Originally published in the September 1997 issue of:

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Technology Goes to School

by Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

The real issue is pedagogical not technological...

As technology-aware people, our industry is very familiar with the issues of trade-offs...

Technology is seeping into schools and universities and it is a slow but inexorable process. The increasing exposure of both students and faculty to more advanced media technology in their everyday lives is opening the doors for acceptance (albeit grudging acceptance in many cases) of media technology in the school environment for distant learning, classroom presentation, and directed studies. Many people in our industry who have a technical leaning find this slow acceptance of hardware solutions puzzling, since there is the assumption that institutions of higher learning would wish to stay on the leading edge, and keep students up-to-date with the burgeoning technology growth we see around us. The real issue is pedagogical not technological, and it is important to understand what the issues are for the schools and faculty members faced with an overwhelming choice (or lack of choice) of hardware solutions. It is especially important to understand the differences between the educational market and the corporate or government market, and how that difference affects the decisions made regarding the use of technology.

Pedagogy refers to the discipline or field of teaching, and it is as substantive a field as any technological one. At the core of pedagogy is epistemology, which is essentially the understanding of how we know what we know. The process of teaching is centuries old, and the successful methods of imparting knowledge on young minds have been developed over many years. If we step back from our techno-enthusiasm, and have a look at what it is that we are saying to educators, we would find that we are saying that we have hardware that will give you great new ways of teaching that are sure to make learning that much better and easier for your students. If you are an instructor with one or two dozen years of experience in teaching your field of expertise to students, and you have a pretty good idea of the success rate of having those ideas stick to the blank and impressionable brain cells of students (who probably don't get enough sleep, consume far too much caffeine, may party a bit much, and are at an age where hormones and their social life have as big an impact on their ability to learn as any technology), then you would regard these claims with some degree of skepticism.

The instructors have a very good idea of how much of their course relies on materials that are going to be affected by the presentation technology. But much more important is the understanding that the instructors have of the contact they make with their students, and the amount of interaction they want to have during the process of teaching. They also know how much of their attention they are willing to give to the distraction of dealing with the support systems for teaching. In the past, that interaction has been limited to finding a piece of chalk long enough to write with, pulling the projection screen down and turning on the overhead projector, making sure that the felt marker for the overhead has not dried up, and that the projector bulb is not dead. After those issues are dealt with, they are free to teach. Issues such as keystoning of the image from the overhead projector were secondary to having the overhead located appropriately so that they can reach it while they talk, and being able to get out from behind the "hardware" and make contact with the class.

With the current hardware being utilized for high-tech classrooms, we are, ironically, reducing the flexibility that instructors have enjoyed for many years, while at the same time telling them that we are increasing their freedom to teach using a wider range of materials, and to reach a broader range of students through the use of technology. Perhaps their skepticism in the value of high-tech classrooms is not entirely unfounded, and it is not skepticism of the technology as much as it is skepticism of the technology's influence on the pedagogy. Perhaps the blame for some of that skepticism falls upon the shoulders of the technocrats we tend to become in the systems design and contracting industries.

As technology-aware people, our industry is very familiar with the issues of trade-offs, we make compromises all of the time between cost and performance, flexibility and simplicity, or complexity and reliability. It is very easy to become caught up in the trade-off battle and ignore the fact that there are always implications to these trade-offs beyond the simple "can it fit the budget, or can't it?" Allow me to bounce some examples off you to illustrate my point.

Take the overhead projector, a very simple piece of equipment. It allows transparencies to be displayed; it has an acetate roll to allow spontaneous written or drawn material to be displayed, and has fairly easy recall of previous information through the use of hand crank rollers; it has the high resolution typical of purely optical systems; it is light, portable and cheap; it is easily adapted to right or left hand use by moving it from one side of a lectern to the other; it is usually bright enough to be seen with the room lights up; reliability is good in that most have a spare lamp and a lamp changer lever; and most important they are so mundane that no one would steal it from an unlocked classroom. The down side, you can't display opaque objects; you can't zoom in on small objects; and the material shown on the overhead is not available for recording or for transmission through a video network.

In the high-tech classroom we offer the instructor an alternative, the video presenter, or copystand camera. It is fairly expensive, between ten to thirty times the cost of an overhead projector, and it requires a video projector or large screen video monitor to display the image (making the entire display system between twenty to one hundred times the cost of an overhead projector); it can display transparencies, like the overhead projector, yet there are no video presenters that even have the option of acetate rollers, the most commonly required feature in a school setting; because they are expensive, they need to be fastened down or locked away, both of which can make adapting their location for right and left handers a problem; they are quite limited in the display resolution, even the 3 CCD chip camera versions, compared to a purely optical overhead projector; they have to be connected through one (NTSC) or four (RGBS) video cables; if the video projector dies, no pictures come out, and that can't be fixed by swapping it for one from the room down the hall; the image brightness and legibility are dependent on the investment in the video projector; the lower ambient lighting levels required for many video projectors can make it more difficult to take notes and connect with the students. On the plus side, you can display opaque and 3D objects; there is less light shining in the instructor's eyes; the copystand can be located without regard to the position of the projection screen; the image can be recorded and transmitted by a video network.

technology goes to school

The use of high-tech systems have other impacts on the room.

The broader the group of users, the more difficult it becomes to develop a well defined and tuned program for the technology in the room.

You'll note that in the discussion of pluses and minuses, most of the compromises and trade-offs are technological, but their primary effect is on the usability issues important to the instructor. In fact many of the issues outlined for the copystand do not address the most important aspects of usage of the device from the instructor's point of view, which results in a video-based device that does the basic day-to-day instructional support almost as well as a primitive overhead projector.

The use of high-tech systems have other impacts on the room. Take the lectern for example. The most basic low-tech lecture theatre would have had a fixed or portable lectern large enough to place papers and books on, a microphone, and would have been augmented by an overhead projector on an A/V cart. The high-tech classroom must have a lectern large enough to house a visual presenter, possibly a small video monitor, a control panel or touch screen, perhaps a VCR, maybe a presentation computer, and a microphone. Add to this the need for demonstration space or large flat counter-tops, and this is no longer a small piece of millwork, and it no longer can be a largely open device since there must be cableways inside, storage for equipment etc. The most common complaint heard from instructors once they see the high-tech lectern is the sense of being cut off from the class, or of being hidden behind the lectern, and the loss of communication they feel between themselves and their students. Real or imagined, if they feel they have lost contact with their students, they may well have lost contact.

Where the lectern must accommodate both the high-tech equipment and the more conventional overhead equipment (typical of rental or multi-faculty use lecture theatres), conflicts over available counter space often place the conventional overhead projectors in an inconvenient location for the instructors used to working closely to the light table. This is especially true where right and left handers must be accommodated. Even physics professors have a hard time accepting the fact that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, when the space is their lectern top. The trade-offs, though they may be democratic, are not often seen that way by the instructors who find that their needs are not accommodated to the extent that some of the other user's needs are.

Making a lectern that works for even a few instructors is tough. The range of height in teaching staff alone can make it difficult, imagine accommodating instructors between 5' tall to 6'-4" tall and you would be covering the typical range. As the amount of fixed equipment in a lectern increases, the amount of flexibility available in the configuration or size goes down. The equipment has to be readily accessible and functional to get used at all, so it has to be installed there (unless there is an A/V tech available for setups). The cost of making a lectern adjustable increases astronomically (even for departments other than astro-physics) with the amount of equipment contained in it. Eventually the complexity of making it adjustable outweighs the needed simplicity and reliability factors, and someone makes the decision as to which parameters are to be fixed and which are to be adjustable. This type of technocratic decision once again adversely affects some percentage of the faculty using the room.

The broader the group of users, the more difficult it becomes to develop a well defined and tuned program for the technology in the room. Since most universities must maximize the return on investment in any classroom, the rooms first targeted for high-tech presentation systems are the larger multi-user, or multi-faculty rooms. Where a room may see users from all branches of the sciences, and outside rentals as well, it can be very challenging to produce a system layout that works for even a majority of the faculties and users.

With a room used by a number of different faculties, or even several different course levels in the same faculty, there will be drastically different requirements for the room function. For first year classes, the general tendency is for large groups of students to be passive receivers of large amounts of new information, and the feedback to the instructor comes outside the classroom or through tests and assignments. As you progress up through the course levels, more interaction is sought between the instructor and student while the teaching is going on. In larger classrooms, or lecture theatres, this means two way communication is important, both the instructor and the other students need to be able to hear questions from a student anywhere in the room. This also means that the presentation systems need to be more flexible in that the instructor needs the freedom to break away from a planned lesson presentation and pursue a line of questions or investigation based on the class interaction. If the only available teaching support system is some presentation software and a video projector, the instructor will be very frustrated, and will be longing for the return of a conventional overhead projector. Once you get to 4th year and grad courses, there may be as much, or more, interaction required between the students as with the instructor. The acoustics, and the audio and visual systems have to be able to support these widely varying (and perhaps conflicting requirements).

Now, if you add true distance education requirements into this mix, you could see how the instructors may be even more suspect of the contact they are able to make with students who are not in the classroom at all. For instructors who are sensitive to the size of the lectern and its intrusion into their pedagogy, there will certainly be some question as to their ability to respond to student contact through a camera lens, and a tiny image on a video display in the lectern.

Despite what it sounds like I'm saying about the value of high-tech classrooms, they aren't an entire waste of time, as many instructors have a pedagogy that can take full and effective advantage of the technology. But we, as an industry, need to recognize how to make the high-tech classroom more relevant to the people using them, and that means breaking out of the corporate viewpoint of A/V presentation systems. The corporate boardroom approach is very much agenda-driven; make your point in 30 seconds, accept relevant questions, and get back to the business of making money (except for the people working in the Dilbert-ian sector of the economy). Because corporate thinking can be fairly regimented, it is easy to make the users adapt to the corporate methodology (quick, give me the name of two computer operating system manufacturers!).

The educational environment is entirely different in that there are many pedagogies at work, and they are all valid in the frame of reference of the classes being taught, and they all need to be considered as part of the programming of a space and the systems in it. It is important to understand that any technological compromises made based on cost or performance will affect someone who is not associated with the bottom line, or rather they are associated with a very different bottom line: "Is this helping me teach my students, or is it getting in the way, or preventing me from reaching them?"

There are two major factors that need to change to make this easier to accomplish. The first is product based, many of the products that are being used in high-tech classrooms are adapted from, or designed for, other market areas, and they are not always equipped with features essential to the use in the educational environment. It would be nice to see things like video copystands developed to suit their true overhead projector replacement use, with features like acetate rollers (front to back is still the preferred direction), and it would be really nice to see more vandal and theft proof versions developed for this market, allowing permanent installations in unlocked rooms. Other desirable products would include touch panels that have tiltable mounting systems designed for the often abusive and theft-prone environment of colleges and universities, perhaps a tiltable lectern mount allowing secure mounting, but adjustablity for viewing by faculty of varying height.

The second factor is cost. It currently costs a substantial amount of capital to equip a high-tech classroom, primarily in the form of video projection devices of adequate brightness and resolution. It can also cost a lot of money to maintain the systems, especially the newest generation of high brightness video projection equipment, where the special Xenon and Metal Halide lamps can cost up to $2500 and may only last 750-1000 hours. This becomes significant on-going service cost to the universities. As the source and projection devices come down in cost, and increase in resolution, the practicality of wider implementation of video based display systems increases. As high-tech systems can be delivered at lower cost, with the features truly needed by the instructors, we can start to deliver on the high-tech version of the flexibility and functionality that they have had for years in the low-tech classrooms.

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