Technology takes classrooms to new heights

Ben Figa

Ten years ago, Northwestern professors trying to illustrate a complex diagram were left with only a piece of chalk and a blackboard. If a professor wanted to show students a clip from a movie, he or she needed to wheel in a television and VCR — with permission from the department, of course.

And laptops as a classroom learning tool? They weren’t even an option.

But flat-screen computers, stereo sound systems and ceiling-mounted projectors now are everyday commodities in some classrooms, thanks to NU’s Classroom Technologies Group. Bob Taylor, director of Academic Technologies, has spent the last 10 years equipping Smart classrooms with the latest technology, allowing professors to integrate video, the Internet and music into lectures.

“We tried to use a consistent design so that the faculty will be able to find the same type of podium controls and capabilities across classrooms,” Taylor said.

There are about 30 Smart classrooms divided among NU’s six undergraduate schools, Taylor said. The McCormick Tribune Center and the revamped Frances Searle Building have the most recent updates.

Faculty members using the Smart classrooms are entitled to a one-on-one training session. Taylor said most faculty members already know how to use their own programs already and only need to be shown briefly how to work the equipment.

However, Tom Kluz, a Weinberg junior, noted some of his professors have had trouble using the equipment.

“There have been several situations where the computer has been locked and the professor did not know what to do,” Kluz said.

Although the Smart classrooms are effective for learning, some students and faculty agree the technology isn’t foolproof.

“Like any other electronic system, it shuts down occasionally. I would say it is about 85 percent reliable,” said Bill Klein, a neurobiology and physiology professor who uses one of the Smart classrooms. “Instead of drawing the figures myself, we can take advantage of an artist’s talent.”

Developing Smart classrooms has involved constant dialogue between the Academic Technologies staff and faculty.

“We do modify rooms based on comments and feedback of the faculty,” said Justin Bondi, an Academic Technologies support specialist. “We think of ourselves in partnership with the faculty.”

Future efforts to improve classrooms will focus on making them laptop compatible, Taylor said.

“A lot of professors want to bring in their own laptop,” he said. “We hope to build additional classrooms that are entirely laptop based. Over 50 percent of the faculty (who responded to our surveys) have said that this type of model will work for them.”

The technology is more likely to pop up in a 300-level chemical engineering class than an intro to poetry seminar, so some students have little exposure to the classrooms.

“For the classes I’m taking, (Smart classrooms) are pretty much necessary,” said Gabriela Bosak, a McCormick senior. “My professors are so accustomed to them that the classrooms are essential.”

But some students said the Smart classrooms make professors too dependent on technology.

“I don’t know if (Smart classrooms) add anything, but for some classes it may be necessary,” said Julienne Bilker, a Communication sophomore. “It’s a better medium for posting class notes and Power Point presentations, but some professors use it as a crutch.”

Many who do use the classrooms, however, are satisfied with them, said Kathy Leoni, a classroom technologies manager.

“Most who use Smart classrooms like it, appreciate it very much and take advantage of it,” Leoni said.