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Designing and Managing a 21st Century Classroom

Scott Tiner just got out of a meeting with a faculty member at Bates College, where he’s assistant director for digital media, classroom technologies and event support. Tiner frequently meets one-on-one with faculty to go through how they want to use the school’s digital classrooms. Those meetings help ensure that lectures, guest presentations and other instructional events go off without a hitch.

For example, instead of professors facing a touchpanel with a bewildering array of buttons, Tiner is able to whittle them down based on the meeting.

“I’m able to go back to my office and program a page so when you arrive, you’re able to press a button that sets all of the presets for you,” Tiner said. “All you see is ‘Record’ and ‘Stop’ because that’s all you need. Now she doesn’t have to go through three pages, and it doesn’t matter what the last person left it on because she just presses a button to get her presets.”

Tiner’s policy is one example of how colleges and universities are trying to balance the promise and the peril of today’s increasingly digital classrooms. On the one hand, the ability to videoconference in guest lecturers or have students give multimedia presentations enhances the learning experience.

On the other, all of those new technological options also are opportunities to fail, such as when a professor or student has to figure out which of six lectern cables to plug into their tablet and then how to select that source from the touchpanel. Part of the challenge is that most schools don’t require faculty and students to use certain models of laptops, tablets, and even smartphones.

“I was recently talking with someone in the corporate world, and she said: ‘We just don’t deal with it. You walk into a boardroom, and there’s a computer there. You don’t bring your own,’” Tiner said. “In education, it’s a real issue.”

One obvious solution is to implement that policy in the classroom.

“When it comes to lecture capture and accommodating a variety of device types, to my knowledge, this is not a large issue at West Virginia University,” said Chrys Amy Dean, instructional designer. “Professors who are doing lecture capture in a classroom are using equipment that is pre-installed in that room. Those particular classrooms have standardized equipment installed, including computers, projectors, etc. Faculty just bring presentation materials on a flash drive or CD.”

Like Bates, Drexel University uses meetings to minimize the risk of faculty bringing in devices, content or even expectations that might not work as hoped.

“People talk about plug and play. It doesn’t really exist,” said Robert Rasberry, Drexel assistant director of facility services for instructional technology support. “You have to do pre-session consultations to find out what everyone wants.”

Another benefit of those meetings is that they’re an opportunity for faculty to try new AV technologies without the performance pressure of a room full of—a dress rehearsal. “When they touch and use the technology, it relaxes them,” Rasberry said.

Although those meetings might sound like a lot of extra work, Rasberry said each one typically is enough to get that professor through at least that semester. “Once we meet with them, things don’t change often.”

Other types of familiarity breed content.

“We have developed a control system interface that is easy to use and understand and consistent across the University of Georgia campuses,” said Tom Beggs, classroom support coordinator at the school’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “We install most of our AV systems in house, and the rare integrator installation uses our GUI. Embedded in the GUI are help information and easy instructions.”

Creating a Flexible System
For AV and IT staff, another challenge is that students are increasingly creating content that they need to present.

“We need to support all of the different types of technology that people bring,” said Joshua Kim, director of learning and technology at Dartmouth College’s Master of Health Care Delivery Science Program. “Increasingly they want to do this on their tablets and mobile devices, not their laptops. It’s a major challenge.”

Cut the Cord, But Which One?
The hydra of cables at the podium is unlikely to dwindle to a single interface anytime soon, but some standards do have one foot out the door.

“In the next few years, we’re going to see VGA go away,” Rasberry said.

Even as they continue to support legacy VGA sources many schools are focusing on shrinking the number of interfaces their classrooms can accommodate.

“We have begun a multi-year project to convert all 250 of our central classrooms from analog to digital,” said Mark McCallister, University of Florida Office of Academic Technology associate director. “We have decided to standardize on HDMI, as well as maintaining a VGA input, for faculty laptops.”

In theory, Wi-Fi is one way to get around the cable conundrum. But in practice, there are downsides.

“I don't believe relying on the wireless network for the instructor's presentation video,” McCallister said. “There is too much risk of bandwidth competition from other nearby users. Instead, we are focusing on remote control capabilities that will allow faculty with a tablet, phone or other wireless device to control the installed computer in the room while walking around the classroom.”

Content-protection mechanisms are a wild card—perhaps more so in higher education than other verticals because Macs are so common on campuses. That’s something to anticipate when designing and troubleshooting a digital classroom.

“Macs, because of their iTunes agreement, turn on HDCP,” said Bates’ Tiner. “If it’s connected to a device that supports HDCP, it automatically turns it on. That has caused us some issues because if we try to put another device in between, even if it’s a monitor, we start getting black screens.

“The other time we’ve seen issues with HDCP is with Blu-ray players. Even if we’re not putting Blu-ray discs in them, a lot of these products aren’t handling HDCP the way that they need to.”

Classrooms Without Walls
Colleges and universities are increasingly capturing lectures and other instruction for a variety of applications, including distance learning in real time and downloads by students who want to review a particular class. Oregon’s Portland Community College uses videoconferencing endpoints already in select classrooms to produce 5 to 10 minute lecture excerpts, such as a math class demo of an important equation.

“We have a central control room where we do video production and the TV station,” said Robert Schmitt, who managed PCC’s media services department until recently. “We have three lecture capture receive units at each Mediasite. We would route the audio, video and content into that box, so you could use it for a lot of different rooms.”

Drexel, meanwhile, uses HD videoconferencing equipment to support classes that span its Philadelphia and Sacramento campuses.

“The detail was so good that [the professor] noticed the student in the fourth row was losing focus,” Rasberry said. “That shocked the students.”

HD resolution also can help ensure the TEDx production quality that some faculty expect.

“The faculty we work with, their brand is themselves,” said Dartmouth’s Kim. “Their presentation online has to live up to that.”

Regardless of how schools implement it, the amount of distance learning is growing exponentially.

“UGA is installing more videoconference systems and sending classes to our remote campuses, especially in the sciences, medicine, public health, pharmacy and agriculture,” Beggs said.

The more content that a school makes available, the more valuable—for student and college alike—a content management system becomes.

Since 1998, Tim Kridel has covered the tech and telecom industries for a variety of publications and websites, including AV Technology, Carrier Ethernet News, Digital Innovation Gazette, Pro AV, and InAVate. His coverage includes Carrier Ethernet, mobile apps, speech recognition, digital signage, FTTx, videoconferencing, Wi-Fi, and cellular. He can be reached at This article originally appeared in our "Tech Manager's Guide to the Digital Campus" sponsored by Panasonic.