'A new learning dynamic'

Published on Nov 30, 2015 9:05am by Princess Gabbara,

Collaborative classroom blends tech, old-fashioned, face-to-face interactions

It’s an intriguing, cutting-edge tool that’s being used to bring students back to the campus and revive the diminishing face-to-face interaction in today’s technology-driven world.

More than a year in the making, the Learning Resources Division at Washtenaw Community College has been working relentlessly to create a new classroom – located in the Business Education building, room 110 – that’s designed to promote more active, hands-on, collaborative learning among students. The classroom officially launched this fall.

“It’s very exciting to see the classroom in action,” said Victor Liu, dean of Learning Resources at WCC. The classroom was born out of one of the college’s strategic priorities to “increase institutional agility and responsiveness … through an institutional focus on judiciously integrating technologies into the learning process.”

“We’ve been careful not to implement new technology just for technology’s sake because in the world we live in, technology is changing every month or every week even,” Liu said. “From the beginning of the project, we were mindful to use technology that would enhance the educational experience of our students and so far, it’s been successful.”

In the classroom, there are five huddle tables, each accommodating six students. At each table and its surrounding space, there’s one flat screen, one whiteboard and one central computer students can use to complete group projects.

Here’s the wow factor: Students can bring their own wireless devices and project whatever’s on their laptop, iPad or smartphone to the central computer and flat screen, allowing the entire class to see exactly what’s on their personal screens. Additionally, there’s a Sit-to-Stand Lectern and main overhead projector screen that the instructor uses to communicate with the class and project what’s on the flat screens.  

It’s all in the technology.

After several months of searching for the most appropriate technology that would support the classroom’s needs, the Learning Resources Division decided on Kramer Electronics, an international company that provides innovative products driven by professional customer needs, according to its website.

“The technology had to allow for two major components: It had to really support collaborative work and not just screen sharing, as well as support wireless devices,” Liu said.

Although there are collaborative technology environments at other colleges across Michigan, several features aside from screen sharing set WCC apart from the rest.

“There’s a whiteboard feature that allows students to markup documents without changing the original,” said Scott Wesenberg, instructional technologist at WCC’s Media Services. “There’s also a collaboration mode feature that enables keyboard and mouse control on the central computers and wireless devices. A name tag is displayed next to everyone’s mouse icon to help identify who’s who.”

A classroom that collaborative and innovative comes with a hefty price tag – around $45,000, including technology, furniture and infrastructure – but the feedback from faculty, staff and students has been glowing and WCC’s investment seems to already be paying off.

“This collaborative classroom brings a new learning dynamic to today’s adult learners,” said Faculty Member Krista Ridley. “It allows us to start on-the-job training while reinforcing the foundation that Business Communication is built from, which is collaborative, real-time communication, using today's technology, but still allowing for face to face interactions.”

Liu says the long-term goal is to transform more classrooms into collaborative learning environments. However, he notes that these classrooms don’t come cheap, so it will be a judicious, selective process.

“Everyone in our division is excited about what’s to come and we hope to pass on that excitement to the Business Department and I believe we have,” Liu said. “A lot of faculty and staff are intrigued by it.”

“When you remove the barrier of having students sit in rows, it opens up the lines of communication and encourages them to become more engaged,” Wesenberg added. “It allows for an overall better educational experience.”