibility for Evolving Needs

Susan Lindahl, college and community relations officer for Johnson County Community College in high-tech hotbed Overland Park, KS, is helping oversee development of literal “classrooms of tomorrow.” In December 2004, the school held a “virtual groundbreaking” in which the college president, board of trustees, and major donors pointed lasers at a giant egg, out of which emerged robots, which started breaking ground for the new buildings.

What d'es the classroom of tomorrow look like? It is defined by its flexibility. The Regnier Center for Technology and Business will contain 150,000 square feet of classrooms, offices and labs, as well as an art museum. It was designed based on input from a consortium of community leaders, who were asked, according to Lindahl, “What will be important to you 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road?”

From there, a committee of school and business participants made site visits to the University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, Virginia Tech, Bellevue Community College, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Their mission was to ask, “What do you have now? What do you wish you’d put in? What do you see in the future?”

The result: “Each of the classrooms that we’re putting in will be multi-purpose,” says Lindahl. “We’re working with a technology consultant, so we have covered the most advanced technology available—so that we include wireless capabilities and also every other potential emerging technology.”

Behind the Scenes: More Hours in IT’s Future

The IT staff will be housed in the new structure, offering a “kind of walk-up helpdesk, open seven days a week,” she says. The school hopes to “expand the college’s position as a community resource, by being open more hours, by providing learning environments in MDI music, 3D animation, motion graphics, a wet lab for bio tech and bioinformatics courses, by being a national training site for emerging technologies.”

Lindahl says a key to building the campus of tomorrow is collaboration: a “private/public partnership.” How better to envision the synergy between technology and the arts, bio sciences and the community?

University of Michigan: The Rule of Emotions

Building the classroom of tomorrow is something that Phyllis Grummon thinks about every single day as Director of Planning and Education for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), affiliated with the School of Education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Her particular area of interest is change and change management and social capital in organizations. When she considers the future, it might be six months away, and it might be 20 years off. She says technology won’t be the driving factor in change, emotions will.

“Probably since fire, it’s a continual balancing act between advances in technology—loosely spoken—and the realities of [the] hardwiring in our brains,” she says. “The more we learn about how the brain is structured and how learning occurs, the more we realize that emotions are critical. The effects of change on any organization are pretty readily predictable—because of that old brain that we have that really triggers our emotional reactions to what appears to what appears to be a neutral statement.”

As an example, she points to outsourcing. “We outsource the bookstore... The sacred cow of outsourcing—teaching—has already been broached. They just haven’t called it outsourcing... When we started the community college system, colleges and universities were saying, ‘OK, we’re wiling to outsource the first two years. We’re willing to leave basic general education to another educational entity.’ Part of where [schools will] end up going with outsourcing will depend on how much emotional attachment they perceive their alumnae have with the college or university owning that function.”

She envisions consortia forming, not just among colleges, but among other entities too. “A college might partner with a K-12 school district and they might share technology, or they might share outsourcing in a way that leverages their power, because now they’re bigger,” she says. “We can’t really afford to have a program—at a 1,000-person small, private liberal college—in quantum physics. What agreements are we going to have with Huge U down the road?”

Behind the Scenes: Sustainability Will Influence Planning

Sustainability will define campuses of the future, just as it affecting them today. Thirty years of environmental thinking has permeated most students’ consciousness, says SCUP’s Phyllis Grummon. “So you get to college and you expect that there will be a place to put paper for recycling, that if you don’t have a bottle return policy, there will be a place next to the soda machine where you can toss in your empties for recycling.”

Besides the push from students for sustainable practices, environmental compliance and economic conditions are re-enforcing the tendency to sustainability at schools. “The Environmental Protection Agency has started regulating campuses,” Grummon points out. “For many years, they pretty much ignored what went on on campuses. Now they show up and say things like, ‘This parking garage is a little too close to the river on campus.’ Or, ‘Oh, this chem lab has quite a few drums of materials stored in the wrong place.’”

She says more and more campuses are also seeking LEED certification from the US Green Building Council. Although it’s focused on individual buildings right now, “the next step is having campus planning and master planning look at, How do I LEED-certify a campus? How do I look at the water runoff from a parking in a way that recovers it to be recycled into the cooling of our nuclear reactor?

Another shift Grummon foresees: “Six years will seem like a short time to get your bachelor’s degree at some point—because you will work, go to school, work part time and go to school full time, and just the opposite,” she says. “We’ll become accustomed to people not really having their professional credentials until their mid-20s.”

As part of that trend, distance learning will become even more popular because it can deliver asynchronous learning. “That’s a case where, ‘Ah, I got scheduled to work this morning. So I’m going to catch my Psych 101 class [online] this afternoon.’ [It’s like saying] ‘I’m going to Tivo it,’ in essence.”

Grummon d'esn’t expect the concept of the physical campus to go away anytime in the next century. “Nobody’s going to give up football games, residence halls—because we’re simply social beings. Students learn as much from their peers as they do from any professor.”

And massive IT support to sustain the technologies on campus will become less important. “Certainly, sophisticated scientific equipment will still have technicians, because there will only be one on campus. But for daily computing, we’re going to push responsibility to the individual.”

As she explains, “When we have the ability though browsers to communicate with anybody regardless of the computer platform we have, when you can buy a Dell computer for $449, perhaps we’ll dispose of ones that don’t work anymore. Maybe our ISP provider at home or at the university will back up all our files once a day... so when we’ve had it with [what] we have, we can junk it. We know we can go out and get a new one and plug it in and our ISP provider [will have] our shadow disk on it... We’ll just assign bandwidth to every human being at birth and that’s yours for the rest of your life... Except for massive terabyte data exchange super computing, every individual will take care of themselves.”

Through the gyrations of changes in devices, software, approaches to technology, Grummon hopes the people behind building the classrooms of tomorrow keep one question in mind: “Particularly when we’re looking at a campus where the creation, transmission, preservation, and application of knowledge is everybody’s mission, how do you make sure that the technology d'esn’t drive it but that the mission drives it?”

Creating the Classroom of Tomorrow Is Happening All Over

Clearly, there’s plenty of fodder for imagining what tomorrow’s classrooms will look like.

Campuses face a future filled with disparate devices—many mobile and wireless; lots of connectivity; greater collaboration anywhere, anytime; a growing population of non-traditional students with different technology needs; traditional students who expect a greater degree of tech savvy from their schools; a greater emphasis on distance learning. But as these examples show, tomorrow’s educators don’t necessarily see technology as the answer. Rather, it’s only part of the solution.

Along with the hardware and software, the bandwidth and innovation, they’re focused on the people, the partnering, and experimentation to learn what works. That serves as a reminder that no matter how technology changes the future, it remains only part of a learning equation that includes individuals working together to teach and learn.

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