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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

Feb. 27, 2009

Wired classrooms designed to help students learn

by Anne Krapfl

If you haven't ventured into a college classroom in a decade or two, you might be surprised at what you see and hear. As in other aspects of our electronic lives, the teaching tools and gear that Iowa State faculty employ evolve at a fairly rapid pace. The end goal, however, hasn't changed much: help students learn.

The "sage on the stage" model, which got higher education through hundreds of years, is giving way to other, better options, observed Jim Twetten, assistant director for academic technologies in IT Services. And he doesn't credit technology with triggering the shift -- merely assisting it.

Faculty who recognize that students don't all learn the same way offer a variety of experiences -- in class and out of class -- allowing students to "construct" knowledge from the options that work best for them, he said. So, in addition to faculty lectures, class time might include video clips or PowerPoint slides, discussion, students reviewing a key idea in clusters of two to four, or faculty polling students as a way to share ideas.

"It's laptop-driven right now," said Matt Darbyshire, manager of IT Services' classroom technology unit, and about 80 percent of the university's 216 general classrooms are equipped to handle faculty members' laptop computers. "Whatever they have loaded onto their laptops they're able to share with their students in the classroom. And they find different ways -- prerecorded video, photos, graphs -- to present and reinforce what they're teaching."

Classroom features

ISU spent five years (2003-07) and $14.3 million renovating most general use classrooms and auditoriums; a little over $1 million of that was earmarked for technology improvements. Standard equipment in those rooms now includes:

  • ceiling-mounted projector (projects files from laptop computer) and projection screens
  • internet connection (wireless internet connectivity in some rooms is intended for faculty-directed class activities -- but there's no guarantee that students aren't hopping on the network for other purposes)
  • sound system
  • wireless microphone in classrooms that seat 50 or more
  • DVD player
  • universal control panel (identical in each room) to operate all the electronic tools

All panels are on a network and monitored every day by IT Services staff to make sure equipment is operable. Darbyshire said they are able to correct half of the "right-now" miscues from their offices without hiking to the classroom.

About half of the 170 renovated rooms have document cameras, which allow faculty to project a printed image or small object on the large screen.

The down side to these improvements? Twetten noted that the funding for the classroom technology was not ongoing. The university now faces an aging fleet of equipment and no identifiable source to replace it, he said.

Making a large class a little smaller

Since they were piloted on campus almost four years ago, battery-operated personal response systems -- more commonly known as "clickers" -- have seen more use in large classes. About 80 faculty currently use them, Twetten said. The size of a thick credit card, each clicker is registered to one student and has a keypad on it. While they may help with basic functions such as logging attendance or taking short quizzes, faculty primarily use clickers to assess comprehension during the class. In just a minute or two, if student responses to periodic questions posed by the faculty member show they "get it," he or she can move on with new content.

The software that operates the clicker system is loaded on the faculty member's laptop computer; a receiver to accept student responses connects to the laptop. The newest smartphones also can function as clickers.


WebCT (short for web-based course tools), is a software system that lets faculty integrate their usual course documents (syllabus, lecture notes, handouts and gradebook, for example) with other features intended to help students learn: online question boards monitored by the faculty member, online discussion and video archives, for example. WebCT can be used to deliver distance education courses, but it also is used widely at Iowa State to supplement traditional face-to-face classes.

Allan Schmidt, CELT assistant director for learning technologies, calls it a "bricks to clicks" migration. There are 2,000 course sections using WebCT now, he said. Among WebCT advantages:

  • Students have options in how they receive information and study -- and when (use is heavy from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., averaging 4,000 simultaneous users during that period, Schmidt noted)
  • Online activities can replace some mandatory class time, which helps with ISU's classroom shortage at peak times
  • There's quality control or consistency across multiple sections overseen by one instructor and assisted by multiple teaching assistants

But, Schmidt added, you can't replicate elbow-to-elbow lab experiences online. And good online components should motivate students to attend class.

Twetten said the perception that online features make it easier for students to miss class simply hasn't panned out at Iowa State.

Classroom capture technology -- software that merges the audio from a class lecture with the still or video files that accompany it into a podcast posted to WebCT or on the iTunes U web site -- is gaining ground. About a dozen faculty are using it this spring, Twetten said. Students are using the podcasts to review important concepts and prepare for tests.

He said electronic resources enrich the classroom experience more than they did 20 years ago. "The value to the student of going to class and participating in class is higher today," he said.


"Whatever [faculty members] have loaded onto their laptops they're able to share with their students in the classroom. And they find different ways -- prerecorded video, photos, graphs -- to present and reinforce what they're teaching."

Matt Darbyshire, manager of IT Services' classroom technology unit