An Open Proposal for Innovation, Part Three: The No-Go Podium

The Summary

Let’s get right to it: most designs for classroom technology are based on a 20-year old paradigm of furniture, cables and pipes (and lots of equipment). While continuing to replicate these dinosaurs may serve to ensure job security (for now), this model requires heavy infrastructure that adds cost and locks the room into a rigid floor plan that does not support progressive teaching and learning practice.

A Brief History Lecture

Years ago, when the UNC faculty became interested in achieving greater flexibility (oh, how I despise that word) in the classroom, we came to understand that furniture should not be bolted down. It should be easy (or at least possible) to reconfigure the classroom floor plan to meet evolving requirements of teaching and learning.

flexibility (oh, how I despise that word) in the classroom, we came to understand that furniture should not be bolted down. It should be easy (or at least possible) to reconfigure the classroom floor plan to meet evolving requirements of teaching and learning.

Just say 'No' to Anchor Bolts We worked with our interior designer in Facilities and our KI furniture representative to identify modular student furniture that could be rearranged with greater ease. After deploying various configurations of lightweight chair-desks and modular tables and chairs, we felt we had met the challenge. We gave ourselves a good pat on the back and took a coffee break.

Then came the phone call. It went something like this:

Professor: “I cannot move the podium.”

Schuch: “Of course not! Our quality control measures include a thorough check of the anchor bolts during final inspection. No need to thank us!”

Professor: “Perhaps you missed my point.”

Schuch: “No need to apologize. If I were in your position, I would want to make sure that everything was perfect in my new classroom, as well!”

Professor: “Of course I do expect everything to be perfect, and that is why I am calling. You see, I would like to be able to move the podium. So, could you un-bolt it from the floor, perhaps?”

Schuch: (After a long pause.) “…Am I being punked?”

And therein lies the challenge: A decade ago, we (and maybe you, too) perfected a design for bullet-proof, resilient classroom systems (i.e. flat, fixed podiums with plenty conduit and power routed up through the floor or snaked down the wall to accommodate all future wants and needs). At that time, the design represented the best available technology to ensure operations that were accessible, user-friendly and trouble-free. We checked it off our list and rested on our state-of-the-art laurels.

Jet-propelled Wright Flyer... safe and stable!During this same period, a teaching movement emerged that challenged neo-industrial notions of teaching efficiencies in favor of learning outcomes. bolted-down chairs and desks proved anathema to a creating a more dynamic, democratized learning experience.

Much was made of the ability to shift around the students’ desks to enable group work or round-table discussions. And soon enough, the teaching wall itself came under scrutiny: As long as there was a front-of-room, an unintended hierarchy between teacher and student prevailed. Even without the stage (remember the wooden platform stage in the front of classrooms?), the tell-tale signs of a virtual proscenium arch remained.

Gone are the inkwells and bolted-down desks. Gone is the stage. Gone are the chalkboards (more or less). The fixed podium, therefore, represents the last vestige of industrial-age teaching. A steam-punk kludge in which high-tech meets fine furniture.

If the classroom was an airplane, it would look like the Wright Brothers’ Flyer with jet engines strapped to the wings.

And so, what we call a “podium” with its cabling and conduit has got to go! Why, just look at the cost…

Estimated costs of podium and associated infrastructure
The above diagram illustrates how a traditional multimedia classroom designed with a fixed podium and all its equipment and cabling can contribute to $15k of extra cost. In other words, a 20-classroom project designed with traditional AV technology can carry $300k of excess cost. The real price, however is the loss of agility, that is, the ability to reconfigure the classroom to suit changing needs.

Closing the Agility Gap

The real challenge is that this problem (let’s call it the “agility gap”) cannot be fixed with traditional technology. Snaking a cable from the wall to a podium-on-wheels is not a future-proof solution. What is needed is a solution that dispenses with traditional AV signal transport entirely.

And so I ask you, AV-1: what have you seen that gets us to the future?

Lecternnosaurus Rex, scourge of the modern classroom, devours budgets and floorspace. Due to dependency on heavy building infrastructure, extinction was inevitable.

[From the Editor: This article is Part Three in our “Open Proposal for Innovation Series” in which we challenge the AV-1 community for outside-the-box ideas to solve inside-the-classroom challenges and obstacles. It is our wish to encourage you to believe that YOU, dear reader, can shatter assumptions widely viewed as unchangeable. You can do this. In countless ways you have surely done so already, else why would you be reading AV-1?]


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

10 thoughts on “An Open Proposal for Innovation, Part Three: The No-Go Podium”

  1. Some random thoughts:
    1. Video and audio signal transport from presentation equipment to display equipment
    2. Powering presentation equipment
    3. How good is wireless for transporting full frame rate full screen video images
    4. Can “cloud” computing be used to our advantage?
    5. Is a possible answer in the i-pad or similar device?
    6. Lithium Iron batteries are making portable equipment more reliable over extended periods of use
    7. Is the need for and future of the classroom limited given the growth of on-line learning?
    8. What do students do for personal contact with study colleagues if they loose classroom environments in which to work and learn?

  2. After writing thousands of classroom control systems we realized that there were essentially 3-4 standard types (I wrote about this in InfoComm Classroom technology eGroup). With that knowledge we took the most common elements representing 90% of rooms and wrote control code specifically for that model. Our new software would be 50% of the original custom products and would have 10% of the issues. Our plan was to work with our first customers to move the code from beta to final production and today I’m sadden to say we have had not one customer or even one enquiry and the code still sits in beta

  3. Like many others, we, too get the occasional request to move the lectern. In fact, in some of our older rooms, the lecterns are not bolted down and can be moved by instructors (if they put their shoulder into it), much to their immediate dismay when the signal to the projector cuts out.
    In a recent building remodel, a now-disbanded and non-teaching department made a big push towards mobile lecterns that would allow for the room to be rearranged as needed, but when faced with the _increase_ in infrastructure and costs (they wanted to be able to move the lectern– and all resident equipment– to any one of three or four locations around the room), they let that topic drop.
    While I’ll be the first to admit that the traditional classroom layout is quite antiquated and inflexible, it does however present a familiar environment both to instructors and students (as well as the network, AV, and facilities folks).
    Perhaps, rather than trying to banish the lectern, we need to rethink where we locate equipment in order to provide more flexibility in the overall classroom designs. I don’t see infrastructure (and their costs) going away, but maybe the focus can be away from the lectern and instead to another location that will not affect classroom furniture arrangements.
    Or something.

  4. I do classroom design for the University of Toronto. We have 100’s of classrooms, every size, every vintage – and every use. I’m no dinosaur – I graduated from Architecture school a scant 2 years ago. Let me assure you – The fixed podium not so terrible a thing, nor is traditional lecture format. It’s true, lots of seminar rooms do not have the square footage for fixed podiums (so we put an av control unit in the corner or on the wall). But if the room is there, a well designed, easy to use fixed podium is great. If the prof doesn’t like it, there’s lots of extra room front for whatever they want.
    The podium is not so great for group work – which is why we designate some rooms for group work, and some for lectures. This dream of one ‘all-in-one-room’ is a nice dream, but will likely remain a specialty. We don’t often schedule for room furniture to be interchanged in class – it’s a waste of my PhD instructor’s time! They pick the room style they want, and we assign it.
    Yes, the high-end furniture manufacturers have come up with some fancy (and very expensive) ‘no-front’ room styles – but let’s have some caution, as it’s their job to find new ways to sell us furniture. Wireless everything, multiple projectors, added square footage for group work – it all costs. It’s a real waste to schedule a lecture that could be done with 1.5m2 per student and 1 big screen into a room with 2.5m2 per student and 4 screens. I’d rather serve 50% more students than have an added 50% of redundant technology and floor space.
    As a T.A., I taught classes with a fixed podium. It was no great impediment. I’d like my home desktop computer to be 100% wireless too – but when I see the price tag for that, I soon figure that I’ll keep running the desktop at my desk, and get a lower-function laptop to move around with. Lecture format has lasted over 1000 years. It works great. It will likely still be working great in another 1000 years. The AV podium is just a simple device to assist in making the lecture more legible – it’s speculated the Greeks used clay pots inset in the stands to reflect and amplify the spoken voice.
    So I think I’ll wear that dinosaur shirt, after all. I believe in the time-honored, time-tested lecture style; I believe in the fixed podium as an economical and intelligent device for assisting professors in their teaching duties. It’s not the best solution 100% of the time. It is quite a good solution, quite a lot of the time.
    It’s too bad that a lot of the presentations for evolving classroom design seem to think that the new designs can only be introduced at the expense of traditional lecture style. True forward and flexible thinking does not not necessitate the destruction of lectures to show the merits of seminar (group work) – it sees the advantages of each and uses them strategically.

  5. Flexibility needs flexibility. But what type of room are we talking about? In a 200-, 300-, 600-seat lecture theater is flexibility desirable? Should the student seating be on loose tables and chairs to allow some “reconfiguration” from one class to the next? Is that even possible in a 10 minute class break? If the student seating is fixed, does the teaching podium need to be flexible?
    In recent years I’ve done a “walking around” survey of faculty who have gone from teaching multiple smaller sections to teaching large sections. I asked what their break point was for small-class teaching to large-class teaching. What I mean by this is how many students can you teach the democratized, group-work style to, and when do you need to switch to lecture-mode? Answers ranged from 50 to 75. So on the conservative side anything over 50 seats can be nailed down. I’m sure you already have a number in mind that works for your school.
    At my school our technology equipped rooms are scheduled between 85% and 100% capacity. Reliability is very important. So is quick change over to the next professor. I suspect that these things are important to your school too. As our friend from U of Toronto said, the familiarity a teaching podium provides facilitates both of these.
    So for rooms of a size that will be used nearly entirely for lecture anyway: Long Live the Fixed Podium.

  6. a wireless solution that uses a 2 dedicated PCs and 2 WAP devices in a bridging configuration would do most of the trick one for the podium mixed media can be streamed at rates that fully acceptable for presentations which can be delivered via Internet or existing network. one for a AV cabinet or closet reconstructing the data stream to a DA and peripherals, still the only setback is that in the way power cable and end users tampering with settings

  7. Most of my 60+ rooms are around 30 people. They look like old high-school classrooms, or perhaps more accurately, like Lutheran church Sunday School classrooms. When I started putting in computers, I immediately had a problem. There was no budget to dig trenches in concrete floors. Furthermore, I knew I couldn’t please everybody. Some professors absolutely want to hide behind a lectern. Some professors can’t stand to have anything between them and their class. I decided right then to “punt”.
    I bought library catalog terminal stands to put the computer on (and later discovered that the spacing between the computer shelf center support and the outside leg is *perfect* for rack mounted equipment) and parked them against the side wall of the room, with the monitor facing sideways toward the screen. My point is that the computer stand is *not* a lectern. If you want to stand behind a lectern, grab one of the tabletop boxes and set it on the overhead cart. If you don’t want to stand behind a lectern, the computer won’t get in your way.
    And maybe that’s indirectly the answer. I hate remote controls. But we could give the professor some tool to let him use *his own* wireless networked device as a remote control for the computer. Then it wouldn’t matter where we put the dinosaur pen, because the instructor wouldn’t have to go anywhere near it to use the technology for his lecture.
    The interesting thing is that at the same time that the instructors are demanding flexible arrangements with everything on wheels, the students are demanding places to plug in their laptops. As a compromise what we should be doing is instead of removing the old stages in the front of the room, we should be extending the platform all the way to the back of the room and installing a grid of electrical outlets in the floor so that the students have places to plug in *in spite of* the flexible furniture layout.

  8. At our college we have three basic types of rooms. The full smart and modified smart utilize the traditional podium style of room for a more fixed pedagogy and these work most of the time. For the flexible group learning rooms we utilize a wall rack for the equipment and PC. We also use a wireless keyboard and mouse so the instructor can go anywhere in the space and still teach. With quickly configurable wheeled furniture it has really been popular for group style learning. In a few rooms we have used large LCD monitors on articulating arms so that the focal point of the room can change as well.

  9. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we’ve removed many of the oversized equipment barges that once occupied the front of every lecture hall. Our reason for replacing these custom equipment enclosures is less about user flexibility and more about equipment accessibility. We wanted an inexpensive, ready made solution that would not only address accessibility issues for our faculty, but simplify equipment installation and troubleshooting.

    At InfoComm in 2008, we discovered furnishings from Spectrum Industries, Inc. While at the show, I found a powered adjustable height table that, at first glance, didn’t seem much different than any other adjustable table. Once I thumbed through their catalog, however, I noticed that they also made a very sturdy, equipment rack on wheels that is just the perfect height for a lecture environment. The two pieces can be ordered to match in one of 3 versatile finishes.

    We paired these two pieces for use in our lecture halls, combining user accessibility with an extremely easy installation. We take the front door off the rack, and position the user accessible equipment toward the top so it’s easy to find and easy to reach (no crawling around on hands and knees searching for the USB port).

    All equipment is secured with security screws to discourage theft, and the whole rack, though mobile, is secure by way of the Sonic Shock 4 alarm that we’ve epoxied to the touch panel. This means there are no keys to be issued to faculty and nothing is hidden behind locked cabinet doors.

    In most of our rooms, we’ve found the “ideal” spot for this equipment, and locked the large rubber wheels so that it is not easily moved. As most of you know, “mobile” lecterns are rarely moved, which is why we have not yet had an issue with the cabling. We do have one flexible use classroom on campus, where we have provided an 8ft umbilical. In this room, the rack, with optional side mount shelf, is the only piece of furniture required, making it easy to relocate the teaching lectern from the front of the room to the center of the room, depending on the teaching method.

    This well crafted, accessible duo has such a small footprint that we are now using it in all of our small classrooms too. For a small fee, the company will even cut your institution’s logo into the steel door. We have not given this a try yet, but it’s a nice touch.

    Manufacturer’s Website: http://www.spectrumfurniture.com

    Products referenced: Compact Presentation Lectern & Evolution Liberty Electric Desk

    Note: Certain finish matches may be special order. Non stock items may take up to 2 months to arrive.

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