Integrating Technology Needs with Classroom Design, My Current A/V Adventure

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about audiovisual technology these days.

Schenectady, New York. A section of a blueprint reading class at the Onieda School, 1943 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8d20063/

John hasn’t yet had to attend blueprint reading class in his quest to integrate technology with classroom design. Image, “A section of a blueprint reading class at the Onieda School,” 1943, Schenectady, New York, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We’ve been going through some changes in Academic Information Services, most notably the retirements of director Gene Roche and Classroom Support manager Myron Hall. As Chaucer might say, however, time, tide, and building construction wait for no one. As the construction of the Integrated Science Center Phase III building and the refurbishment of Tyler Hall march on, I’ve been asked to take on the responsibility of coordinating the complexities of integrating current, useful, and appropriate classroom technologies into these new spaces. The idea is to involve Academic Technology staff in a process that previously occurred in a vacuum occupied solely by the architects and designers contracted by the College. Suffice to say I’ve been studying construction drawings an awful lot more than I’m used to!

Turns out Podiums on the Right Are for Gesticulating

Fortunately, I have a lot of help in the form of audiovisual expertise from Dave and Steve from our Classroom team, construction project expertise from IT projects engineer Don Hensley, and even our CIO Courtney Carpenter. If anything, it’s been a powerful reminder of the vast amount of experience and know-how in our organization as well as a tremendous learning experience for yours truly — and not just in the realm of bits n’ bytes (or in this case, conduit sizes, screen resolutions, and aspect ratios). For example, did you know that in situations where the podium is on the side of a room most faculty prefer the podium on the right? That’s because the computer is on the podium, and since most people are right-handed, this allows lecturers to manipulate the computer with their dominant hand while facing the room (and/or gesticulate at the material).

Hiding Technology Away Versus Usability

Another principle I’m becoming familiar with is that architects and designers usually do not want technology visible; they prefer everything hidden away — in podiums, in credenzas, and often in the ceiling. Which is a fine idea if your goal is for people to stand back and admire a beautifully-designed room, but presents certain functional problems.

Take the humble document camera, for example — the digital upgrade to the overhead projectors everyone over thirty remembers from their grade school days. It is not a very stylish piece of equipment and it takes up valuable table space. Thus, ceiling-mounted document cams are the latest style. Like a giant crinoline, it might achieve the desired look but it’s not as functional as the humbler equivalent: the ceiling-mounted camera can only look down.  A dorsal view is fine for showing off two-dimensional papers, but what if the goal is to show off a 3-D object?  If it’s a model of a molecule, it’s probably OK (assuming the auto-zoom behaves), but what if it’s a beaker full of stuff? We can’t tip it to the side or easily shine a light through it.

Of course, I’m aware that we can’t please everyone.  Some lecturers prefer whiteboards, and some prefer chalkboards; some only use the Internet for film clips, while others might want to play a sequence from an ancient VCR tape. As in many things, accomplishing the most involves locating a sweet spot, balancing simplicity against complexity, thrift against utility and durability, and the necessity to support deprecated technologies and current needs with an eye towards future-proofing.

We Could Use Your Input

One of the keys to our success in designing classroom spaces is you, gentle reader. What do you like (or dislike) about the hardware in the classrooms you teach in?  What do you use that you feel adds a great deal to your classes? What do you think is missing that would be a boon to your teaching?  I’d be really interested in hearing any comments you have in the comment section below — or feel free to email me at jgdrummond@wm.edu. I can’t promise the ability to change anything (the process was fairly far along even when I was brought into it), but every bit of input helps us to think about these spaces in terms of action and use, not just as ideas and drawings.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.