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Planning for the Classroom of the Future

The right combination of technology and training will ensure your learning spaces can adapt to ever-changing modes of instruction. Here are key considerations for future-proofing classrooms, supporting faculty and surviving the next pandemic.

hybrid learning

One thing that COVID taught us is that we need to plan for all types of learning scenarios. I've spent a career in higher education technology, including serving in 2020-2021 as director of learning spaces and AV technology at Illinois State University, where I helped the university transition to a distance learning environment — and in some classrooms a hybrid learning environment — within a span of about two days when the pandemic started. I also oversaw technology planning and implementation for the 2021-2022 school year. It was an extremely challenging time in many ways, but it also created opportunities for innovation. The pandemic prompted institutions everywhere to find new ways to support students and faculty, while keeping everyone safe.

The rise of the Delta variant has shown us that this isn't over. Universities need to be prepared for more shut-downs, and be ready to enact distance learning plans — whether it's due to a coronavirus outbreak, a massive outbreak of the flu, or something else. That means putting time into planning and strategizing about technology selection and implementation. It also means rethinking technology PD so your institution can provide the training and support for instructors on how to use the technology for in-person, hybrid or distance learning scenarios.

Here are some key considerations for higher education institutions to keep in mind when planning their technology and training for various scenarios to make sure they can keep moving forward, even during a pandemic.

Plan for in-Person or Hybrid Learning

For in-person or hybrid learning scenarios, classroom displays are still going to be critically important. When selecting those displays, display size, image quality, brightness and value are all important. For example, Illinois State has a dual projection system that uses Epson laser projectors, which was in place before the pandemic shift to hybrid learning. Last year, when instructors needed to adapt to a hybrid model, they were able to project course content on one screen and show the virtual students on the other. Rather than having to switch to a different technology, they were able to use existing equipment in a different way to accommodate both in-person and online students. Similarly, in large lecture halls, where the university was able to continue in-person instruction for some students because there was space for them to distance themselves from each other, Epson projectors provided large, bright images that all students could see, even from the back of the room. When selecting displays, carefully consider the learning environment and make sure to select displays that will be both useful and versatile.

Plan for Distance Learning

For distance learning, it's all about the cameras, the microphones and the LMS infrastructure. Colleges and universities doing distance learning should make sure they get high-quality cameras, including document cameras, as well as microphones that are easy for the instructors to use. I'm a believer that you get what you pay for, so make sure to plan and budget for quality microphones and cameras, and maybe even lighting if needed, in order to make things work well. Last year, Illinois State installed Epson document cameras in 300 classrooms, as well as PTZ tracking cameras in 45 rooms that would move with the instructors as they walked around the room. Institutions should also make sure they have a learning management system that works for both in-person and remote instruction. Whether a university provides distance learning as a pandemic-related or standard offering, it's important that instructors have the tools and systems to do it well.

Re-think Your Technology Training

Having the right technology in place is just one piece of the puzzle. Colleges and universities must also focus on professional development. Simply put, instructors need to understand — and be comfortable with — using the technology in the room. And they need to be confident they'll have IT support available when they need it. For some institutions, this may mean re-thinking technology training programs and investing more in professional development to make sure faculty and staff members are prepared to navigate different teaching scenarios. Strategies can include:

  • Beef up your professional development teams. Most universities have some sort of center for teaching excellence, or another type of training group that helps instructors learn how to use classroom technology. Those teams were overused the last two years because of the challenges with switching to distance and hybrid learning. If universities are going to be successful, they have to make sure they have a large enough technology department that they are able to provide significant one-on-one support to faculty and staff. They need to have enough manpower to be able to walk instructors through how to deliver class in a hybrid environment in a way that's as successful for the remote student as it is for the in-person student. Having enough tech support can reduce class time being lost to technology problems and helps instructors feel more supported.
  • Create a practice space. A great way to support technology professional development is to have a building, or a room, where instructors can go to practice teaching short lessons in front of their peers. This allows them to do trial runs with the technology to make sure they understand how to use it effectively. Providing opportunities for them to get comfortable with the technology, and to get feedback from their peers before they use it with students, will help them be more effective.
  • Prepare instructors to be flexible. One thing the past year-and-a-half has showed us is that things can change on a dime. Make sure instructors understand how to teach their content in multiple types of scenarios so they can pivot from in-person instruction to distance learning (or vice-versa) quickly if needed.

The biggest lesson to take away from 2020-2021 is that change is possible. Taking time to plan for multiple scenarios, and making sure instructors have access to the best technology, training and support, will help your college or university be successful — whatever the future holds.

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