MURFREESBORO, TN-Beginning with just five resource-laden classrooms in 1994, at a time when the internet was still quite a foreign prospect, Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) set out to continually enhance its offerings as more advanced instructional technology became available, and now boasts more than 175 of what it's come to call "Master Classrooms."
"Technology in the classroom has been part of the initial planning process for every building we have built since that time," said Barbara Draude, RN MSN, director of academic and instructional technology services in MTSU's Information Technology Division. Draude is also an assistant professor of nursing, and her experience in front of a classroom influences her requirements for user-friendly interfaces. Subsequently, control and accessibility were foundational ideals behind solutions such as the AMX control systems attached to the teacher stations in the Master Classrooms. Draude said the systems make it easy for instructors to use the technology, so they can take their time teaching rather than learning about how to make the equipment work.
Faculty from many different disciplines have grown familiar with using these touch panel controllers through MTSU's Faculty Instructional Technology Center, which top off a standard teacher station that also contains an internet-connected computer, VCR and DVD player, as well as a visual presenter. The rooms also include a ceiling-mounted projector.
But that's not where the litany of instructional equipment ends. A collaborative effort among the divisions for Information Technology, Academic Affairs, and Building and Construction produced a new "Advanced Technologies Classroom" in the school's honors building this summer. MTSU is now in the process of accepting faculty submissions for courses to be taught in this extraordinary classroom next spring. "The intent of this room is to be a learning laboratory for both faculty and students," Draude said. "We see this new classroom as the next generation. Hopefully we'll be able to add this new technology to our standard configuration of the rest of our Master Classrooms across campus."
At the core of the new prototype classroom is PolyVision's new Thunder digital flip chart system, which has been configured to fit the honors college's practice of smaller classes with increased interaction. The room seats 16 students in a configurable arrangement of desks that allow for small group learning as well as a lecture setup.
A complement of 16 tablet laptop PCs provides students with a direct connection to Thunder, which is deployed via three LCD projectors which display six "flip charts" on the classroom's walls. Four wall-mounted plasma monitors with laptop ports provide additional collaboration stations.
"Collaboration was our biggest priority," Draude recalled. "What we want to really promote is not just the technology but the learning and teaching techniques it enables."
The technology in MTSU's Advanced Technologies Classroom enables the tablet PCs, VCR, DVD, scanner, visual presenter, PTZ cameras, and plasma screens to all be a source for projection, and the infrastructure is programmed through a touch panel controller. The classroom also features a PolyVision RoomWizard room scheduling system and a PolyVision Walk and Talk panel, which converts a laptop into a wireless annotation device that is connected to the room's displays.
Thunder is at once in the foreground and the background of all these activities. Incorporating content from student and instructor PCs, AV sources, the internet, and even other classrooms with Thunder systems, the technology was developed with real-time collaboration in mind. When integrated with videoconferencing and/or streaming hardware, Thunder serves as a portal to the external world, allowing remote participants to feel as though they are in the classroom.
Altogether, Thunder offers a new and different classroom experience. "Thunder enables the inclusion of a mix of data, from notes to scanned images to laptop content, all being presented simultaneously," explained Ian Hutchinson, executive vice president of PolyVision. "Consequently, Thunder helps support a multitude of instructional delivery methods and learning styles. It enables the use and sharing of digital content and other learning resources."
Hutchinson described a shift in the classroom pedagogy that enhances students' ability to participate in lesson plans, all while fresh information and data is brought into the Thunder session, causing it to evolve in a radically different way from static textbook learning. "Each student uses their tablet PC to bring in fresh information and to alter or annotate the live images in the session," Hutchinson said. "It is a true student-centric learning experience."
A number of higher education institutions are drawn to the possibilities Thunder offers in the distance learning space. Distance learning students can participate live even by opening a Thunder client on their computers. "The client gives a live view of the easel and all the charts on the wall," Hutchinson said. "Since the content is dynamic, student participation is enhanced to the level where they no longer have to be physically present to gain the insights and learning from the group. In addition, remote participants can have live views of their computer screen pasted onto a Thunder page for all the other participants to see."
The Thunder system at MTSU was designed and integrated by Technical Innovation, which has an office in Nashville. TI is a PolyVision partner integrator for the Thunder product, and the company has already seen a great deal of interest from higher education institutions and corporate clients. "This technology plays very well in those types of settings, because it allows you to create ideas and work in a very natural form," said Susan Bradley, TI Thunder application specialist. "Most people are familiar with using flip charts, and because it's as intuitive as it is, people are able to just walk up and use it."