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September 22, 2005
Today's classrooms are evolving into more complex spaces than that of just a few years ago. Schools that were considered wired-up only yesterday are now requesting the ability to support distance learning on remote campuses.
Five years ago, community colleges would not have considered having a distance-learning room. Today, many facilities are planning for multiple distance-learning rooms that support increased partnerships with four-year institutions, and the allotted audiovisual budgets are increasing accordingly. This example is not universal, but it is a slow trend as presenters become more comfortable using technology.
Understanding what has worked for students and instructors is the best indicator of how classrooms will evolve over the next five years.
This can be accomplished by asking users to "grade" the technology following installation. Performing follow-up discussions with operations and maintenance staff can also lead to better insight into future designs.
What worked, what didn't, what was unnecessary, and what was missing are all valid questions that are best answered by those that inherit the facility after the design and construction team is gone.
One such field review was recently performed with Highline Community College's Higher Education Building, a new 80,000-square-foot classroom building that serves various users.
Highline Community College has a partnership with Central Washington University to share classes remotely at any of CWU's six centers. The Higher Education Building at HCC has five classrooms with this interactive audiovisual capability and many other classes with local audiovisual equipment such as document cameras and projectors.
The following are some comments from Highline Community College campus planners:
Photo courtesy of Sparling
Highline Community College uses distance-learning audiovisual consoles to share classes remotely at Central Washington University's six off-campus centers.
"Provide the best technology that can be afforded to promote maximum interaction between remote students and educators."
The most effective distance education classrooms have technology that creates a comfortable setting for learning and is also easy to operate. Distance learning education environments, however, are often not easy to operate and require trained personnel to maintain the flow of the lecture.
Maintaining a constant visual image of the speaker from the remote location keeps students engaged and focused, and fosters interaction.
One way to do this is to use image-window devices rather than multiple displays. Image-window devices are processors that allow multiple images on a single screen. Rather than shift back and forth from a data screen to the speaker, all screens can be seen at once.
HCC is using this technology to incorporate an oval image of the speaker that can be moved around the screen to avoid blocking other important data such as a PowerPoint slide.
When using multiple images on a single screen, the more images that are open, the smaller these images become and the more difficult they can be to read. Keeping this in mind, lighting, screen size, location and distance from the student becomes critical to the success of the video teleconferencing experience.
"Provide adequate space for the distance-learning audiovisual consoles."
All too often there is inadequate space allotted for equipment. Allowing the appropriate amount of space for the consoles, for example, requires commitment on the part of the architect and owner.
The team should plan for 150 square feet per console (one console is designated to each classroom) to ensure uncrowded conditions.
Tight budgets and the desire to maximize the amount of program in the building are the biggest reasons why square footage is reduced in the audiovisual-control areas.
But the result can be cramped quarters, which makes for an uncomfortable work area. The smaller space, of course, does not provide adequately for future expansion. In addition, providing adequate environmental conditions is critical to ensuring equipment performance and lifespan.
"Floor boxes and furniture do not align."
This is a universal problem that requires the attention of the entire design and construction team.
Engineers, college staff and architects typically spend considerable time coordinating the type and location of floor boxes during the design phase. However, quite often the furniture system is not completely detailed and shop drawing information arrives after the floor boxes have been placed and the slabs poured.
Such subtle changes in location and type of furniture at this point can make some floor boxes difficult to use, unsightly or render them useless. The general contractor must coordinate the schedule of the furniture shop drawings and slab pours to avoid this problem.
"Provide for means to limit theft of technology devices such as projectors, microphones, monitors, etc."
Sadly, theft is common at many higher-education institutions.
Attaching projectors with steel cables or providing secure mounting "cages" will help protect expensive equipment. Tabletop microphones should be secured in locked cabinets (within the equipment rack adjacent to the podium) when classes are not in session. This lock could be keyed the same as the classroom door so educators do not have to manage multiple keys.
Podium tabletop equipment such as monitors and control handsets should be permanently mounted via a movable arm. For computer labs that require hours of open accessibility to students, providing older-style "large" CRT monitors rather than the sleeker flat-panel screens discourages removal more effectively.
Successful technology installations have resulted in facilities allocating more resources in this area. As technology evolves, the design team can offer better equipment at the same price as systems that were less desirable a few years ago.
Better equipment combined with attention to the needs for adequate power, data and students' visual connection to the presenter establishes the classroom for years to come. While often overlooked, listening to clients' concerns after the project is complete is every bit as important as identifying their needs at the beginning.
Troy Thrun is a principal at Sparling, an electrical engineering and technology consulting firm with offices in Seattle and Portland.