Electronic Learning Environments: Design Considerations

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From universities to training centers and vocational schools, the use of technology is fast becoming revalent in most training and education arenas.

Reflecting on current and expected changes in pedagogy and technology, Blackett and Stanfield (1994) advocate remembering three principles for general classroom planning: 1) plan for the full range of teaching methods, 2) plan for change and flexibility, and 3) focus on the exchange of ideas and acquisition of knowledge. Wilson (1993) reported the thoughts and projects of higher education professionals exploring the issue of high-tech classrooms. He discusses the state of uncertainty and ambiguity that exists with respect to classroom design at many institutions.

Originating as a training enhancement, the use of technology is now one of the main considerations when establishing new training systems or facilities, registering right up there with training content and objectives. The explosive widespread application of computer-based training (CBT), Web-based training (WBT) and distance learning (DL) is an indication that the industry and academia have welcomed technology as a method of making the training and education process more effective, efficient and immediate. Institutions and companies refusing to adopt technology as a part of their training strategies are now viewed as archaic and non-conformist.

Current Technologies

Current technologies that lend themselves well to the training process include high-speed computers, high resolution DVD, high capacity storage systems, transmission systems that alleviate bandwidth problems (fiber optics), and very high resolution display systems. In addition, software is becoming increasingly user-friendly. Programs such as Allen Communication’s Quest 6.0, Macromedia’s Authorware 5.0 Attain, and Asymetrix ToolBook 6.0 are just a few examples of high-end authoring systems that have taken advantage of the speeds and processing power of today’s computers. In addition, they are highly flexible products, capable of authoring content that can be restricted to a single platform configuration or disseminated over the Internet or even in a cross-platform environment. The widespread acceptance of Java has enabled many software products originally limited to a single platform to now be distributed and played across many different operating systems.

Establishing A Vision

A critical factor when considering the implementation of technology in any training program is for the organization to establish a vision. It is imperative that a strategic plan is put in place to support the vision, and the future needs are considered. Many past mistakes have been the result of a "jump on the bandwagon" attitude that hurried a corporation or institution into a solution that was not well planned or thought out. A visionary process is essential if an end user is to take maximum advantage of current technologies. The following questions should be answered before implementing any training technology plan:

What are the needs? This not only includes the corporate or institutional needs, but the student or trainee needs as well. Things such as present and future training requirements, specific training hardware needs (mock-ups, trainer panels and other peripheral training devices), as well as other projected or anticipated changes.

What can be done about hardware obsolescence? The main issue at stake here is actually how long it will be before another hardware or software change drives upgrade requirements. Commercial off-the-shelf hardware that can be expanded or upgraded modularly should be of prime consideration. Proprietary solutions should be avoided whenever possible, unless no other solution is available.

Who produces the required software and hardware? What vendors currently support your requirements? What type of client base do they serve? Can you talk to a customer who has dealt with them? What are their value added features? Planning ahead and doing the homework can save significant time and effort when the actual purchase takes place.

What facility limitations are present? Is there enough clean power for the anticipated equipment? D'es the facility require telecommunications wiring (Telephone, LAN, etc.)? What structural limitations are evident (raised flooring, ceiling height, projector hang location, sound systems, lighting)?

Once these questions are answered, alternatives should be researched for price, application and availability. These may include substitution of vendors, hardware, or specific design considerations. For example, a raised floor may be required (desired) for a particular lab area for cable management and maintenance considerations, yet the ceiling height may not be able to accommodate it. One option may be to opt for workstation design that provides acceptable cable management facilitation and access. In another case, perhaps incandescent lighting is preferred over existing fluorescent fixtures. An option here may be to provide simple quartz halogen track lighting along the walls at ceiling height. This is a much less expensive method of supplementing existing lighting systems.

Challenges

As with any new investment, one of the first questions must be "what is my anticipated return on investment?" In addition, what d'es this technology do for the problem? Is it the right solution for the training challenge? Is there another, less costly method that you may be able to use? If so, for how long is it a viable solution? Will you need to replace the less costly option with a higher cost technology solution later? How much later? Is it worth the lower cost now to spend more later? These are all questions you should ask when anticipating the implementation of electronic classrooms.

In a study conducted at Kirtland Air Force Base, the implementation of electronic training environments resulted in enhanced student performance (Riley and Beebe 1995). While this may not always be the case, it must be the prime consideration. Why invest in technology if it means nothing more than bells and whistles for the presenter? Educational institutions are particularly challenged by faculty resistance to implementation of educational technology. In addition to the validation of technology uses in the classroom, consideration must be made for the training of faculty and staff on using the technology.

So how do we manage technology advances in terms of hardware replacement and obsolescence? Consideration must always be given to modularized configurations so as to be able to accommodate changes. The widespread acceptability of SCSI and now Universal Serial Bus (USB) make a number of options for updating hardware available. All-in-one systems like the iMac should be avoided if a lifespan of more than 2 years is expected. The nice, compact packaging of the iMac makes it an attractive option, but caution should be exercised when looking at solutions similar to the iMac. Since expansion of peripherals is extremely limited, this solution is not recommended. Replacement of the entire system is usually imminent once a newer model is produced. Selecting systems that can be easily upgraded (processor speed, RAM, storage, video resolution, monitor size, etc.) will result in lower costs and easier updates in technology.

Designing Utopia

Regardless of the requirement, design concerns should always contain some basic considerations. Hart (1996) describes a survey of University of Hong Kong faculty members that investigated preferences for classroom features. Results indicated that little agreement exists as to the "perfect" classroom. Since many tools exist for instruction, it is important to investigate as many as possible prior to the final decision.

Wittkopf (1995) describes the Louisiana State University Library approach to designing their electronic classrooms, which included considerations of instructor and student workstations, computer operating systems, projection systems, lighting, cabling, and funding the project budget. Although one, some or all of these areas may apply, there are basic considerations for designing the near-perfect system.

The first and foremost consideration should include the application of the technology. D'es the facility need to support multiple presentation methods (distance learning, Web-based training, CBT, traditional or multimedia lecture)? If so, then the following considerations should be addressed:

Connectivity (telephone, LAN, WWW)

Media source switching

(whiteboard, overhead transpar-encies, 35mm slides, video,

PC-based, CD-ROM/DVD, WWW)

Audio (source selection capability)

Sightlines (student and instructor)

Seating (flexible configurations)

Camera locations for DL application (coverage, lighting)

Component storage (racks, carts, equipment)

In addition to the above, any individual requirements should be documented as well. These may include student control and response systems, laptop plug-in capabilities, etc. Student considerations should primarily include ergonomic issues. Screen height, viewing angles, workstation height, chair styles, and lighting are important considerations. The best technology solutions can’t be effective if the learning environment is not comfortable.

Instructor considerations should include instructor station requirements (sit down workstation, stand up podium, or combination of both), location within the classroom, sightlines and control requirements (lighting, component, source, etc.).

A primary consideration is support for the curriculum. Some issues that should be considered are storage (LAN, digital video, animations, graphics, instructor guides, lesson plans, etc.) and minimum projection requirements (VGA, SVGA, XGA, etc.).

When considering overall management of the courseware and content, thought should be given to a management tool that encompasses all the needs. Be sure to consider whether or not you will be using Web-based content, CBT, digital video, etc. According to B'ettcher (1999), up to 60% of higher education institutions will require teaching and learning management tools linked to their back office administration systems by the year 2007. There are many tools currently available to support this requirement. Some of these include Allen Communication’s Manager’s Edge, Asymetrix Librarian, and Macromedia Pathware Attain.

Summary

As technology changes, so will the requirements for training and education. Any solution, regardless of its source, should be investigated thoroughly before implementation. Take the time to plan your facility well before selecting the hardware and software for it. If we look at the ferocious pace of technology advancement over the past five years, it can be anyone’s guess where we will be five years from now. However, one thing can be sure, whatever the technology, trainers and educators are sure to find innovative and effective methods for implementing it to enhance their processes.

 

Peter C. Riley is an Assistant Professor in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Director of the College’s New Media Center. He specializes in the design, development and implementation of multimedia applications in education and training. His research interests include new media technology-based solutions for adult education and training applications. He holds an M.Ed. from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Mr. Louis Gallo is the founder and a principal of Mediatech, Inc., a company specializing in the design and integration of electronic and immersive classroom environments. He has designed and integrated multimedia classrooms for the USAF, US Army, US Navy, the Pentagon, Research Triangle Institute, and numerous industry and educational institutions. His interests involve digital video and high speed networking environments and their application to learning environments. He holds a BA in Communications from the University of Central Florida.

 

References

Boettcher, J. V. 1999. "21st Century Teaching and Learning Patterns: What Will We See?" Syllabus. 12(10): 18-24, June.

Blackett, A. and Stanfield, B. 1994. "A Planner’s Guide to Tomorrow’s Classrooms." Planning for Higher Education. 22(3): 25-31.

Hart, I. 1996. "Building the Perfect Classroom, or the Labors of Sisyphus." College and University Media Review. 2(2): 11-21.

Riley, P. and Beebe, T. 1996. "Multi-media: A Journey From the Traditional Classrooms of Yesterday to the Presentation Platforms of Tomorrow." Proceedings from the 17th Interservice/Industry Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC). Albuquerque, NM.

Wilson, D.L. 1993. "Universities Wrestle With the Design of Tomorrow’s High-tech Classroom." The Chronicle of Higher Education. 39(28): A19-A20.

Wittkopf, B. 1995. "Planning an Electronic Classroom." Research Strategies. 13(2): 66-68.

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

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