I’ve been part of several initiatives on campus over the last year, looking at how we provide and support learning technologies as a university. Several themes have consistently emerged across all of these.

  1. Instructors need a baseline of common technologies to enable a consistent teaching experience across courses
  2. Instructors need flexibility, to be able to use different technologies that enable discipline-specific teaching and learning practices
  3. Students need to be able to access technologies, both within and outside of formal course activities
  4. Everyone experiences a course differently, depending on their role in the course, their connections to others in the course, and the various technologies that they use (both formally and informally)1

Universities tend to focus on the first point. Let’s develop standards and ensure that all learning spaces meet them. Which is great, as long as the standards are current and as long as sustainable funding is available to ensure all learning spaces are continually updated to implement these standards.

What happens, however, is that a significant investment is made and spaces are prioritized in order to maximize the impact of that investment. Implementation takes time, and not all spaces are able to be included. Which means there are many spaces that don’t meet the standards that were in place at the time of the investment, and the clock starts ticking on the upgraded spaces as months and years go by and equipment starts to fail and the needs of the campus community evolve over time.

As a case study, when the Taylor Institute was designed in 2015, the technologies and systems were absolutely state of the art. A dedicated server room handled automated digital routing of HDMI signals to and from 37 collaboration carts and teaching podiums in 7 classrooms (as well as several meeting rooms). As it turned out, the Crestron 128 switching unit was the only one in western Canada at the time (maybe all of Canada?). Unique, highly specialized equipment, that needs to work perfectly in order for the classroom technologies to work at all.

creston switcher

It was, by far, the most flexible and advanced technology-enhanced teaching space on campus. The systems do a lot of heavy lifting behind the scenes to make it look seamless and easy. Which is great, if everything is working as designed. But, if a key vendor goes belly-up2, such that a server that controls software that provides functionality to the 37 collaboration carts degrades before eventually going offline, things start to go off the rails. Or if another key vendor discontinues a product line that manages recording within the classrooms3, leaving no way to record classroom sessions (and rendering some very expensive auto-tracking cameras completely useless).

collaboration carts in the TI

The pendulum is starting to swing back in the other direction, away from tightly controlled and deeply integrated systems of technologies that are all intensely interconnected, toward something more agile4.

So, how can we approach classroom technology standards and investment cycles and technology evergreening in a way that is based on flexibility, agility, responsiveness, and sustainability? What if we provide a core set of functionality - power, wifi, a decent computer (with campus platforms such as videoconferencing and lecture capture preconfigured), wired and wireless presentation from BYOD, adjustable height teaching station, microphone(s), camera(s), and then allow people to integrate other custom technologies as needed rather than trying to duct tape it into a common standard?

This lets us shift toward providing functionality through software on top of common set of connectivity features provided by hardware in the classroom. Decoupling specific features - for example, providing lecture capture functionality through the YuJa desktop capture software rather than from a hardware appliance - makes it much easier to respond to changes. If we need to replace a vendor, it’s much easier to push a software update to all managed classroom computers than it is to pull out equipment and replace it with something else. And if we want to add functionality, it’s just a matter of installing some software rather than planning a year-long infrastructure upgrade project.

We’ve already done this, by providing both YuJa and Zoom on classroom computers. If a classroom has a camera and microphone, they can be selected as inputs within the software, and then an instructor can stream and/or record a classroom session using campus platforms.

I think, by focusing our efforts on providing hardware that enables connectivity, and software that provides specific functionality, we’ll be much better able to respond to changing demands.

The Taylor Institute acts as a testbed for new technologies that will be evaluated by the campus community, and the community will also help to decide which technologies should be implemented across the university (and which should be discontinued, and which should be left as DIY). We now have several committees and working groups that will lead these efforts (including the Learning Technologies Advisory Committee, General Faculties Council Teaching & Learning Committee, and the TI Classrooms Working Group).

A large part of this will involve showcasing the amazing work that is being done by instructors and students in all faculties, to get a sense of how technologies are being adapted in practice. We have a few initiatives under way to scale this up, and I’m looking forward to learning more about the amazing things people are doing in their courses. I’ve been fortunate that this overlaps with my dissertation5 because my design study project involved interviewing 5 award-winning instructors to learn about their course designs. Fascinating stuff!

  1. this is one aspect of my dissertation, getting away from looking at courses as monolithic things to recognize the individual experience and how that shapes teaching and learning… ↩︎

  2. Arrive provided the appliance PC devices that powered the interface on each of the collaboration carts. A central server managed these devices. When Arrive went poof, we lost the ability to run software on the collaboration carts, so they became display-only. ↩︎

  3. Crestron decided to stop producing and supporting the Capture HD Pro media recorders, and suddenly the expensive auto-tracking cameras in the classrooms had nothing to connect to… ↩︎

  4. I mean agile as in “to have agility”, rather than Agile as in scrums and standups. But, there are some overlaps… ↩︎

  5. that’s 2 mentions of the dissertation in this blog post (well, 3, including this footnote). Gah. I’m turning into that annoying person that finds ways to insert “I’m doing a dissertation” into everything. (great. 4 mentions now) ↩︎