An Open Proposal for Innovation, Part One: The Carolina Case

Recent newsletters explored examples of good-enough innovations that proved to be game-changers. At their introduction, few, if any, were regarded as either "best in class" or "state-of-the-art." It is important to acknowledge how perfectly adequate good-enough really is because within the context of well-regarded institutions of learning there are occasions when nothing short of state-of-the-art appears to be acceptable. In learning technologies, the pursuit of this ideal can lead to unanticipated costs.

High-profile institutions are, after all, in the business of attracting the best and brightest minds by offering top-notch learning, work and research environments designed to bring out their best work. When resources are plentiful, it is commonplace to hear a best-of-the-best mantra reverberating through the walls of every planning session; often with insufficient thought to operating costs associated with "cutting edge" amenities.

A "Master Classroom" circa 1991 In order to find a way to accept that now is an ideal time to re-imagine classroom tech, let us first consider how we arrived at where we are, and all we've accomplished…

Large, progressive institutions such as the University of North Carolina are renowned for blazing trails in learning technologies. For more than two decades, UNC pioneered technology-enabled learning space.

Multimedia Classroom Podium v1.0 "dog house" circa 1993 The initial foray began with massive three-beam projectors and equally massive wooden equipment lockers to contain a desktop computer and a hodge-podge of cables and switches. Primitive by today's standards, those original "Master Classrooms" offered proof-of-concept for brave faculty seeking new ways to engage learners. 

At a cost of more than $75k per-room, these not-so-user-friendly systems fell short of requirements for widespread deployment. The volatile and unintuitive nature of the systems hampered widespread adoption.

Multimedia Classroom podium v2.0 "flat top" circa 1996 By 1996, advances in technology and learning space design opened the door to development of truly self-serve learning environments at one-third the previous cost. These new "Multimedia Classrooms" featured LCD projectors that were twenty-times brighter than bulky, three-beam Electrohome projectors, enabling students to view the projected image while taking notes in adequately lit rooms.

Instructors navigated a user-friendly graphic touch panel to display computers, video tapes and DVDs with ease and the entire system tucked away in a practical teaching bench that required no keys or special instructions to operate.

podium v3.0 with wheelchair penninsula These days, the success of this model can be seen not only in its widespread proliferation, but in its universal adoption by students and teachers as an essential tool for learning. What once was a special "Multimedia Classroom" is now simply a "classroom" in which certain technical amenities are regarded as tools of the trade no less essential than tables, chairs and wallboards.

As with other ubiquitous "entitlement technologies" (i.e. cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras), widespread adoption occurs at the intersection of sudden affordability and unrivaled convenience/performance (see "Good-Enough"  article series: What's So Great About 'Good Enough' Tech?, Part 2: A Brief History, and A Reader Chimes In). While falling prices may be a welcome relief, as stewards of these resources, "installed price" is not our sole consideration.

Seminar Room with floorbox (equipment cabinet outside of frame) It is at this intersection at which large, progressive institutions may serve as the canary in the coal mine for those up-and-coming campuses through a frank discussion of the unintended outcomes that emerge when traditional classroom technology approaches 100% saturation. It is here that the compounded cost of ownership (regular support, maintenance, supplies and equipment lifecycle) prove to be unsustainable.

400-seat Auditorium with multiple screens Continuing to build more-of-the-same may not deliver the type of success previously enjoyed with such technologies. Past performance does not guarantee future results.

Next time: "Projector Math"

by Joe Schuch
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

4 thoughts on “An Open Proposal for Innovation, Part One: The Carolina Case”

  1. If your institution’s reasoning was like ours at Dartmouth, that expensive, 3-beam Electrohome went in the ceiling because it was the only one that could comprehend the scan rate of a Sun Sparkstation. There were certainly cheaper projectors, and maybe ones that were even brighter (3-beam models, that is), but you couldn’t buy one of those cheaper ones. After all, there was that “outside chance” that some propeller head, one who hadn’t shown up for any of the “faculty input” sessions about the new “smart classroom” project, would show up and want to plug in his Sparkstation. That particular user never did bring in his Sparkstation, and that room always was a bit of an albatross.
    Today’s version of the $80K 3-beam Electrohome is the 1080P Christie for the similarly phantom membor of the faculty who we imagine will want to Bluray his classes to death. This faculty member in my experience also never materializes. So why do we keep designing for these high-end users who never show up? Why not instead take the savings we gain from a cheaper projector, one that usually less than half the cost, and put that money into lifecycle replacement? I don’t think it takes a propeller head to figure that one out.

  2. Joe-
    Interesting and thought provoking article. I think you point to one of the great strengths of classrooms designers over the years, their ability to innovate and improve. I think we are at a place now where prices will not continue to decline, especially with the advent of digital technologies. Like computers, A/V is in a planned obsolescence mode. I don’t think we can continue to build more of the same, because year to year the technology is not the same. So, maybe where we need to innovate, is not only in the designs of our classrooms, but in the designs and expectations of our support.
    Finally, we also need to reverse the thinking that the technology in these rooms is unsustainable. A lot of the belief of “A/V costs too much” comes from the old experiences of “I spent 75k on that room and it never works”. I know on my campus we have never declared the network, or desktop computers to be unsustainable. Why, because there is a realization that we need them, no matter how much they cost. At Bates College, I am on a mission to change how people view A/V. I use the reporting tools built into the A/V systems to show how often the equipment is used and how reliable it is. It is eye opening to my boss and the CIO when they see such numbers as 50 rooms collectively being used over 1,300 times per month, with only 15 problems.
    Again, thanks for the article. This type of open discussion is lacking amongst tech managers.

  3. I have been tasked with trying to develop a classroom of the future that will, at least at the infrastructure level, be able to accommodate much of whatever may come. Fortune telling was not one of my birth gifts and has not been developed since so my ability to crystal ball the future is pretty murky. Discussions like this do point out where we are and how we got here which is very useful information. I am hoping to find a way to look at what may be coming, even if it is only to support the prof. who wants to Blu-Ray his class to death. Even now there is discussion that Blu-Ray may only be a stepping stone to memory chip distribution which would obsolete a lot of what we use now. Teaching modalities, student expectations, construction(good enough may well be good enough), and maintenance costs all play into this and my little mind is just not wrapping around it at all well.

  4. More and more of these SMART classrooms are appearing on campuses of schools. I honestly believe that classrooms that have these technologies aid in the learning process. Technology in the classroom cuts out the extra work that teacher do while giving the students a more efficient way of learning. A teacher no longer has to write a whole lesson plan on the board only to have it erased the next class. Students and teachers alike can benefit from the use of technology in the classroom.

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