Anaheim Union High School District had 1,200 classrooms to renovate, 200 new ones to build, and nearly $300 million to do it. Building classrooms that would house the evolution of education and technology over the next 30 years proved the hardest part of the district's mandate.
"We needed to take a hard look at what we could do to the existing classrooms to bring them up to tomorrow's standards," says Gordon Getchel, AUHSD's director of facilities and planning. "One of the integral questions is, 'What do teachers want in their classrooms in terms of technology?' "
The answer, Getchel found, is that most teachers aren't sure. Unless they'd come from a more tech-savvy district, or seen demonstrations at education conferences, most teachers don't have much exposure to the latest teaching technologies.
"It's not very hard to get vendors to tell you what teachers want," Getchel says, but teachers don't have the information they need.
But given of the size of the district's undertaking, Getchel had to be sure that the classroom upgrades would enable students and teaching to thrive. So rather than learn from their mistakes on a grand scale, Getchel built two prototype classrooms and let the faculty test drive them for six months.
Building the Future
Dubbed the "Classrooms of the Future," the two 900-square-foot classrooms each test different materials--one has carpet, one has tile. One has recessed parabolic lighting; one has suspended lights. In one room the teacher's station is near the door, in the other it's at the opposite end of the room. Two different kinds of whiteboards are being tested, along with eight different kinds of student furniture.
On the technology side, one classroom has 24 laptop computers, one has 36. Both have wireless networks and cabinets that allow the laptops to recharge by placing them inside cradles within the cabinets. Both have ceiling mounted projectors, document cameras and interactive whiteboards controlled from the teaching station. Both have DVD and VCR players. One has a more advanced remote-control system, allowing the teacher to control the technology from anywhere in the room.
The district aggressively pursued vendors willing to donate equipment for the prototype classrooms, but going forward, the district expects the future models to cost $50,000 per room for the construction, wiring, support systems, cabinets, flooring, lighting and whiteboards. The technology hardware and software will come out of individual principal's budgets.
Since the rooms were completed in January, they have been used for multiple periods each day for classes and staff meetings by faculty from the district's 16 schools. Each user is surveyed, and the aggregate data will be used to make final design decisions. But a few items came to be seen as essential early on.
"I think that the LCD projector is an absolute, a minimum of six-foot diagonal screen, and somewhere in the neighborhood of 24 to 32 feet of whiteboard in two different locations," Getchel says, noting that every classroom will also be equipped with a document camera.
To have every classroom in a school equipped with this much technology is pretty futuristic, given the state of classrooms today. Currently, only 68 percent of schools in the U.S. own at least one projector, and less than 25 percent have interactive whiteboards and a DVD player, according to a survey conducted by projector maker Philips.
At Anaheim, the exact makes and models won't be specified right away. "The key thing for administrators in charge of funding is to structure the procurement of technology so you have the flexibility to purchase it at the last possible moment," says Brian Patrick, director of audio-visual design at Atlanta-based EDI.
Putting in the infrastructure to support computer networks (even wireless networks need wires in the ceiling above) is easiest and cheapest when the rest of the construction is taking place, costing thousands less per room than a retrofit would.
"Regardless of what kind of technology you're using, you need the infrastructure," says Perkins Eastman architect Pamela Loeffelman, who specializes in school design. "You need to spend money hardwiring a certain amount of the system; I think a good investment is providing that backbone."
Anaheim is taking this advice, planning to equip all of its classrooms with the infrastructure for wireless computer connectivity.
"District-wide we probably aren't ready to go to a totally wireless network within a school," Getchel says. "But, we're allowing for the potential of a wireless network when the education side is ready to go there."
But computer wires and network design aren't the only technology issues that come up when districts are building or modernizing. EDI's Patrick recently worked on a new school facility in Homewood, Ala., that called for every classroom to have an entire wall of windows bathing students in natural light.
"Well, that's about the worst thing you can do for any sort of big display system with projectors," Patrick says.
After much investigation, the A/V designers found a high-intensity projector, and specially coated screen, that would allow for great display, and stay within Homewood's per room budget.
Back at Anaheim, the entire project is expected to take six more years to complete. Getchel's message in all this is his belief in the "test-drive" approach, saying it is much more informative than scheduling vendor demos or visiting classrooms in other districts.
"You can be penny wise and pound foolish by trying to get through the analysis stage on the cheap," he says. "I'm convinced we saved easily 10 times what it costs to do this by what we've learned."
The real heart of the issue is why integrating this type of technology and design into classrooms matters.
"The classroom of the future must be a place where the teacher can easily convey current information, and where students have adequate tools with which to receive and analyze that information," Getchel says. "Our classrooms are better than their predecessors because they are designed to allow the teacher to effectively manage the flow of information from a wide variety of sources, so it is as current as possible, without the management process itself becoming the primary task, and to allow the students to receive that information in a form that is easy to use."
Building a Distance Education Classroom
Most would agree that distance learning hasn't lived up to the early hype it received, but the experiences of university and some elementary and secondary educators offer a glimmer of hope that interactive video conferencing technology may soon find its place in most schools, if not most classrooms.
John Falco, superintendent of schools in Schenectady, N.Y., is passionate about the promise of the technology. And with good reason. Falco was one of the driving forces behind a $10 million technology innovation challenge grant that his district received from U.S. Department of Education (www.projectview.org). With a slew of corporate and cultural partners, Falco created Project View, which gives students interactive access to museums, cultural and scientific institutions around the world.
"We're just scratching the surface of the power of interactive video conferencing," Falco says. "In the not-so-distant future we can offer interactive learning with the best minds in the world, involving the best artifacts in the world or the best productions in the world." But the technology won't become ubiquitous until there are a number of compelling reasons to invest, he adds.
While creating the content that will fuel this educational leap is the lion's share of the battle now--working with museums, scientists and artists to plan and put together a one-hour video conference usually takes several teachers five full working days. Having the facilities and technology to showcase the lesson is also crucial.
In Schenectady, every school has a video conferencing setup, typically in the library. But creating the ideal distance-learning environment should be on the agenda of any districts planning major modernizations or new facilities.
"The design of the room is really extremely important to the success of the whole distance learning experience," says Brian Patrick, director of audio-visual design for EDI in Atlanta. "Lighting, acoustics and the finish of the room are probably the most important, and most overlooked, elements of the design."
Why lighting? A good videoconference facility is much like a TV studio, allowing the participants to be well lit from the right angle, but controlling the amount of light on other surfaces in the room. Conducting a video conference in a typical classroom where the lights are either on or off can make the image difficult to see for the person on the other end of the line, or make it tough for students in the class to see their work or notes.
Having a room with good acoustics seems obvious, but there are many potential sources of background noise that would detract from a distance learning environment: HVAC fans in the ceiling that cycle on and off, a nearby bathroom, or a classroom of kindergartners clapping and stomping next door. In addition, the capability to add well-spaced microphones, without cords snaking across the room, is something that a good AV designer will consider when creating the plan. Lastly, the paint or other wall covering selected for a distance learning classroom can greatly enhance the quality of the picture for the party on the other end of the video conference. Neutral shades of beige, blue or gray are often chosen because they work well with most skin tones and clothing colors.
Rebecca Sausner, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.