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A Model For E-Classroom Design: Beyond "chalk and talk"

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E-classrooms in universities are rapidly increasing in number, with greater emphasis on teaching and learning. Presentations are going beyond PowerPoint slides. The focus on assessment is increasing, as well as how the students learn, and how teachers teach.

Most e-classrooms have a simple layout. Computers are usually placed on long tables with monitors resting on top of them. The teacher station is a crowded desktop with wires everywhere. Typical equipment at the teacher station includes an overhead projector, frequently accompanied by a VCR. Depending on budget, the classroom is usually equipped with large TV sets (VGA compatible) or some type of LCD projector.

Most universities pay little attention to proper design, research and implementation planning. The average e-classroom installation costs $175K to $300K. When the budget is approved by administration for creating a new classroom, a spending and installation frenzy occurs to rush installation. Many technological tools are available to aid teachers in delivery. Interactive broadcast-on-demand systems, electronic whiteboards, laser discs, document scanners, VCRs, and flatbed scanners are just some. Which ones actually make learning efficient and more enhanced? How can all these components of various manufacturers work together transparently and seamlessly? Can they be made easy to operate?

This article discusses the issues and efforts of a mid-size comprehensive private university in developing and refining electronic classrooms since 1993. The process, design, costs, implementation factors, student/faculty feedback and practical lessons learned are discussed, as well as future research.

Background

In 1993, the departments of Modern Languages, Speech, and English as a Second Language (ESL) of the Dyson School of Arts & Sciences at Pace University in New York received a matching grant to construct a multimedia e-classroom. Modern language faculty were already using laser disc technology in their curriculum. They were excited to have a classroom that could not only broadcast video and audio to each student computer, but allowed the instructor to discretely monitor student progress.

The process of designing the first interactive classroom meant many meetings over several months. An early step in the process was walkthroughs of the various possible locations. Reconstruction costs for electrical, cooling, asbestos, and raised floor needs was a factor in the selection. The remaining funds after reconstruction would then be allocated for furniture and technology.

Many departments, including architectural design, interior decorating, physical plant, budget, security, user services and telecommunications were called upon for input. Technology integration also had to occur through deans, department chairs, faculty and the language lab coordinator, to name a few. The critical input issues revolved around layout design, furniture style, and number of chairs and printing requirements. This needs assessment was necessary to mold the final design.

After a year of operation of the initial classroom, written requirements for more e-classrooms — via a request for proposal (RFPs) from various schools within the university — were received. Like many schools there was not enough funds to fill all the requests, lending to solicitations being prioritized and consolidated. Therefore, it was decided multiple disciplines would share the same e-classrooms for instruction. In 1996, a second RFP was solicited that yielded many more e-classroom requests. Again, more meetings were held and needs were heard. Today, Pace University has approximately 24 computer classrooms including six interactive rooms with an integrated broadcast-on-demand system.

Design: Ergonomics/Environmental

The majority of the departments chose recessed furniture in the last two classrooms. The two major deciding factors included the increasing of: 1) the students’ desktop space and 2) student-teacher eye contact. Recognizing that comfort plays an important part in student satisfaction, the school decided to obtain quality chairs. For an average of $300 per seat, comfortable swivel chairs that were adjustable for height, on casters with armrests were procured for student stations. A taller chair appropriate for the teacher station was also obtained.

The inclusion of a ceiling mounted computer projection unit was debated. The all-hardware-based interactive system, Robotel, has the capability to project the teacher station or any student station directly on the class monitors. Was video projection to the front of the room necessary? The final decision was to include a projector at the cost of $10K. In actual use, faculty observed that students after the first two weeks only looked at the monitor in front of them and not at the projected image.

The room was constructed appropriately for electrical power and cooling. Consideration was given for the large amount of heat generated by the computer equipment to be housed in the room. A raised floor with paneled anti-static carpet was an easy decision. Numerous wires and junction boxes needed to be planned and installed. However, a lesson learned in previous classroom designs led to properly matched sizes of floor carpet to panel squares, sufficient number of junction boxes for the interactive system’s coax cable and extra power outlets at the instructor station.

Partnerships and Training

University administration usually favors faculty training. However, faculty feel alienated and lack proper confidence when “trained” by Information Technology (IT) staff in a large group. In order to obtain the goal of faculty fully utilizing the technology in their daily lectures, a partnership and adequate instruction needed to be provided. Small group instruction by a joint staff/faculty member proved successful. The group consisted of 3-5 instructors, with four 90-120 minute lessons adequately spread apart. This allowed for practice and creative thought processes in applying the newly learned strategies into their individual teaching styles.

An important, but often not achieved, element that sealed faculty training was cross-departmental partnerships. Though the room was not “owned” by any one department, but was community property assigned via the academic scheduler, daily central in-classroom support was not available. However, graduate assistants were funded by individual disciplines. This was advantageous in supporting special curriculum based software. Nonetheless, all hardware and common user software, i.e., Netscape, MS Office, etc., was supported through the university IT division.

Faculty were required to have a minimum of one lesson to have the “privilege” of presenting in the room even for one session. Faculty requesting the room for the entire semester were strongly encouraged to have three to four lessons. The demand after the first semester quickly increased. The room was scheduled five days a week generally from 8:30am to 8:50pm plus weekend classes. Therefore, a rule had to be implemented whereby if an instructor did not show up for a reserved period without canceling, he or she would not be allowed to teach in the room the following semester. In addition, a “certification” is in the process of being developed. In subsequent semesters a certification will be issued when the faculty member demonstrates competency in using the technologies as well as active learning exercises utilizing the technical equipment.

As with the installation of any new network or system, a semester had to be allowed for working out the bugs. A few classes were piloted and finishing touches were put on the room. For example, an English professor suggested smaller groups for teamwork mode. This modification was priced at approximately $5K but proved to be a worthwhile investment. It allowed for group work of three to four students, instead of eight to 11. Other minor modifications were made from faculty requests. For example, Robotel laptop connection, ZIP and JAZ drives were suggested and added at the instruction station.

Student Feedback

Feedback from the students was pleasantly surprising. Students remarked the room “woke them up,” no matter how tired they were and called the room a “no-doze classroom.” The students remarkably preferred the anti-glare covers at each station. They referred to the black plastic pieces as “privacy shields” and would not sit at the stations that temporarily did not have them. Other students said the room was “professional” and they felt they must come to class prepared and ready to work.

Another unexpected reaction of the students related to the headsets. Two headsets were installed at each station for backup and overflow. We originally presumed students would be reluctant to wear the headsets. Instead, students preferred the video and audio projected to their individual stations where they had the ability to adjust their individual volume controls. They felt they did not want to talk to their neighbors or look at the clock at the end of the class period. The students felt totally engaged.

Negative comments were almost non-existent. When asked what they did not like about the room or what they wished changed, they responded with, “...nothing, I like it just the way it is.” The only suggestion that came forth was to add a coat rack, and clean the fingerprints more often from the glass.

Faculty Feedback

The first faculty that were approached about utilizing the room were the innovators using some technology already. After the first few groups were taught, word spread and frequent workshops at different levels were held. To many people’s surprise, faculty came in groups without a stipend or release time, and often without the encouragement of their chairperson. They felt it was a privilege to be able to teach in the room and to be given the attention of small group hands-on training.

Faculty became very excited about the electronic chalkboard that acted as an overlay to the teacher computer. Assignments and comments could be written in chalkboard mode or a tap of the pen could draw highlights or arrows on the computer desktop to stress points or icons on the screen.

The “blanking” and “scanning” features of the room were most popular. No matter what age group is in a computer classroom, it is difficult to get a “click-free” minute when the teacher desires the total attention of the students. Teachers welcomed a button that blackened everyone’s screen. Also, during in-class assignments, faculty scanned the room without students knowing when his/her video was being viewed. This allowed teachers to interact privately with students that needed assistance or project an example to the rest of the class.

Summary

Major factors that have an effect on satisfaction, teaching and learning include ergonomics, environmental conditions, faculty training, staff partnerships, seamless fusion of technologies, and technology integration into the curriculum. Many schools implementing e-classrooms overlook one, two or more of the above factors because of haste, lack of funds or inadequate planning and research.

The smart e-classroom described may seem like a large initial outlay but is not much higher in cost than a typical instruction-based computer classroom. The broadcast on demand system and video integration box are both hardware-based, making the arrangement extremely reliable and cost-effective. The faculty and students also feel it is worth every penny. Faculty have seen a significant difference in standardized test scores, passing of licensing exams on the first try and higher student satisfaction levels. Students appeared motivated to learn, reluctant to miss class, and felt the setting intimate and comfortable. Furthermore, they believed they could better interact with the professor and everyone in the class because of the room layout.

The current rendition of our smart e-classrooms includes the ability to take attendance, grade quizzes, and do interactive distance learning between the campuses. It is visited regularly and valued not only by other institutions of higher education, but by law firms, junior criminal justice system and secondary schools.

 

 

Jean F. Coppola is Manager of Client Support in Information Technology and Adjunct in the School of Computer Science and Information Systems at Pace University, New York. She has worked in higher education computing since 1986. Coppola has a BS degree in Computer Science from Hofstra University, an MS in Computer Science and an MS in Telecommunications, both from Pace University. Currently she is a Ph.D. candidate at Nova Southeastern University in Computer Technology.

E-mail: coppola@pace.edu

 

Barbara A. Thomas is Director of the Learning Resource Center and Information Technology, and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Lienhard School of Nursing. She has worked in higher education nursing since 1972. Thomas has an RN from Newark Beth Israel Hospital, a BA from Jersey City State, an MS from New York University, a certificate of Advanced Studies, Family Nurse Practitioner and MS, both from Pace University.

E-mail: bthomas@pace.edu

 


Suggested Reading

Aiken, Milam W., & Hawley, Delvin D. 1995. "Designing an Electronic Classroom for Large Courses." T.H.E. Journal (September).

Hinchliffe, Lisa Janicke. 1994. "Planning an Electronic Library Classroom: An Annotated Bibliography." Internet: http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~janicke/Abstracts.html

Katz, Richard N., & Associates. 1999. Dancing With the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McDermott, Irene. 1998. "Solitaire Confinement: The Impact of the Physical Environment on Computer Training." Internet: http://www.infotoday.com/ cilmag/jan/story1.htm (January).

Nantz, Karen S., Lundgren, Terry D. 1998,. "Lecturing with Technology." College Teaching, 46, pp. 53-56 (March 22).

Papenfuse, Edward C. 1995. "The Ideal Classroom for the 21st Century: Teaching Thinking and Computer Skills for the Information Highway." Internet: http://archive1.mdarchives.state.md.us/msa/stagser/s1259/121/7295/html/schools.html (October 11).

Shneiderman, Ben; Alvai, Maryam; Norman, Kent; Borkowski, Ellen Yu. 1995.

"Windows of Opportunity in an Electronic Classrooms." Communications of the ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) (November).

This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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