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A Learning Curve

Technology is infiltrating almost every aspect of campus life. Yet few colleges are prepared for the time-within a decade-when the use of technology in teaching and learning will become as ubiquitous, useful and reliable as the telephone and the ATM.

Nearly every campus has taken steps to incorporate technology into some of its teaching spaces. Most have at least one electronic classroom; many have a campuswide information-technology plan that addresses improvement to and integration of hardware and software, network connectivity and standard architecture. However, there is a gap between establishing an information-technology plan and designing individual electronic classrooms. Few institutions have developed a learning-technology plan for bringing electronic technology into classrooms campuswide.

The learning-technology plan A comprehensive learning-technology plan can help campuses navigate through the diverse technologies and greatly varying classroom teaching environments. It will help administrators avoid the pitfalls of expensive equipment mistakes, minimize the frequency of renovations, avoid investment in systems that faculty do not use and marshal funding resources.

A learning-technology plan must start with a systematic assessment of existing classroom stock. Then, in a collaborative process, compare inventory results with anticipated needs, teaching methods and learning environments. The result is an effective roadmap for bringing learning technology into classrooms campuswide.

Planning consists of two parts: a classroom audit phase and a synthesis phase. The classroom audit is modeled on the comprehensive facilities audit with which most institutional facilities managers are familiar. During this phase, objectives are identified, participants are assembled, an in-house or outsourced auditor is selected, the audit questionnaire is designed, and inventory is taken.

When you elect to audit using in-house staff, consider staff availability, the real opportunity cost of diverting staff from other tasks, and the ability to meet a deadline while juggling other responsibilities. If you outsource, make sure that deliverables are in a format you can update: a database such as Paradox or Access, for instance.

During the synthesis phase, the audit inventory is used to anticipate future needs and develop a plan for carrying out any upgrades. The audit will produce a tremendous amount of data; however, its meaning becomes evident with careful manipulation.

Knowing concepts In addition to developing an inventory of existing classrooms, systems and equipment, an institution must understand three concepts that are necessary for preparing a classroom plan: modes of teaching and learning, classroom type and the equipment palette.

-Modes of teaching and learning. How teaching and learning occurs in a classroom-via presentation, interaction or one-on-one-influences classroom layout and use of technology. An understanding of these three modes of teaching and learning and their spatial implications is important because the notion of infinite flexibility in classroom design is a myth. Basic geometric parameters inform the use of a classroom. For example, a wide room with a screen on the long wall reduces the distance from the teacher to the student, and enhances the interactivity between student and teacher. However, the room width creates pockets at the sides, which provides a poor view of the screen.

-Classroom types. The second important concept is understanding classroom type. Classroom type is defined largely by room size and floor profile, which generate a typology of various configurations. The flat-floor classroom category includes seminar, small classroom and large classroom types, with a maximum capacity of 60 students. In small, medium and large sloped-floor classrooms, visibility in the rear improves at the expense of flexibility, since seats must be fixed. A stepped or tiered-floor classroom with arena seating improves not only visibility, but also interaction among students. Arena classrooms, also known as case-study classrooms, normally measure between 1,500 square feet for a small classroom and 2,000 square feet for a larger classroom.

-Equipment. The third classroom-planning concept is understanding equipment options. To simplify and clarify a vast array of equipment, it can be classified into five simple functions:

-Source. Includes voice, camera, VCR, disk, video input and data network.

-Projection. Includes slide, 16mm, overhead video or data projector.

-Display. Includes screen, chalk or marker board or monitor.

-Amplification. Includes playback, voice reinforcement, microphones and hearing assistance.

-Control. Includes manual, electronic and wireless remote.

All information has a source, whether it be computer data, a written document or a person speaking. There are many factors that contribute to the way in which information is disseminated. For example, will that source be displayed on an electronic display board, screen or monitor? In a large space, will you use an audience microphone, music, voice reinforcement or playback? To control all these elements, will you use manual switches, an electronic touchscreen control panel, or wireless remote controls?

Asking questions Always ask the obvious question. For example, if faculty requires that every student in a large lecture hall have a data network connection, ask: 'What are students going to be connected to? How are those connections going to aid in presentation of the course material?'

In addition:

-Always verify input from two sources. This will help to clarify exactly what is needed and the specific characteristics of a building.

-Develop practical criteria for assigning the room types. Most institutions probably already have installed the most sophisticated equipment in the largest lecture halls. Consult with the registrar: Are large classrooms being used for very small classes? That may be so because of electronic capability, not student capacity. If so, introduce expensive equipment selectively into smaller classrooms.

-Analyze demand across the campus. Are there many classrooms in demand in one quadrant of the campus, and not in others? Notice where the students live and where the faculty offices are. Begin to use demand patterns to strategize about where upgraded classrooms should be.

-Develop a philosophy about the relationship between faculty skills and equipment. Technological capacity should always be a little beyond the faculty skills to promote growth, but don't go overboard. Equipment will be outdated in three years, and you may end up with negative reinforcement from users while spending money on equipment that's not used.

-Avoid equipment from start-up vendors. You will find that as companies without a long track record tend to disappear, so does your replacement and support capabilities. Time the upgrades to go along with your normal maintenance schedule so that you are using resources more efficiently.

The teaching and learning modes used, the type of classroom, and the equipment options available have a major impact on strategies for developing a classroom-technology plan. The plan also will vary widely depending on the type of institution and the funds available for technology upgrades.

For example, at an Ivy League business school in New England, every classroom is designed as an 80-seat case-study classroom. Any faculty member can go into any classroom and teach any course in the exact same environment. This school deals with technology the same way. Each classroom receives about $250,000 in technology upgrades, in addition to upgrades to finishes and furnishings. It is a superb example of the "one-room" model. However, most institutions do not have the kind of resources necessary to pursue such a model.

In contrast, a large mid-Atlantic university established four levels of technology upgrade for classrooms. The levels are applicable to classrooms that seat less than 50 students to classrooms that seat more than 200 students. The cost of providing a classroom with technology equipment at the first level is about $2,500, and includes a 32-inch monitor, a VCR and an overhead projector.

The highest level of classroom technology costs about $63,000 and consists of the equipment included in all three of the preceding levels, along with a video and data projector, data and cable TV connections, and a full electronic remote-control system. Within the first five-year cycle, the university will upgrade all of the classrooms. This system works well in an environment where funding is adequate, but not necessarily as abundant as in the Ivy League business school.

The information collected during a learning-technology inventory will form the basis for a technology plan.

Information on the following features in each campus teaching space should be observed and recorded:

-Architectural -Size of teaching space. -Orientation. -Accessibility. -Acoustics. -Furnishings/finishes.

-Systems -Lighting control. -Natural/artificial light. -HVAC. -Existing power. -Security.

-Equipment -Media. -Fixed/portable.

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