Learning at a Distance

I will date myself when I say that the technology in the classrooms at my university when I was a student featured blackboards and maybe an overhead projector. Today, my oldest daughter, a college freshman, sits in classrooms with whiteboards, smartboards, and other technology and uses a clicker for responses. The impact of technology on education is as dramatic as its impact on any arena, including business, government, and healthcare.

Technology has and will continue to impact the way that knowledge is delivered, as well as how facilities are designed and what technology is available in each space. To achieve success, an institution must evaluate how technology is used today and how it will be used in the future.

Technology’s Impact

The University of North Texas (UNT), in Denton, is a significant provider of distance-learning courses. The impact of this commitment relates strongly to the institution’s facilities, especially when it comes to funding.

“We have a number of hybrid classes where up to 50 percent of a course’s content may be delivered online with the other 50 percent delivered via face-to-face interaction,” says Mike Simmons, senior associate director for the Center for Learning, Enhancement, Assessment, and Redesign (CLEAR). “The State of Texas has a formula for funding facilities related to classroom use that doesn’t take into account the new model for learning, and we are grappling with this issue. Under the current formula, offering a significant portfolio of online or hybrid classes means that you don’t have as many students sitting in a classroom, which can hurt an institution when it comes to funding. It’s a complex situation.”

Simmons notes that the keys are to evaluate each space for the interaction that can take place either face-to-face or virtually. “You must evaluate what can take place within a classroom or other space,” he says. “A lecture hall is appropriate for just that, and can be used for distance learning, but it doesn’t work well for conversations. Changes in learning and teaching methodologies require administrators and facility professionals to look at things differently today than we did in the past.”

UNT has a fairly standard package for technology in its classrooms, including computers, projectors, audio, Internet, and a document camera. Some classrooms also have whiteboards or smartboards, and plug-ins for mobile carts for computers.

“Distance learning impacts both our new facilities and our renovations equally,” says Simons. “We must consider the technology that does or doesn’t need to be in a room. With existing spaces, we must consider the technology that is or should be in the room while also evaluating the type of seating and the flexibility required to offer both different types of courses and to reconfigure a room.”

Online Presence

The main goal for the new Center for Online and Distance Learning at the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence is to help facilitate the delivery of Internet courses in order to help build KU’s distance learning and online presence.

“There are two important pieces for us,” says Sara Rosen, vice provost for academic affairs at KU. “The first is to take our courses and use web-based technology to offer them to students throughout the State of Kansas and around the world. The second is to allow our students on the Lawrence campus to take a course when they cannot physically be in a classroom.”

Rosen notes that the range of technology in each classroom varies widely across campus and that there are no set standards. Staff in the Instructional Design Technology service work with faculty members to train them regarding the nuances of all technology present in their classroom or that they would like to use. “Our new Center provides a walk-in place for faculty to come and discuss their courses,” she says. “The staff helps them address what they are doing, what they would like to do, and the tools that may be required.”

Some classes may be broadcast in real time or may be recorded and made accessible to students when they choose. Distance-learning students are able to speak with faculty during online office hours. Rosen also notes that part of the equation involves the technology that is available on the other end. As an example, KU offers online courses through its Confucius Institute. KU administrators had to ensure that their classrooms had the appropriate technology while also ensuring that students on the receiving end were in classrooms equipped with the technology required to take part in the classes.

“Training is vital,” says Rosen. “We supply the vision, the tools, and the training to help our faculty be successful. This includes helping them to evaluate if their course content is conducive to using in an online environment.”

KU uses Blackboard software to deliver online course content and Rosen believes use of the program is successful. “Our training also encompasses Blackboard,” Rosen says. “Like all tools, we show our faculty how to use this to maximize the benefits for both themselves and their students.”

Interactive Tools

John Kent serves as the manager
of technical solutions and innovation at the Northern Alberta (Canada) Institute of Technology (NAIT), and echoes Rosen’s comment regarding training. “We are using [interactive] projectors in a number of our classrooms, and training our faculty properly on [their] use was very important.”

Kent and his counterparts originally put together a training program to familiarize 100 instructors with the system’s capabilities, which features a short-throw projector and pen combination. According to Kent, the goal was to show the instructors a new approach to what they had been doing and to convey the belief that offering the new functionality was easier to learn than the use of standard whiteboards.

“The challenge with evolving technology is to show faculty that they may also need to change the way they teach to be more successful,” Kent says. “We showed our faculty that the [interactive projector] can be used as a simple data projector or as a much more sophisticated collaborative tool. Technology supports emerging teaching methodologies, but the teacher must adapt to how to use technology. Providing the required training is critical so that faculty don’t become frustrated and so that we ensure it provides the greatest benefit to our students.”


Interactive Technology for the Classroom

Actively Participating With a Projected Image

Put simply, interactive projector technology encompasses solutions that enable users to actively participate with the projected image.

Typically the presenter is allowed to interact with either the projected image, the projector, or in some cases another device, such as a computer. Interactive projectors essentially mimic the function of an interactive whiteboard on any surface where the image is projected. This allows the presenter to interact with the projected image using an electric or mechanical stylus, or even a finger.

Some interactive projectors allow user-generated information to be captured, replayed, printed, or copied with or without the original projected image.

According to Randy Jackson, director of Academic & Learning Technologies at the University of Washington School of Dentistry in Seattle, another form of interactive products that have become mainstream are audience response technologies that enable interaction in large classrooms. “Usually this is for the purpose of asking an audience questions and getting an immediate aggregate response that can be displayed on a screen via a projector,” Jackson explains. “There are many ways this technology can be deployed.

“Another similar technology setup involves projecting a Twitter feed on the screen behind a presenter for displaying the real time comments and feedback from an audience as the presenter presents — not unlike the chat feature in WebEx or other online presentation forums. The Twitter feed needs to be deployed wisely as it can be a very disruptive tool, or it can engage an audience like nothing else. It does put pressure on a presenter to deliver a meaningful presentation and to be open to questions, comments, and criticisms,” he observes.

Videoconferencing technology is also part of the interactive mix. “Here at the University of Washington School of Dentistry, we use live large lecture hall videoconferencing to connect students in rural areas in real time to scheduled classes in our auditoria,” Jackson adds. “Remote students are expected to engage and ask questions in real time (synchronously) as if they were right there in class. We also hold videoconference office hours or study sessions in lecture halls with remote faculty, which can be very lively and engaging. These are all examples of interaction via a projected image.”



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