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Taking command of the college classroom

As classroom control systems have advanced, they’ve also become more user-friendly
University Business, December 2014
From the professor’s podium, all the technology throughout the room can easily be switched back and forth for use.
From the professor’s podium, all the technology throughout the room can easily be switched back and forth for use.

Students at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine work in six-person groups around computer monitors to diagnose a medical case.

The instructor roams the classroom, using an iPad application to share content on a large monitor and control all the technology in the room—including lighting, audio, video and screen positions.

When exceptional work is spotted on one group’s computer, the instructor taps a button on the iPad to transfer the work onto the large monitor. And when students disperse into the 14-person breakout rooms nearby, the professor can continue to push content to one side of a 60-inch display in each of those rooms, while students control the other half.  

Even off-site faculty can teach students in these rooms, using a camera or presentation mode available on the handheld control system, says Kent Gardner, the school’s director of academic technology.

College and university instructors across the country are incorporating technology into their classes with little effort. As classroom control systems have advanced, they’ve also become more user-friendly, making a wider variety of teaching methods possible.

Here’s what instructors today are doing with these systems and what the user experience is like.

Changing pedagogy

Today’s students easily lose interest in talking heads, and instructors have so many options other than simply lecturing. Intuitive, cutting-edge controls make it easy for them to try new ways of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and tech-focused group work.

Accessible AV: The provider’s perspective

AV control systems have been in classrooms for almost two decades, but the current features and ease-of-use have come only in recent years.

That has been a necessity “with the proliferation of personal devices, the adaptation of Wi-Fi technology, and the challenges of network integration and security,” says Joe da Silva, director of product marketing at AV provider Extron.

Bill Strupp, education market development manager at control and automation systems provider Crestron, describes the changed classroom environment by noting this simple fact: “Faculty cannot teach with just a piece of chalk anymore.”

Yet professors used to have to decipher the buttons on clunky remote controls. Now they now use a variety of touch panels powered by control processors and software.

A single, simple touch panel can control switchers, scalers, amplifiers, projectors and displays, audio volume, lighting and shading, “while providing simpler, more intuitive user-interfaces that don’t require special training or technical aptitude to use,” says Bill Schripsema, commercial product manager at Atlona, a distributor and manager of AV solutions.

“Users appreciate consistent and familiar room-to-room control interfaces, so they can immediately begin using the AV within any room they enter.”

And that should be the case, no matter how much technology is there.

Sarah Kinard, education marketing manager at AV system provider AMX, says, “The room may be complicated, but the interface for the professor has to be as simple as possible. If professors can’t walk into a room and intuitively use the technology, all the technology in the room really doesn’t matter.”

Cassidy Hall, an instructor in the University of Idaho’s Doceo Center for Innovation + Learning, uses just about every control on the instructor’s panel during courses that meet in the AV-equipped classroom. “This provides me with the possibilities of having students share their work in a variety of manners, such as by mirroring to the Apple TV, by plugging a device into one of the tables or by utilizing the interactive screens or PCs within each table,” she says. She also video conferences regularly using the classroom’s 12 cameras.

At Florida Atlantic University, where new control systems have been recently deployed in a number of classrooms, instructors are making learning more interactive.

“I love that I can easily toggle from one component to another,” says Leslie Calhoun, an education professor. “I might be doing a simulation with a video projecting onto the screen, with students interacting and collecting data, then I can just toggle to the document camera and put a sample of the correct data collection for them to check their work. Then I toggle right back to the video for the next segment.”

Touch-panel controls are key when teaching takes place in remote locations. At Modesto Junior College in California, all nursing classes are filmed and offered in real-time at both the main campus and the Sonora campus, about 70 miles away. Nursing instructors can easily control what students see on the screens in the live and remote classrooms.

Within smart classrooms, even tech administrators still want the learning to be the focus more than the equipment. Lon Vance, senior engineer and project manager of academic technology at the University of Florida, says, “Our overall goal is to work closely with faculty to allow for more options and ways the rooms can be used to enhance the learning and teaching experience. A sharp focus on the changes in pedagogy and to stay ahead of the curve in this area is the ideal scenario.”

Vance’s department has a research and development system set up as a standard classroom where faculty try out newer technology to help determine what works best. Administrators can then forecast what the needs are going to be for faster implementations. The goal is to have solutions for teaching issues worked out and available, or even in place, before they’re ever requested.

Tech standards

For years, colleges and universities have set their own architectural and furniture standards. Growing numbers are now setting technology standards as well, says Sarah Kinard, education marketing manager at AMX. For instance, a campus may have four room-technology configurations, labeled A, B, C and D.

Professors who call the technology help desk say which type of room they are in, and the support person will have information on the components and how they are set up.

“It’s much easier for professors to use the systems and for help desk workers to help them if there are established technology standards, rather than different equipment in every classroom,” Kinard says.

Rhodes College in Memphis recently established technology standards and deployed 33 new classrooms with those packages. Professors who have taught in the new rooms are already asking when the other rooms on campus are going to be “fixed,” says Lance Kimbrell, desktop support specialist at Rhodes.

Prior to the implementation, Rhodes faculty and guest speakers had grown frustrated trying to operate the technology in various classrooms, Kimbrell says. “No two rooms were the same. Half of the battle for a professor when they entered any given room was, ‘How do I turn this room on? Do I use on-screen controls or a button on the wall?’ ”

It’s logical that “no one should need to hit three or four buttons to turn on a projector,” he adds. 

Intuitive design

Newer, more intuitively designed room control panels also make professors’ jobs easier. At the University of Florida, the standard control in each classroom is a 12-button keypad. It closely replicates the interface that has existed for several years, but it controls more sophisticated equipment with greater capabilities. “Although there is a lot more switching done on the back end, the user interface seems, to the instructor at least, not to have changed,” Vance says.

These controls give professors an on/off “switch,” as well as access to the installed PC, laptop connections, DVD players, the audio and a document camera. The keypad also has a projector video mute button, volume control for the room and a microphone.

“Our end goal is to have the same user experience in all rooms around campus,” Vance says. “We try to keep the user interface and experience the same no matter if you are in a classroom or conference room or huddle space.”

Because the functionality is similar to older AV control systems, training is not required in most cases, he adds. The technology department offers online videos that cover the simple operations of the rooms, and support personnel are available to meet with instructors one-on-one.

When new instructional technology equipment was installed at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine, the IT department held a one-hour training session with course directors and offered individual training sessions at faculty request, Gardner says. So far, about 12 individual sessions have been requested.

But in general, the interface is user-friendly and intuitive—meaning most professors have no problems figuring it out on their own. “For the first couple of weeks, I posted one of my technicians in the room to be available to assist,” Gardner says. “After that, he was not being asked for help, due to the very intuitive design of the touch-panel interface.”

At Rhodes College, no faculty training was necessary for the new rooms. Kimbrell recalls a professor sharing how he wasn’t sure what to expect upon entering the room. The professor saw the touch panel at the lectern stating “touch here to begin.” So he touched the panel and was amazed when the screen lowered, the projector powered on and his desktop clearly displayed the screen. According to Kimbrell, the professor said it was the first time in years that his classroom had operated smoothly.

Rather than spending time in lengthy training sessions or pulling their hair out trying to turn AV components on, faculty in rooms with intuitive control systems are devising innovative ways to teach with the new technologies.

Bill Schripsema, commercial product manager at Atlona, a distributor and manager of AV solutions, says it’s not that faculty at client schools simply prefer teaching in classrooms equipped with these intuitive systems. When they’re in rooms where systems don’t work or aren’t easy to operate, instructors are actually finding other classrooms in which to teach.

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer.

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