Jernstedt pioneers 'wireless classroom'

by Karla Kingsley | 10/25/02 5:00am

After earning a "Most Wired" label from Yahoo! Internet Life's college rankings four years ago, Dartmouth continues to fulfill the implications of the label, but the literal definition is becoming less applicable as classroom technology reaches new levels.

Most students have encountered at least one "smart" classroom by now, but fewer have experienced psychology Professor Chris Jernstedt's new wireless classroom application.

Last year, Jernstedt began using personal digital assistants in his psychology class learning in order "to have opportunities for students to be engaged," he said. Jernstedt taught the class last year as part of an experiment on learning, in which his students used these handheld wireless PDAs to respond to questions posed in class.

After answering a question, students' results are tabulated and projected onto the screen at the front of the room, followed by a discussion of the results.

Jernstedt explained that in a normal lecture setting, only one student answers each question a professor might ask.

"That student learns. My goal is to have every student answer and learn," he said, adding that some students who wouldn't normally raise their hands and speak up "enjoy the opportunity to answer." Additionally, students get to see how their peers respond to a question.

Jernstedt emphasized his principal goal of engaging each and every student in the class, but he noted a side benefit -- the professor can gauge the effectiveness of the lecture through students' responses and can alter the lecture and future questions according to their progress.

So far, this new use of the wireless network has improved learning in the classroom, Jernstedt said, in contrast to some lecture classes in which students "can be passive ... it's not the most efficient way of learning."

Each student uses a PDA that is about the size of a deck of cards and is connected to the campus wireless network, giving it the same basic capabilities of a laptop.

Jernstedt said that he hasn't had any major technological setbacks, with the exception of a few software glitches, and that after a short adjustment period the technology became "transparent" in his classroom.

While others have complained of classroom laptop use distracting students, Jernstedt said that this is not a problem with the PDA system.

"When students are engaged, nobody is reading blitz," he said. "Rather than being a diversion, students are involved in class."

Jernstedt predicted that in the future, students may be able to type free responses to questions instead of the multiple-choice format they use now.

Even though the questions are multiple-choice, Jernstedt said that he formulates the questions to prompt students to "apply principles to something they haven't seen before," in contrast to the incorrect "polling or voting" perception of the system.

Currently, Jernstedt is the only professor using the PDAs in his class, but he said that others have shown interest. He hopes to expand his use of PDAs to include software that students could use in small groups to facilitate discussion.

The PDA system may be completely wireless, but Dartmouth's "smart" classrooms still use wires to provide a seamless, uniform platform for professors, along with a multimedia presentation for students.

Ever since its first project in 1994, Dartmouth Hall room 217, the Classroom Working Group has converted approximately 30 classrooms, often completely renovating classrooms in addition to adding technology, Director of Academic Computing Malcolm Brown said.

Each smart classroom comes equipped with a computer, a VCR, an audio microphone, a document camera and multiple projectors and screens, all connected to the integrated touch screen control.

The touch screen consists of a monitor displaying different options for input to the screens at the front of the classroom. From this screen, professors can control the sequence of slides, VCR functions, the lighting of the room and volume of the audio.

Andrew Faunce, chair of the Classroom Working Group, said that the consistency of the touch screens through each smart classroom "allows us to give the faculty the same experience no matter what room they use." He added that even if the physical equipment, such as the VCRs, were to change, "with the touch screen, we can present one look."

Faculty response to the rooms has been positive, as evidenced by polls of professors taken each term to determine problems or improvements that need to be made. The polls show that the most frequent problems occurred with the lighting in the rooms.

Faunce explained that the lighting can be controlled either from the screen or from a wall panel and would have up to four preset lightings. He noted, however, that "different people have different preferences," so sometimes the presets need to be altered.

Faculty polls also show gratitude for the availability of tech support for the rooms. A sticker sporting an emergency tech support number decorates the podium in every smart classroom.

"If the technology doesn't work, the class meeting can be ruined or seriously compromised," Brown said, observing that the shortened terms of the D-Plan make every class period count.

"We try to be as responsive and proactive as possible," Faunce said. "Once the rooms are built, they don't just run themselves."

Aside from nearly daily tech support for each smart classroom, the Classroom Working Group replaces the technological components of the classrooms -- computers every two years, projectors every four years, and the entire system every eight years.

Potentially, along with these replacements come new technologies to be incorporated into the rooms. Faunce and Brown both spoke of conferencing capabilities that may be incorporated into the classrooms in the future, in which professors and students could videoconference with faraway classrooms.

"It's coming -- it's a long way out, though," Brown said, noting that the network capacity would need to be increased.

Another upcoming advancement in the smart classrooms is the installation of even smarter control technologies. According to Brown, these control devices would let maintenance workers know when a particular room or piece of equipment needs work, reducing the number of routine maintenance checks on rooms.

"Every time that we redo from here on out, we will try to get this new smart componentry," Brown said.

The College has plans to steadily increase the number of smart classrooms on campus, focusing mainly on the centrally-booked spaces -- the ones controlled by the registrar -- in order to make them available to the largest number of students and faculty, Faunce said. Currently, about one-third of these classrooms have been converted.

PDAs are not in the plan for the smart classrooms. "At $400 a pop, they aren't cheap," Brown said, but he noted that as technology advances, prices go down, leaving the door open to future developments.