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Teaching and Learning Technologies: “Blending personal with digital: the quest for the perfect teaching and learning environment”

As technologies evolve, so do the ways people interact on campus – from the way students study, to class formats, to how people engage online.

Today, users want the ability to learn (and teach) on their terms – online or in-person, inside or outside class hours.

Dave Kell is the Director of Classroom Technology and Services at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Based in the university’s Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning, Dave’s team is responsible for classroom technology installation, design, procurement and maintenance – including all aspects of classroom support and service – at UNB.

“We aspire to provide technology that is easy to use, and delivers a consistent experience – so that if you’re comfortable in one class, you’ll be comfortable anywhere,” he says.

To help achieve these goals, Dave says classroom design needs to be scalable and modular – so that his team can replace outdated components with up-to-date versions, without having a dramatic effect on his budget. At the end of the day, he needs to deliver reliability and responsiveness, while balancing the availability of different levels of technology – standard and leading edge – on campus.

“Today, users want cutting-edge, but they understand it won’t be in every room. As long as you have standard technology in all rooms, the really cutting-edge tools can be used in an ad-hoc manner through plug-ins and other means,” he explains.

He says the most interesting trends impacting teaching and learning technology have been:

  • The increased demand for wireless (over the past three years, UNB has installed wireless presentation technology in roughly half of its classrooms)
  • The onset of new, modular installations
  • The idea of personalized learning

“Think of personalized learning as iTunes for your degree,” Dave says. “Universities are getting pressured to do more personalized learning to adapt to students’ needs, which includes online, blended and other different modes of learning. So, in some cases we’re shifting from lecture format, to Skype calls and group collaborations, from presentations to collaborations. You need to be able to do this quickly and easily – to have a classroom change easily. This will drive up the complexity of installations, and drive up the need to properly architect the technology in the room. But again, it comes back to being scalable, modular and flexible,” he explains.
Andrea Chappell is Director of Instructional Technologies and Media Services at the University of Waterloo’s Information and Systems Technology (IST) department.

Her team provides support in four main areas:

  • Technical support and planning for the learning environment (online course system and augmenting applications)
  • Design, installation, maintenance and support for 117 central e-classrooms, other presentation spaces, as well as support for audio and video needs for campus events
  • “Live” online collaboration tools and facilities
  • And perhaps most uniquely, media productions, which offers consultation on, and recording of, video and audio – in-studio, in classrooms and in the field – through to editing in post-production

Andrea would agree with Dave that first and foremost, ease of use is crucial to any successful teaching and learning environment.

“Technology should be as easy to use as possible for faculty and students,” she says. “It should be in the background, ready to use for teaching and learning objectives. We all know that when it doesn’t work, it’s front and centre.”

She says three things can cause the loss of a class – a power outage, an absent instructor and technology failure. Andrea’s team is around to prevent the latter. Together, they manage technologies and services across 117 centrally managed rooms, being used by more than 1,500 different instructors.

This means a lot of different needs, from a variety of different perspectives.

“Our expectations have never been higher, in terms of what can be done through the use of technology – especially at a university like Waterloo with its deep technology roots,” she explains. “It’s important for us to put in place the infrastructure that allows everyone to participate in the learning environment in an equitable way, but also to facilitate invention – be that through a great wireless environment, access to open data or building flexible learning spaces.”

In response to increases in demand and expectations, Waterloo continues to evolve its technologies, including recent work on room control systems, a fob locking system, and an increasingly popular document camera.

“We’re not interested in trends just because they emerge,” Andrea says. “We want to put in place facilities, technologies and applications that can be used flexibly and effectively well into the future.”

For Andrea’s team, recent challenges have included:

  • The ability to keep up with all of the campus’s new buildings (which, she admits, is a good problem to have)
  • Ensuring all relevant parties are involved early enough in the process of designing teaching and learning spaces
  • Retrofitting old rooms that predate technology use
  • Finding the time for room maintenance, upgrades and renovations

While Andrea says the past decade has seen a move towards active learning designs – allowing greater interaction between students and the instructor, or a more student-centered learning experience – the key is to make the rooms flexible.

“Even a foggy crystal ball shows a continuation of the incredible choices, in terms of how and when we can learn – often, for free. Learning and information are not just at our fingertips on our smartphones, but also on our wrists, in goggles and through wireless ear buds. These devices play music, answer phones, report our heart rate, count our steps, track our sleep and offer information wherever we are.”

What fascinates Andrea is that while we have never had so many opportunities to learn and record our behaviours through digital means, humans still want and need to be physically together.

“MOOC [massive online open courses] students have started meet-up groups, and blended learning is seen as the happy marriage of online and in-class,” she says. “Our physical spaces need to provide the right atmosphere and means to facilitate that kind of invigorating and engaging interaction when we are together. We need to try to understand what that may look like in 10 years and, with more and more options, to make sure that the online and physical spaces are accessible by design.”

Learn more about UNB’s Centre for Enhanced Teaching and Learning here, or Waterloo’s Information and Systems Technology department here.