Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting

Linking the Helm

The instructor has always been the focal point of the classroom experience. But in today’s information-rich environment, faculty rely more than ever on a variety of strategies for presenting information. Moving smoothly from one technology to another can be a challenge, however, bringing problems from wasting class time to projecting a less-than professional image while struggling with uncooperative equipment.

Fortunately, advances in technology include more efficient ways to integrate projectors, document cameras, computers, sound/amplification, lighting and more. Through the use of integrated classroom controls, any classroom can function as an efficient teaching and learning center.

Employment of such controls represents a growing trend, according to Richard Closs, director, audiovisual and sound system design for Acentech, a consulting firm with offices in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and California. He says the increased level of integration has been a natural development as audiovisual systems have evolved to a universally accepted teaching tool for enhancing the learning experience.

“Teachers must be able to seamlessly use the technology in a room with little or no effort to present the material to their classes,” Closs says. While the technology in the room may include integrated projectors, control systems, document cameras, amplifiers, speakers, shades and lighting, he adds, the interface to this equipment must be intuitive and simple to use for teachers to take full advantage of the technology.

“Stopping to figure out how to lower the lights, turn on the projector, adjust volume or call the help desk is not acceptable,” he says. “Teachers must be able to use the technology as one of many tools that they use to teach their students. In this way, the technology does not take away from the teaching experience.”

Tying It All Together

David Aldrich, technology manager for the learning technologies integration group at the University of Washington, feels it’s important to provide high-quality, featurerich learning environments that serve the various technology needs of instructors. At his institution this means providing inputs for users of laptops, tablets and other display devices; providing integrated document cameras, Blu-ray players and other media playback equipment; equipping rooms with wired and wireless microphones and professional audio systems that serve classes and events; and providing PA system and camera feeds for distance learning, lecture recording and web conferencing. At the same time, staff also try to support older technologies that may be used by some faculty, such as whiteboards, overhead projectors, DVDs and even the occasional videotape.

“We try to accommodate as many teaching styles as possible, so the technology environment needs to be compatible with analog systems too,” Aldrich says. “We believe that the touchscreens installed in our modern technology spaces are essential to keeping operations simple when there are so many devices and technologies to control. We try to keep the interface straightforward and uniform across the campus, both in generally assignable classrooms and in private learning spaces.”

Rather than being exceptions, such accommodations are becoming the norm as both students and faculty see them as an increasingly routine part of the learning experience.

“Because faculty rely heavily on technology to support teaching and learning, they want it to be available in all the classrooms they use,” says Dr. Sue Clabaugh, assistant director of learning technologies & environments in the division of information technology at the University of Maryland. She notes that one goal of Maryland’s recently adopted IT strategic plan is for all classrooms to provide a standard common and advanced IT-enabled learning environment.

Making It Work

To ensure that controls work effectively, upfront planning centered on consistent installation practices and compatibility among devices is a must, experts agree.

“Adhering to standards is one of the best ways to address issues of compatibility and the quality of installation work,” Clabaugh says. This should include detailed equipment lists and system drawings for classroom technology projects, whether they are handled by in-house staff or outside contractors.

She explains that with standardization of equipment and controls, faculty can move easily from one classroom to another without the need to master different types of controls.

“Not only does this reduce the need for training, but faculty don’t have to waste precious class time trying to figure out how to use the technology,” she says. “Standardization also makes it easier for support staff to maintain rooms. Downtime is reduced because staff can stock spare equipment, projector lamps and so forth for quick swaps and repairs.”

The same concept applies to user interface design, Clabaugh notes. This encompasses more than just laying out touchpanel screens for media control systems, but also how the physical environment is configured. For example, switches and controls can be clustered in the front of the room and clearly labeled so faculty can easily find them and determine what they do.

To limit the need for constantly updating systems, Closs advises planning for operational compatibility.

“Developing a compatible user interface is one of the keys to reduce compatibility changes,” he notes. “By establishing a protocol for the campus that specifies the nomenclature on controls, instructors will feel more comfortable using the technology throughout the campus.”

He says that specific details should be standardized, including location of controls (such as left of screen or rear wall), operation of controls (one button to raise and lower a screen or three buttons for up, down and pause), and type of control (such as buttons or LCD panels).

In the process, a high level of collaboration is needed, according to Clabaugh.

“To ensure that the necessary infrastructure for classroom technology is included, it’s critical that the staff who design and support the technology are involved from the initial planning stages of any project,” she says. “It’s also critical that representatives of the faculty and students who will use the facilities are involved.”

Collaboration at other levels can also help insure success, says Aldrich, who advises AV and IT departments to forge strong relationships and be willing to cooperate on ways to address integration challenges.

“I would also encourage campus administrators and leaders to spend time nailing down what faculty need in the classroom,” he says. “They should also collaborate with faculty early on in the planning phases for classroom improvements.”

Planning for the Future

Another factor to consider is the eventual replacement of instructional devices as well as the controls used to operate them.

“It’s important to have a life-cycle replacement program for the technology in existing classrooms,” says Clabaugh. “And life-cycle replacement can’t just focus on individual pieces of equipment. It must take into account the standard room configuration as a whole, because the standard technology configuration from five years ago isn’t the standard configuration of today. You need to go back to existing rooms and add the newer technologies that weren’t standard then, but are now.”

With such measures, all concerned can be winners. While keeping up with changing technology always means shooting at a moving target, the well-planned use of integrated controls will help ensure the most efficient use of equipment and the best possible experience for students.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management August 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.