A couple of nights ago, I attended my first “virtual class” for . The professor spoke to the students through a live video feed (either Real or Quicktime). The students interacted with each other and the professor by using a chat client. In this case, we used Blackboard‘s built-in Java applet.
While in class, I asked myself why does the University maintain 500-seat lecture halls? Which is better: the backrow of WEL 2.224 or a streaming video feed of the same thing?
The Internet and related technology is transforming the way we do things. At first, a website was simply a brochure for a company telling the world “we have this awesome product. Now go to our brick-and-mortar storefront or call us to get one!” For a business to succeed now, they must be integrated fully to the online world. If you can’t order something off of a company’s website, there is a problem. Which companies will survive the longest? The ones that not only use the Internet, but the ones that embrace the Internet. The ones that use it in order to decrease the effort and expense of information flow while enhancing the content of that information.
As strokes from the same brush, education is moving that same direction. No one would argue that registration is better, both in practice and in theory, now than 10 years ago. When my brother graduated in 1995, he told me of going to Gregory or the Erwin Center with a registration card and waiting in line to talk to a registrar. If he needed to add/drop a class, a very similar process had to be done as well.
Now, the practice of registration has adapted to the new technology. Students now register for classes at home in five minutes. We are advancing the theory of registering by adding a waitlist system. You are no longer limited to a class being simply open or closed. What is the next step? How will class registration change in the next ten years?
In many classes and on many campuses, classes are still taught the same way they were one hundred years ago. For a seminar class of fifteen students, that’s fine. For a survey course of 500, why are we limiting ourselves to that?
The greatest benefit of technological advance is the ability to share information with ease. With language, we gained the ability to speak to each other and share information. With the written word, we were able to write them down for someone else to find the information later. With the printing press, we were able to share that information at a rate unheard of previously. With newspapers, radio and television, we have found ways to bring words, voice and sight of information to mass markets. With the Internet, we combine all of those things.
The information is indexed like never before. In 1985, if you wanted to know what time your favorite rerun came on, you picked up a TV Guide and flipped through the pages trying to simply spot it. In 2004, all we do is access one of many websites and type the show we wish to watch. Instantly, we know every channel and time in the next month that show is on.
At the library in 1985, you would have to visit and search through a card catalog. In 1995, you could visit a terminal at the library and search the card catalog using a computer. If you were lucky, you might be able to search at home. In 2005, the entire content of a book is indexed and searchable. In 2015, how many of our books will exist only in a digital format?
The University of Texas at Austin is converting the FAC from the home of the UGL (undergraduate library) to a new “digital commons”. The books are being removed to other places on campus and this location is dedicated to information.
The classroom of tomorrow is coming today. Picture your standard high school chemistry class. There are rows of desks in front of a chalkboard. To your right, there are various lab stations with the usual water and gas hookups. The class is small- 17 students. Sadly, the number of teachers trained in chemistry at all is low. Not only that, but for this advanced International Baccalaureate HL course, there’s not a chemistry teacher with the proper education for such a low number of students. There are some teachers on staff who could assist with lab work, but teach theory? Not enough and the district’s budget is too small to hire more FTEs.
There are two other high schools in town with the same problem. Also, a small rural school fifty miles away is stuck without a well-trained teacher. In the classroom of today, everyone has the same problem and everyone is left without a solution. In the classroom of tomorrow, the chalkboard is really a thin screen. A teacher, jointly hired (or contracted) by the schools in need, appears on the screen.
Each student has a tablet PC- or something like one built into their desk or something crazy I haven’t dreamed of, instead of writing on paper, they write on digital paper using digital ink. Wireless technology, probably up to gigabit speeds by then, link all the students at all sites with the teacher. He has a TA at each location to assist him in ways only someone on-site could. This solution puts all sites within their budgets.
There are video cameras around the room to help make multiple classrooms one. The teacher wants a student at site A to work a problem on the board. The chalkboard-screen has the same technology as a tablet PC. Using cameras and this smart board, the students at sites B, C and D all see this student and his work as if he were there (only a bit flatter).
Let’s not forget about little Susie. She was sick that day or was in a car accident and is stuck at the hospital or the school’s softball team made it to state and are forced to miss a day of class. She has access to the Internet so she watches the lecture from wherever she is at. This solution isn’t perfect but it’s better than completely missing a lecture.
Tests and quizzes are administered through this system. The teacher is notified at his station that three students at the same site close to each other are amazingly answering the same questions at virtually the same time with the same answers, both right and wrong. In person, he already knew something was fishy but now, it’s obviously in a quantitative way (scientists love that you know).
When lab time rolls around, the need for a lab notebook is no more. Everything is inputted into the tablet device. A group of four students work together, one student inputs the information and all four instantly has the exact same data. Since it is very important that each individual works on the lab, the system locks a student from entering another piece of data after she entered over 40% of the data herself alone. Or, students working in teams run different trials of the same experiment. The system alerts the students that two of them entered the same data pieces for three of the four entries. A TA comes over and the students did their own work, it just ended up the same. The TA overrides the system flag. The next time, one student is completely clueless but gets the same result as the star student in the class while they were working together. The TA works with the students and helps them understand the concept without just borrowing answers.
I am rambling but think of the abilities? A chemist discovered something completely new about gas laws- something very basic and is in every high school chem text. A panel of editors realizes they need to rewrite that chapter. After an approval process by some standardized organization, the school downloads and applies the new chapter to all student tablets wirelessly. Students can use the new chapter, complete with annotation and the stored previous text, instantly. Waiting four years the new information to be written, printed, approved by the State, approved by the District and approved by the teacher, then purchased and received? No more. The discoveries of today can be taught tomorrow.
There are problems with the model and it assumes certain advances in technology and a willingness to bring education into the 21st century; however, it is the classroom of tomorrow.
The libraries of tomorrow are moving towards the UT UGL idea. Will we ever be perfectly paperless? Probably no and that’s probably a good thing. The libraries and classrooms of tomorrow, however, are radically different than what we see today.