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Tools Enable Collaborative Learning at MTSU

By Linda L. Briggs

One challenge of collaborative learning can be sharing the information written on flipcharts or whiteboards with others, either right there in class or in distant locations. While course files and slide presentations are fairly easy to distribute, what about the notes that instructors or students might add to them during class?

At Middle Tennessee State University, the oldest and largest public university in mid-Tennesee, a special high-end classroom has been set up to take advantage of new collaborative technologies, allowing professors—and students—to experiment with some high-end collaborative technologies and the best ways to use them in class.

The centerpiece of the new room is Polyvision’s Thunder Virtual Flipchart System, a sophisticated electronic whiteboard that allows anyone with an Internet-connected laptop to join an instruction session, either from within the room or remotely. Through Thunder, participants can share the contents of their laptop screens with the class, actively adding content and annotations that everyone in the class can see. Anything on the board can be marked up electronically, including Internet content, graphics, or course files. At any time during class or afterward, the collaborative content can be saved to a PDF file, then added to the course management system, WebCT, or e-mailed to all participants.

The Thunder system serves as a sort of electronic flip chart or group easel connected to each laptop. At the screen itself, instructors and students can jot notes and drawings onto a “page,” using either a stylus or a finger. Multiple pages are projected onto the classroom wall in high resolution, where they can be continually changed, annotated, and finally saved and shared after class.

According to Barbara Draude, director of academic and instructional technology services in the IT division at MTSU, Thunder is part of an overall solution the university has set up in an advanced classroom technologies lab on campus. “We had a [vacant] room in our honors college… and instead of converting it into a standard classroom or standard computer lab,” she says, “we had the idea of turning it into an advanced learning space.” Faculty can use the space to test and learn new technologies and pedagogies such as cooperative learning; students can try out some of the latest and greatest in classroom technology.

The room will serve as a prototype for others that MTSU may eventually set up. Along with the Thunder system, there’s a projector connected to Polyvision’s Walk-and-Talk cordless lecterns, and four large flat-panel plasma monitors, one on each wall, for collaborative uses. The room also houses sixteen tablet PCs for students to use both individually and in groups, along with a VCR, a DVD, a scanner, a document camera, and pan/tilt cameras. The entire infrastructure is programmed through a touch screen control panel for the instructor’s use.

“The whole idea of the room,” Draude says, “is using lots of different technologies in whatever way the faculty feels will best meet their learning objectives.”

The new room is being tested out this semester with five select faculty, from biology, chemistry, psychology, educational leadership, and health and human performance. Each is using the advanced features of the room either to teach an entire class, or for select activities. “We’re getting some good case studies of how it’s being used,” Draude says, “so we can use [these] experiences to encourage more people to come use the room.” Starting next semester, faculty will submit proposals and be selected to teach using the room.

The health and human performance instructor, for example, is using the Thunder system to take notes during the class on slides presented by the room’s main projector. The slides are annotated as discussions proceeds, then saved and distributed after class. The psychology professor is using the room’s wall-mounted flat-panel monitors as small group collaborative stations for statistical analysis of course research. Students gather in groups around the plasma screens; notes are saved and then distributed after class either via email or the course management system.

While Thunder doesn’t require much faculty training or practice, Draude says, the university is using the high-end classroom for a more advanced purpose: “What we’re really trying to get at is not just how to use the equipment, but how to use it in a pedagogically sound way.”

For more information, click here and here.

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif.

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