21st Century Classroom

How to Revamp Your Learning Spaces on the Cheap

When funds are scarce, a little experimentation can go a long way in keeping technology-enhanced classrooms up-to-date.

Often, the learning spaces that get the most attention are the big, flashy projects, complete with all the bells and whistles associated with cutting-edge technology-enhanced classrooms. But for many colleges and universities, those kinds of facilities are a dream, not a reality. 

"While a complete remodel or building a new space is wonderful, those opportunities don't come along that often," noted Laurie Sutch, director of the library and academic technology at Bentley University. "More often, learning space technology replacements must wait for a standard three- to five-year cycle, but technology is changing more rapidly than that. By choosing wisely, there are lower cost or pilot tools, equipment, etc. that can be tested off-cycle."

With that in mind, Sutch and her colleague Mark Frydenberg, senior lecturer in computer information systems and director of the CIS Learning and Technology Sandbox at Bentley, presented the session "Spruce up Your Campus Learning Spaces without Breaking Your Budget" at the recent Campus Technology Conference in Boston, offering ideas on how campus technologists can outfit their learning centers "on the cheap."

Frydenberg and Sutch shared their experiences with a number of purchases for Bentley's CIS Sandbox (a collaborative space dedicated to exploring and learning new technologies), ranging from interactive white boards and portable document cameras to a video wall of four stacked monitors. All were purchased at low cost and suitable to the task at hand — but some involved more work than others. Success with each was a mixed bag.

"Not everything you try is going to work exactly how you've envisioned it, even though it may work exactly as advertised," Sutch noted.

Still, Frydenberg said, "A space can stay current with technology without having to invest large sums of money all at once. This allows for gradual and constant updates."

"If one area of a learning space – but not necessarily everything – seems particularly outdated or is no longer functioning, experimenting with inexpensive solutions is a good way to test new ideas without spending a great deal," Sutch added.

Tech in the Sandbox

Overall, Frydenberg said, the CIS Sandbox team's technology investments have been a positive experience. "We got to play around and experiment with new technologies that met the needs of today's learning spaces, mostly centered on collaboration and sharing of information from a variety of devices and platforms," he pointed out.

One of the biggest successes, according to Frydenberg: the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter, which provides wireless screen sharing from any Windows 10 or Android device to another display device. "For us, this was a great solution," he said. "A new computer powering a large screen display was located on the opposite wall from the VGA cable that was snaked through the wall when the room was set up several years ago. For $50 and an HDMI to VGA adapter, we could share the video from the computer to the projector wirelessly, without the need to run an HDMI cable through the ceiling and down the wall."

Another area where great savings can be had is with large-screen displays, said Frydenberg. "Large-screen displays are becoming popular on campuses, replacing smaller 42-inch displays, and in some cases, projectors and Smart Boards," he explained. "These are more costly items, but their prices are continuously dropping. For example, we looked at getting a 75-inch display a year ago, but the price was prohibitive. This year, the price dropped by about half."

A bit less successful was the stylus "pen": "One of the solutions that we tested uses a special 'pen' as a stylus to write on any surface, with a projector, to function as an independent whiteboard. It worked as advertised, but didn't meet our needs to capture quick and accurate handwriting," Frydenberg said. "This device might be better suited for a K-12 classroom or for uses where an instructor is making basic shapes or markings, or advancing slides in a presentation."

Another important element in all of this, said Frydenberg: students. "Many of the upgrades we performed in the CIS Sandbox were inspired by our students. They took the initiative to research, build or test some of the products or solutions we implemented. This gave them a sense of ownership and their enthusiasm to show others helped to spread the word about what we were doing."

Lessons Learned

In terms of advice to others, Frydenberg offered the following:

First, "If you can't afford it now, wait a year. There will always be something new on the market, and prices will continue to drop," Frydenberg noted. "This is most often true on large screen displays, and computer hardware."

Second, "Involve students in researching and testing the products you are considering," Frydenberg advised. "Many enjoy the opportunity to try out new devices and figure out how they work, and may have seen items that can be used in a classroom or learning space."

Finally, "If you purchase a piece of specialized technology, be sure to document how to use its most basic capability and make the instructions easily and obviously available. Provide training for interested faculty, students, lab assistants and others so they will know that these tools are available, why they might want to use them and how to use them effectively in a learning space."

Start with Free Tools

Someone else who has direct experience with spinning straw into gold is Samuel Williams, director of academic technology services, information services, at the University of Portland (OR). A number of current programs and projects on campus started out with free or low-budget offerings, Williams noted.

"During my graduate degree program, I came up with the idea for an online professional development portal," he explained. "I manage a small team with a large responsibility on our campus. In order to provide the professional development needed to support hybrid, online and technology-assisted courses, we needed to leverage online learning. We also needed to provide proof of completion."

With no budget, Williams needed to execute the project on the cheap. "I used Wordpress as the platform for the website and extended the platform using plugins," he recalled. "I used free themes; the LearnDash.com plugin for the LMS functionality; and connected a free account for proof of completion. I was able to create a platform that allows a learner to access a course (created by myself and my team) which is a self-paced course and at the end earn a digital badge as evidence of completion."

Williams' approach has been copied by a number of departments. "The model has grown to now include many courses that would have typically been a face-to-face training," he said. "Campus Drivers Safety is one course that was just launched. We launched a seven-course series for "online teacher readiness" and are talking to the controller's office and HR on some projects. With many departments needing to provide training, the online professional development model is helping."

Williams is also working on an online professional development portal for the local community organization Familias en Acción. "We are providing fully online self-paced training for "Care for Latinos with Serious Illnesses," he said. "This is online training I helped build on the cheap using basic cameras, audio and lighting. I did most of the recording in the corner of my office, and some was in the nursing department simulation lab at UP. This helped me to build a video studio on campus."

Williams is now expanding the campus video studio and upgrading its equipment. He said the key has been demonstrating other uses for the gear. "This fall, I'm launching 'On the Bluff Studios,' a student-run multimedia design studio," he explained. "This studio started out with a single DSLR camera, a simple lighting kit and a directional microphone. I was able to show a use case and was able to buy more equipment over the years. This fall, we will have a much better studio with better equipment and eight students to help build content. This will help our academic community to build instructional media to be included in their courses."

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