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High-Tech Classrooms

IHE's Continue to Invest in AV/IT and Networking Technology for a Myriad of Reasons
University Business, Apr 2005

Randal Lemke, executive director of the Fairfax, Virginia-based International Communications Industries Association (ICIA) defines smart classrooms as simply bringing audio-visual, telecommunications and information technology tools together.

The former University of Virginia faculty member doesn't dismiss the power that lies in these combinations. Ten years ago, when Lemke was in the classroom, IHEs took the lead in connecting their rural and urban campuses via video conferencing, Today, that's become a mainstay of the business world. And in 2005 campuses are rolling out 3-D visualization and immersive environments, once again leading in the use of technology-enhanced classrooms.

But what surprises Lemke is the pace of acquisition. "It's not the boom years of the '90s," he says. "I thought when campuses started seeing their budgets lessen in the past two years, we'd see a drop-off in the amount of technology they purchased. But it's just as strong today as five years ago, and that tells me they're driven by a competitive edge.

"One of the challenges for everyone in a university setting is centered around efficiencies--how many students you can teach with the number of dollars you have. Technology can provide people an opportunity to expand that efficiency," Lemke notes.

"Students can freely participate,
listen, use critical thinking skills
rather than just take notes
during class."
-Pat Ray, Montgomery College

Manufacturers, for their part, understand the winds are shifting toward a pedagogy approach to learning at post-secondary institutions. Seventy-five percent of North American dealers told the ICIA in February 2005 they are active in this space--reaping roughly 16 percent of their revenue from the higher ed market. Considering audio-visual equipment is an $18.9 billion market, IHEs represent a large customer base.

According to ICIA's 2005 Market Forecast Survey, the average higher education budget for technology hovers at $330,000 a year compared to the $345,000 for hospitality businesses, $295,000 for corporate entities and $260,000 for health care markets. Only the government, at $400,000, spends more annually. Within the university segment, administrators are designating 65 percent of that budget on products (projectors, whiteboards, etc.), and 35 percent on systems to connect the pieces.

Still, budgets are tight and the money isn't allowed to just fly out the door. Here's a peek at how four universities maximized their funds to offer students and faculty top-notch learning environments--once they figured out just how to describe a high-tech classroom.

Tim Pletcher, director of applied research at Central Michigan University, has his own definition of a high-tech classroom. "My definition is faculty don't need to think much before they show up (in the classroom). So to the degree we can keep them simple, they're 'smart,' " he says.

As an example, a Pletcher classroom consists of a presentation recorder box in the room that allows faculty to start their presentation, using up to five different sources simultaneously, while an in-room camera follows them streaming the video. Transitions from screens, or from slide-to-slide, are automatically integrated and time sequenced with the lectures. Pletcher also gives high marks to the classroom's ability to poll students and tally results during class time.

"Faculty are so pressed for time that if we emphasize things that save them time and energy, they pay huge dividends. Those are our precious resources, not just things that get students fired up or appear cool," he adds.

Gerry Ewing, director of instructional technology at Stetson University (Fla.), coins his own name for this new interactive world: multimedia technology. His set-up makes that case. Classrooms contain large screens, video players, combination DVD/VHS players, data video projectors, ceiling mounted document cameras, and most room are equipped with touch panel control systems. For the record, the ceiling-mounted document camera ranks as his favorite tool, and professors agree.

In the past few years, Stetson has increased its high-tech classrooms to 75 while the number of staff remained static. So products that address the support process are winners with Ewing. By giving each classroom its own IP network address, his staff actually enjoys a two-way conversation with the equipment, which sends out an alert if a lamp burns out, a cord falls out, or somebody decides to borrow the device for Super Bowl Sunday. Although he's not exploited this feature yet, he can even have the equipment call a cell phone number when it's in distress.

In addition, Ewing uses the scheduling feature to turn off projectors at 10 p.m. each evening and on the weekends. He tracked a number of rooms that utilized this feature and discovered 20 percent of the projectors would have burned brightly into the night had they not been remotely shut down. Because the cost to replace a new lamp is some $500, the payback is significant. "I use to send student assistants around the campus to turn off the switches, now I do it from my console," he said.

Moreover, Ewing finds the technology is simpler to use. "When we started, we ran workshops on how to use a multimedia classroom and found that faculty needed about a half day to grasp the operation instructions. That eventually shrunk to a 30-minute session and today, those workshops are nothing but a memory," Ewing says. "We actually had a help desk, but nobody called, so we disbanded it. The interfaces have become that intuitive."

Over the years, Montgomery College (Md.) piecemealed its equipment--a computer from one company, a document camera from another and a projector from yet another vendor. When something didn't work, Pat Ray, the college's asset management supervisor, had to deal with multiple vendors to figure out the problem. So when the administration agreed to build 22 classrooms with smart stations in its newest building, Ray had a reasonable request.

"I wanted one person to either kiss or throw things at," she says. Ray produced a list of minimum audio-visual standards, and wound up with a set-up similar to Stetson and Central Michigan: a ceiling-mounted digital projector; a document camera, and a computer with a built-in DVD to project the PowerPoint presentations. "Because the projectors are networkable, the faculty doesn't have to carry their own files--just access them from their home page on the network," she says. Ray also automated the screens, speakers and lights via remote control.

At $39,000 per standard classroom-- not to mention a five-year refresh program--Ray is impressed with the results. "Students can freely participate, listen, use critical thinking skills rather than just take notes during class," she says.

Joe Battaglia, director of office of information technology and resources at Adelphi University (N.Y.) took the opposite route. He internally combined three vendors' products to create a hybrid room. Again, it fit his translation of a high-tech classroom.

"It's really an integration of a number of the latest solutions in the market today," he explains.

Battaglia is particularly proud of the fact that faculty and students can plug in their own laptop computers. "They don't have to log onto the network to retrieve their data, although they can," he says. For adjunct faculty who lack laptops, he installed a lightweight version of Windows so the IT department can forward PowerPoint presentations to the projector. Of course, this route doesn't keep an update, so these instructors can't do a full-fledged animated presentation. The fix lies in the next wave of technology, he hopes.

"Faculty are so pressed for time that
if we emphasize things that save
them time and energy, they pay huge
-Tim Pletcher, Central Michigan University

"Basically we're looking to provide a thin client right to the room, using a PC that's mounted in one of my network racks. It could provide the full functionality of a PC just by handing the faculty a wireless keyboard," Battaglia says of his vision. He's also excited over the possibility of game-based learning technology to appeal to this generation of college students.

He may not have a long wait. According to ICIA's Lemke, colleges stand on the crest of immersive technology--a.k.a. virtual reality--that enables faculty to deposit their students in a visual world on all sides. Already Georgetown University Law Center (D.C.), has constructed a room where future lawyers may practice their arguments before a recreation of the Supreme Court. And Villanova University (Pa.) has opened a simulated trading floor, complete with ticker displays from a Bloomberg terminal at its College of Commerce and Finance.

"Villanova undergraduate and graduate finance students will be able to develop skills and learn the research tools that will truly differentiate them in today's competitive job market," says David Nawrocki, director of the Institute for Research in Advanced Financial Technology at the university. This is also the same institution that has employed clear acrylic rear projection screens in its College of Engineering to create floating images similar to holograms in the classrooms.

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