Classroom Designing an Electronic Classroom for Large Courses

DR. MILAM W. AIKEN, Assistant Professor and DR. DELVIN D. HAWLEY, Associate Dean School of Business Administration University of Mississippi University, Miss. Several years ago, faculty at the University of Mississippi's School of Business recognized the need to integrate computer and information technology into all aspects of business education in a manner that provides a practical, hands-on learning experience. Accordingly, plans were developed in the summer of 1992 for the construction of a state-of-the-art electronic classroom for large numbers of students in regularly scheduled classes. This classroom was not intended to serve as a traditional "computer lab" or computer training facility. Rather, it was intended to function as a regular teaching classroom that allowed the seamless integration of computer and multimedia technology into any class, regardless of its subject content. The Ole Miss Business Advisory Council and the Business Alumni Chapter enthusiastically endorsed the concept and helped fund the facility. Work began in late summer of 1992, and the electronic classroom was completed by December 1992 for a total of approximately $300,000. This cost included the complete renovation of an existing classroom, a dedicated heating/air conditioning system, and all computer and audio-visual equipment. Architecture of the Room Many of the classrooms in the university's School of Business are designed for oral presentations and case discussions. A typical classroom contains up to 65 seats in semi-circles on several raised tiers. Therefore, only moderate architectural changes were necessary. We wanted to keep the face-to-face environment of the auditorium while simultaneously enabling students to use computer terminals on the desk in front of them. Figure 1 shows an architectural drawing of the finished electronic classroom. Desks were redesigned in the room to raise computer monitors, recess keyboards, and enclose the mini-tower microcomputer CPUs. In addition, four desks at the front of the room were tailored for wheelchair access. Although several aesthetic modifications were made (new ceiling panels, flooring, lighting, curtains, etc.), most work focused on the installation of wiring under the floor and a new air conditioning system for the room. Hardware Components Our electronic classroom houses 54 486SX 25MHz microcomputers for students (each configured with 4MB of RAM, 40MB hard disk and 1028x768 color monitor) plus one 486DX2 66MHz computer for the instructor (with 8MB of RAM, 420MB hard disk, color monitor, SoundBlaster card, CD-ROM drive, stereo amplifier and external speakers). It also includes a BARCO video projection system and special software that enables an instructor to project whatever appears on any of the room's 55 monitors onto a large screen at the front. This motorized screen can be used with the BARCO projector for computer or video images or with a standard overhead projection unit. The 55 PCs (and other microcomputers throughout the building) are connected by an Ethernet local area network, via a Compaq ProSignia 486DX2 66MHz file server outfit with 32MB of RAM and a 1GB hard disk located in a separate utility room at the back of the electronic classroom. Gateways from the LAN provide access to the university's library, mainframe and supercomputers, and the Internet. Software Utilized in the Room A variety of software is provided on the network, including word processors, spreadsheets, databases, programming languages, etc. All are available for simultaneous use by the students. For example: • Finance classes use spreadsheets to model complex problems such as capital budgeting and cash forecasting. • Production and Operations Management classes use graphics and statistical programs to evaluate control charts and regression results. • Management Information Systems classes use programming languages, data bases, plus systems analysis and design software to design systems. • Business Communication and other classes use graphics, charting, word processing and other software to enhance their presentations. In addition to popular stand-alone software packages, we use other applications such as e-mail, bulletin boards and LANSchool for communication and sharing of information on the network. In fact, LANSchool is an integral part of the instructional paradigm in our electronic classroom. This software enables the instructor to broadcast what is on the monitor at the front of the room to all the students' monitors, and also to take control of a student's machine. Instructors can thus help students without physically moving around the room. Group Decision Support: A Distinction Classes are scheduled in the room from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm every weekday, and other classes use the room by exchanging meeting locations for the day. The room is also used in the evenings and weekends for seminars, career presentations, faculty development programs and other special events. Setting our facility apart from others is inclusion of Group Decision Support System (GDSS) software, which significantly enhances seminars and other types of meetings. GDSS software enables participants to communicate anonymously and simultaneously with each other by typing short comments on their terminals; all comments and votes are recorded automatically on a disk for printout at the end of the meeting. Our GDSS was developed in-house, but is similar to two commercial packages: VisionQuest and Group Systems. Studies have shown that GDSS sessions can reduce meeting time while increasing group satisfaction and meeting effectiveness, and students using it in classes here prefer it over traditional, verbal seminars. For example, Figure 2 (photo) shows a class using the GDSS to discuss ways of improving the business curriculum. Several businesses and groups have used our electronic classroom to conduct GDSS-based meetings. Businesses can try out the software before purchasing it for themselves, or they can hold all of their GDSS meetings in the room when it is not scheduled for classes. By charging a rental fee, the School of Business is able to generate revenue to help cover operating costs of the room. Largest in the World? The electronic classroom at the University of Mississippi's School of Business may be the largest face-to-face, general purpose electronic classroom in the world. (We have heard of similar classrooms with 36 or even 48 machines, but not more than our 55.) Other larger classrooms may allow only computer-based presentations, while still others may have terminals in cubicles or in some arrangement not conducive to interactive instruction. The size and deliberate design of our electronic classroom enables larger classes to meet while maximizing student "hands-on" time. Milam Aiken is an assistant professor and Del Hawley is the associate dean in the School of Business Administration at the University of Mississippi. Both were involved in the design of the electronic classroom as well as the selection of its hardware and software; Aiken developed the GDSS. E-mail: aiken@bus.olemiss.edu E-mail: hawley@bus.olemiss.edu Products or companies mentioned: BARCO, Inc., Kennesaw, Ga., (404) 590-7900 LANSchool software; Intel Corp., Personal Computer Enhancement Div., Hillsboro, OR, (800) 538-3373 ProSignia; Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, Texas, (800) 888-3298 Group Systems GDSS; Ventana Corp., Tucson, Ariz., (602?) 325-8228 VisionQuest GDSS; Intellect Corp., Dallas, Texas, (800) 856-6338

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

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