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Rethinking the Community College Classroom Experience

SMC's digital learning studio

Santa Monica College is engaging students in new ways with the help of a digital learning studio that the southern California-based community college rolled out last fall. Funded by a $2 million Department of Education Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution Program (AANAPISI) grant, the studio includes multiple screens with advanced touch technology, special education software, a Smart Response system with 24 clickers, and eight iPads.

Regina Jennings, project manager, said the project was based on SMC's goal of strengthening its minorities program through the use of experimental technologies. Many of the school's students required developmental support with both basic skill instruction and English language enrichment.

"The grant provided an opportunity to get the biggest bang for our buck and introduce technologies that could serve our entire student population," said Jennings.

Working with Albert J. DeSalles, the college's media services manager, Jennings put together a grant proposal that centered on creating a smarter, technologically advanced classroom.

"Al had been researching the idea for some time, so when the grant opportunity came up we decided to go for it," said Jennings, who in mid-2009 learned that the school had won the $2 million, two-year AANAPISI grant.

SMC classrooms have traditionally been equipped with projectors, speakers, Internet access, document cameras, and DVD players that allow instructors to push media out to students. Unfortunately the setup wasn't a two-way street and didn't allow for much interaction between students and technology.

"We wanted to get students more involved with actually using the technology and not just receiving the content," said Jennings, who worked with DeSalles and SMC's IT team to come up with viable options for what would become the digital learning studio.

They started by touring several community colleges in California that were already implementing interactive classroom technologies. The University of California at Riverside, for example, had recently developed the "Hyperstruction Studio," an advanced technology classroom that includes a dual-projection system, computers with wireless peripherals, high-resolution document cameras, an audience response system, and external interfaces for additional computers. Hyperstruction Studio served as the model for SMC's digital learning studio.

SMC partnered with Hawthorne, CA.-based AV integrator CCS California. Working with SMC's media services department was the school's IT, telecommunications, and network services departments. "IT was integral in making this happen for us," said DeSalles. "We worked together on the infrastructure installation as well as the Internet cabling and the creation of our wireless networking environment."

The college's timing would prove fortuitous when it came to equipping the learning studio with tablet computers. "iPads were just being introduced around that time," said DeSalles. "We saw them as a viable option over the HP Slate tablet computers that we were already using on campus." DeSalles said the community college opted out of a 1-to-1 program for students because "we didn't feel that it would be manageable by our faculty."

Instead SMC purchased eight iPads and set up groups composed of four students who would work together on a single device. "We wanted to develop a collaborative and constructive approach in the classroom," said DeSalles, "and to get some group learning going on." Over a six-week period during the summer of 2010 teachers were trained on how to use the clickers, interactive whiteboards, and other technology installed in the new facility.

The digital learning studio is used for 13 different courses, including remedial math, English as a second language (ESL), and introductory courses in film studies and multimedia storytelling.

An ESL instructor who uses the studio often will distribute iPads to groups of students who work as foursomes to research topics like "the presidents of the United States." The teams work collaboratively to locate and compile the information and then they develop presentations to share with the rest of the class.

"It's a very effective way for students to demonstrate their English skills," said DeSalles.

Students are also encouraged to use their own smartphones to collaborate. For example, ESL students will text sentences to their instructor for correction. The sentences then appear on the classroom screen for the teacher to evaluate and review with the class. "This ESL teacher has gone so far as to set up sessions for other faculty who may be interested in how the cell phone can be used as a student learning tool," Jennings added.

SMC students collaborating in digital learning studio.

SMC has yet to measure the quantitative benefits of its digital learning studio but Jennings said its popularity among both students and teachers is obvious. "Instructors are excited about getting into that room," she said. Over the next few months she said SMC will be looking closely at student success and competition rates as they relate to the digital learning studio.

DeSalles said more smart classrooms could be in the works for SMC, which already has 160 such rooms on campus. He's currently in the process of outfitting several rooms with new projectors, whiteboards, response systems, and iPads. "Now that the traditional cookie cutter mold has been broken with the introduction of the digital learning studio," said DeSalles, "we're definitely looking more closely at what the future classroom will look like and how it will operate."

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