Much More Than Just Blackboards

Teaching tools have changed drastically through time. You'll still find blackboards and overheads in use. But colleges and universities today boast presentation technology to rival any corporate boardroom.

Finding the best solution regarding which technologies and products to use requires a comprehensive and long-term view that analyzes many factors. You've got to have a plan.

Know Where You're Going

David McShane is chief information officer/vice president of information technology at Harper College, in Palatine, Ill., a comprehensive community college that serves approximately 25,000 students. Twelve years ago, he helped develop a strategic technology plan that is part of Harper's overall strategic plan. The plan is revisited every year, and is rolled on a three-year basis.

"There are basically two approaches to technology development," says McShane. "One is based on faculty requests while the other comes from our technology department. We try to accommodate every presentation preference based on our plan." Harper's Advanced Technology Resource Center enables users to see demonstrations or train on the latest hardware and software. This allows faculty to become familiar with a presentation method or product before using it in the classroom.

The college has standards for presentation products and services, including providing a combination of smart and media-rich classrooms. All classrooms are wired for Internet access. "We've retrofitted campus buildings to meet our standards," McShane states. "For example, we have standard podiums, whiteboards and LCD panels and also have standards for video walls. This enables individuals to fully understand system and product operational requirements and capabilities."

McShane says to keep things as simple as possible. "We give instructors all the presentation technology that we can, and we make it easy for them to use. Their focus is on teaching, not operating the presentation system in their room."

Points to Consider

Randy Tritz, CTS-D, partner with Shen Milsom & Wilke, has worked with numerous colleges and universities on their presentation technology requirements. "We ascertain where technology is currently used and then work with facility and technology personnel to find the optimum solution. One of the challenges is that technology often wants to be in a fixed location, which isn't always the optimum solution."

Tritz agrees with McShane that things need to be kept simple. Institutions can't afford to have a large staff to handle presentation requirements. Ideally, instructors can operate the presentation equipment in their room. And there are tools to help them along.

A graphical user interface (GUI), for example, houses settings for individual presentation needs. An instructor punches in a code or uses a card, and the GUI's hardware and software configures the room's equipment based on preset levels.

Types of Products

There are many ways to present information and thousands of products on the market to do just that. The following information only begins to touch the tip of the iceberg.

Audio: Flexibility mandates that all microphones can't be fixed according to Tritz. Microphones can be embedded in the ceiling, which will work when acoustics are good. However, this often isn't preferred for aesthetic reasons and because the microphones may pick up ambient noise.

Instructors can wear wireless microphones to move throughout a room, if desired. Wireless microphones can also be put on dedicated desks for student use. Coverage is based on room size and occupancy.

A similar option is to have students go to a fixed microphone to ask questions. This involves some movement on the students' part, but can be facilitated and minimized through placement of microphones throughout the room.

Speakers: Speakers involve two approaches according to Tritz. One is to place a high-quality stereo speaker near the display surface. This works well for prerecorded sources.

Sound can also be distributed through speakers located in the ceiling. The speaker's microphone picks up the sound and it is mixed according to use. Special consideration needs to be given when distance learning is involved to ensure the sound quality and distribution on the receiving end. Coordination between the sending and receiving parties is required.

Presentation Recorders: Capturing instruction is more and more common for future distribution or as a resource for notes following a presentation according to James Dias, vice president of sales and marketing for Sonic Foundry, manufacturer of Mediasite. "We have many college and university clients that want to capture instruction so that it's another form of notes for students," he says. "The instructor selects images that he or she wants to save from their presentation. These are then put on a Web site for student reference. It's very helpful when someone wants to check their notes."

Mediasite, as one example, is a real-time, rich-media presentation technology record to capture, stream and archive anything that is projected or presented in a lecture hall from a notebook PC, document camera, electronic whiteboard or other medium. It's like a sophisticated VCR. The Mediasite unit is rack-mounted with other equipment, and only requires RGB/VGA input and output for operation.

Whiteboards: There are many types of whiteboards including traditional or non-electronic, which involves writing on the board and wiping off the data without the ability to capture information. Copyboards feature an overlay that allows the user to write on them and to then print the information.

"Electronic whiteboards are very popular because they are so versatile," says Nancy Knowlton, president and co-chief executive officer of SMART Technologies, maker of interactive whiteboards among other products. "These are excellent tools when the instructor wants to share lots of computer-based information, including incorporating material from the Internet."

Electronic whiteboards can use a USB, serial or wireless connection in partnership with computers according to Knowlton, connections that are available almost everywhere. She says that classroom size and the number of students in a room are a consideration. "A standard-size, interactive whiteboard works well in a classroom with 20 to 30 students. Above that number, you may use a screen with a projector. In this case the instructor is employing what we call a SMART Board, which encompasses a wide range of front-projection, rear-projection, in-wall and flat-panel overlay systems. The instructor has a monitor that they use to control the information that is presented, and the material is projected to the larger audience. It's the 21st Century overhead married to a computer."

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