High-tech classrooms vs reallity

Last Thursday I did a presentation at a local tech conference.  I do a section called “CS on the Cheap”. I just do a show and tell on free hardware that is available in Montana and free software to build a multi-year curriculum.  The conference was in the brand new Missoula College building. The building was finished late last year and is supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread for tech in the classroom.  It was obvious a tech knowledgeable teacher was not involved in designing these rooms. A high dollar podium stuffed in the left front corner, drop down screen, a projector hanging from the ceiling, tables in rows facing the front of the room and the front wall painted in whiteboard paint.  I took a peak in the other rooms. All the same, lecture rooms, not teaching rooms. I was disappointed. Come on folks, we have wireless so why nail down the teacher or lecturer to the corner of the room or to the front of the room? It is not like it is expensive to design a system with a mobile device so the teacher can be anywhere they want in the room, especially in a room that has the space to wander.  This room had the same design as a room I taught in in the ‘90s and so much could have been done inexpensively to bring the room into the 21st century. Well, OK, the whiteboard paint was cool, at least until I looked up the price to paint a 10’X10’ area. We use white shower board at about $20 a 4’X8’ sheet.

Over the years my idea of the ideal classroom has been evolving.  At one time I wanted a room with whiteboard on three walls and windows on the fourth.  (OK, at the time it was blackboard.) Then it was lots of whiteboard with a projector projecting on the board.  Then I was on the Smartboard wagon. I wanted student desks that move easily, a lightweight tablet with a pen that connects to the projector.  I wanted a method so the kids can easily connect their laptops/computers to the projector (going to need a easily changed key for this) so the class can see their work.  (Here is a chuckle for the day. When the local university built a nifty new wing on the Education building they built a super fancy tech classroom with all the whistles and bells; projectors to all four walls, video conference cameras that could see the whole room and a very expensive podium.  The projectors could be linked to by any laptop. These projectors were cutting edge and this was one of the first for a classroom application. There was one minor technical issue, no password key on the projectors. People walking by outside the building could link into the projectors! You can imagine the entertainment value here.  The manufacturer quickly sent a firmware update.) Now I am back to just the whiteboard on three walls and projector again.

I have become very cool in regards to interactive boards.  It pins the teacher to one location in the room. I like to project on the whiteboard so if I want to I can draw on the projection but I am not stuck there if I want to wander.  I am also leaning strongly to large (65”) flat screens TVs for those teachers that want a lot of YouTube-like action. We bought three interactive TV devices for about $2800 each.  For the amount of time the teacher actually touches the screen a $700 TV makes much more sense and maybe something like a Gyration Air Mouse ($50-$100) for the interactive part.  The visual difference between a projector and a TV is significant.  The TV may be a smaller projection area but the resolution more than makes up for it.

Of course in the real world of classrooms there are some restrictions.  In my school the rooms are small and are filled with desks from wall to wall.  The ONLY place the teacher has to walk except very narrow aisles is the front of the room.  The room I taught Stats in last year was long and narrow with the narrow end being the whiteboard.  The other three walls are either windows or computers. With 22 students in the room getting from the front to the back usually involved moving kids out of the way so I can get by.  The room was wide enough for 4 desks very close together which puts the last row of kids somewhere beyond center field in the cheap seats. My desire to be mobile around the room was not feasible.  That was last year. This year I have more students and a smaller room. Cool. At least it is wide and shallow. I can actually see the back row. My fancy tech plans are still out the window. So I have a whiteboard, a projector that almost projects on the whiteboard and a computer.  I am reliving the ‘90s. I hate to admit it but considering the room limitations I am operating with it is the best I can do. It is amazing how room size can actually affect how I teach.

My Algebra 2 and programming classes are in a smaller room.  Picture the size of a large bedroom. Max occupancy is about 12 (no, seriously, 12) and they better be close friends.  A room this small has its own tech theme. I do not need to wander because everybody is right there, sometimes a bit too “right there”.  I have to use a 10 year old short throw projector in the room because the room is so small. I tried to use it to teach Python a few years ago.  Text was too fuzzy. No “sage on the stage” in this room. The kids are sitting on the stage with you. Except for the fact the room has no ventilation I really like this room.  The small close format allows more of a discussion format for classes. Nobody can hide in the back of the room.

Through the years that original desire for a fancy high tech room has mellowed.  To teach well I actually need less that I originally wanted. All I really need is a room large enough to walk around in (not happening but I can alway dream), a projector on a whiteboard (I still want to be able to mark on a projection) and a wireless keyboard/mouse.  It would be nice to have the students be able to project from their device but there are workarounds for that.

There is no two ways about it, other than budget (I am ignoring that for now) my biggest limitation for bring my classrooms into the 21st century tech-wise is space.  But when it really comes down to it all that is really needed is a teacher and some students. Everything else is gravy.

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4 Responses to “High-tech classrooms vs reallity”

  1. Mike Zamansky Says:

    I was in a super new tech modular room last semester It was pretty good. Small tables that I think were on wheels so you could reconfigure things (if the wiring didn’t prevent you), in theory you could project any laptop to the screen (if you weren’t running Linux) and in general it was pretty cool. The problem was that they put the teacher laptop input and stand on the side of the room and the screen on the front which was pretty lousy.

    I’ve always shunned whiteboards, particularly ones where you’re not supposed to use dry erase marker on the surface – in those cases, the whiteboard dies and you’ve lost a lot of prime board real estate.

    My current and long term preference is projector onto a whiteboard. Probably best bang for your buck. Pretty cheap and most of the functionality is there.

  2. gflint Says:

    “Prime board real estate” is a huge issue in our rooms. We have several of the projectors that “see” a finger or a pen. Work well but are they really worth the $2000 price tag? Again they nail the teacher to the front of the room.

  3. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    Last year I taught my lab course in a room with floor-to-ceiling whiteboards on all walls (except a few windows), 12 stations with wireless/ethernet access to the projector/smart-board, 5 additional data projectors, movable tables and chairs, … . The room was basically a boondoggle bought with grant money.

    What I used most was the movable tables and chairs, to set up 25 stations for pairs of students to work using their own laptops with the lab equipment that we set up in the half hour before class. The whiteboards were also useful. I only used the projectors once, to do a demo that there had not been time for during the lecture portion of the class (which took place in a traditional lecture hall, with chalkboards and big-screen projector).

    Next year, they won’t let me use the room—I’ll be forced into a lab with room for only 22 students at a time (instead of 50), so I’ll have to run 4 sections instead of 2, with no room to circulate freely. I’ll be spending 16.6 hours a week in class and lab, in addition to the 30+ hours a week of grading, not counting office hours, faculty meetings, preparing quizzes and lectures, and my responsibilities as undergrad director.

    It is amazing to me that there is only one room on a campus with 18,000 students that can provide tables, chairs, power outlets, and room to circulate for more than 20 students. Everything is either a tiny seminar room or a lecture hall.

  4. gflint Says:

    Ain’t this job fun!

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