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The Convenient and Digital Classroom

Towson University deploys digital media technology that lets students view classroom sessions after the lecture.

Towson University deploys digital media technology that lets students view classroom sessions after the lecture.

A student pursuing his MBA at night is called away on a business trip. An undergraduate for whom English is a second language gets lost at one point in the lecture, while another misses class because she has to care for a sick child. Each of these students can benefit from digital media classrooms that capture the instructor's lecture and presentation and make them available online.

Towson University in Towson, Md., has four such digital media classrooms and is rolling out six more by fall. Ranging in size from a seminar room to a 90-seat lecture hall, the facilities are equipped with a media controller, interactive pen display, monitor, desktop computers, LCD panels, projectors, DVD and VHS players/recorders, wall and desk-mounted cameras and microphones, and a web content management system.

Among the products are a 40-inch NEC LCD monitor, a NEC DLP data/video projector, a Sony EVI-D100 pan/tilt/zoom video camera, a Panasonic recorder and an Extron MDA 3V mini distribution amplifier.

The purpose of all this technology is to enhance the educational experience, says Dr. Gloria Holland, executive director of technology and academic initiatives for Towson. “Class capture has become the wave of the future,” she says.

“It's a beneficial tool for all of the colleges,” says La Tonya Dyer, instructional designer at Towson. She cites examples of professors using the environment to teach music, political science, women's history, art and design, economics and professional health, though she notes that subjects that may benefit most through class capture are the more technical subjects such as nursing, math and the sciences.

No Muss, No Fuss

Holland had long encouraged faculty to put their courses online, but “the constant complaint was it's too much trouble,” she says. “They're used to lecturing and just want to come in and teach their class.”

But one day she attended a conference during which a Villanova University leader spoke about that school's digital media classroom. The setup allowed the instructor to seamlessly capture a lecture by pressing a button. After returning from the conference, Holland says she “talked with our CIO to see if we could bring one in to pilot.” Associate Vice President and CIO Jeffrey Schmidt agreed, and the school had its first digital media classroom running by spring 2007.

Towson uses the classroom in a number of ways. Some instructors will prerecord certain segments so students can review before class. Others will use the system for one or two lectures rather than the entire semester. Students use the facility to improve their presentation skills by recording a presentation for an instructor to review and grade. The university has also used the high-tech classroom for training and other administrative purposes.

Ideally, instructors can use the technology to simultaneously teach not only those students who are sitting in the classroom, but also distance learners who could participate either synchronously or asynchronously, explains Holland. “If they're teaching an online course, they can really incorporate their personality into the lecture so the students will feel as if they're part of a community and not just simply reading text,” Dyer says.

Recognizing the benefits of the digital classroom, some faculty members registered last semester to use the classroom in the fall and next spring. Professors are able to reuse content they have previously recorded, supplement instruction and devote more time to interacting with students rather than lecturing.

Students have taken to the digital classroom, too. “If students miss something in their notes, they can go back and review the content without missing a beat,” says Holland. A shift in focus from transcribing notes to paying attention to the content and interaction advances learning.

Kerry Whiteman, a second-year graduate student at Towson, appreciates the digital classroom capabilities. Whiteman was ill the day of a guest lecture on autism that she had been looking forward to attending. “I was able to watch it and catch up on what happened,” she says. “It helps maintain the level of education.”

Beyond the Whiteboard

Holland and her team dub Towson's first digital classroom the “Cadillac Room.” Costing close to $80,000, the 24-seat room boasts desktop computers at every station, three cameras and an interactive monitor for the podium. The monitor works like a whiteboard that lets the instructor annotate and capture content.

A web content management system records and hosts the content, video and screen captures. The instructor makes media available through a hyperlink from which students can navigate or search by viewing snapshots of the instructor's tablet. “You can advance the video so it takes you to the one minute where you looked away and missed something,” Dyer says.

Learning some lessons from its first digital-classroom deployment, the Towson IT team is now simplifying the setup for the new rooms it's rolling out. For example, the classrooms require only one camera in the back and can be managed from a central control room. The most recent investment cost about $70,000 for two rooms, says Schmidt.

“There were some technical issues that had to do with the room itself and the background,” says Schmidt. “The dark color didn't work out for the video.” Another discovery was that the classroom must be kept cool. And before the school started using Microsoft's Silverlight development environment, IT had to convert presentations into flash so Mac users could view the video. Now, Mac users simply download presentations to their computers.

Student employees monitor the digital classrooms. Dyer spends about 30 minutes with student staff going over the technology, then they conduct a live session and are ready to go. Some rooms have a standalone system that the faculty member can use by simply pressing record and stop buttons.

As the classrooms are rolled out in a new building, Towson leaders are excited about future uses of the technology. “Towson teaches classes in several countries, including Poland, China and Panama,” CIO Schmidt points out. “With this digital media class capture, we are able to easily reach students all over the world.”

Save It for Later

All that digital content created in the classroom needs to be stored somewhere.

“We've tried to keep storage in the central IT unit,” says Towson Associate Vice President and CIO Jeffrey Schmidt. “We don't have storage cropping up all over campus, which has helped us manage and deal with archiving.”

According to La Tonya Dyer, instructional designer, Towson's policy is to keep instructional technology recordings for 25 months and then archive them to a storage area network, where they'll stay for another three years. “After five years, we'll permanently delete them after giving the instructor an option to request a DVD or CD of the material,” she says.

The older content is archived to less expensive storage disks, but the university IT department can restore it within 48 hours upon request.

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Aug 18 2009 Spice IT

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