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Catholic university builds advanced technology program

United helps University of Saint Francis build interactive classrooms

University of St. Francis collaborative classroomDr. Jerry Kickul has been through all the important phases of technology at the University of St. Francis in Joliet. He's seen the "wood phase" and the "Titanic phase," but now he's gotten to a phase he likes. After five plus years on the drawing board, he's realizing his dreams of a cutting edge technology program with the help of United Visual.

Kickul, the director of the Center for Instructional Delivery not only plays a key role in the school's audiovisual technology arena, he also teaches the capstone business class at the Catholic university. As a teacher, he knows first hand what happens in the classroom and he had big plans for what could happen there with the right equipment. "As I looked at the possible uses of technology in the classroom," says Kickul, "I kept thinking from a teacher's standpoint, 'what would I need in my class?'"

An interactive classroom

A big part of Kickul's vision has been the creation of a collaborative classroom optimized for those courses where students, working in small groups, might take a major role in instruction. The classroom he and network/telecommunications manager Mark Snodgrass designed is an interactive setting where students work in small groups around pod-shaped tables. For Kickul's upper level business class, each pod represents a simulated company, and students make actual business decisions, testing out the theories they've learned by applying them to real-life scenarios.

Obviously this sort of simulation is computer-driven, so in the center of each pod Kickul designed a console where students can plug their laptops into AC outlets, the university network and an input to the data projector. Students use their laptops in a variety of ways as they deliberate what direction to take with their company. They may download statistics from a website or tap into a television loop featuring a CNN program.

Traditional classroom at University of St. Francis features Sharp LCD projectorThe collaborative classroom, installed by United Visual in October 1999, features an interactive whiteboard up front where images can be projected from the instructor's base terminal or from laptops at any of the six student pods. The instructor thus has the flexibility of projecting everything from lecture notes to spreadsheets from any of the student-run companies. If one of the small groups discovers a business solution that could benefit the others, group members can bring up the information on the whiteboard for class discussion.

Kickul likes the whiteboard because it allows him to do his complete presentation from the front of the room. It functions like any computer screen, except he uses a stylus as the mouse, touching the icons or menu options right on screen that he wants work with. He can also circle data, highlight a point in an outline, add notations, or even type using a virtual keyboard, always working directly on the projected computer image.

Highly sought

The collaborative classroom and its technology have taken Kickul's business course from the realm of theory into application. Students routinely arrive at a deeper understanding of the material covered when they can apply it to their individual company's bottom line. Instead of a stand-up lecturer, the instructor's role becomes that of a coach, moving from pod to pod observing each group's progress.

The room is highly sought after for both day and evening courses. "Initially, instructors wondered what's the purpose of this pod setup," says Kickul. "But once we've demonstrated it, they get real excited about ways to use it."

Students have responded favorably as well. "Where I used to get to class five minutes early, now I need to be there ten minutes ahead of time because the students are eager to get going," says Kickul. "Sometimes I have to tell those who want to stay late, 'Hey guys, I've gotta go home.'"

Schoolwide acceptance
Mass Communications Lab at St. Francis features a Sharp LCD projector
In addition to the collaborative setup, United Visual helped create 15 other classrooms arranged more traditionally, but equipped with state-of-the art educational technology. Each classroom features a ceiling-mounted Sharp projector connected to a small, wall-mounted rack which provides computer connections as well as a sound system, VCR, and inputs for CD, television and laptop computers. Even the lights can be dimmed through a central control panel. Because the Sharp projectors are so bright, the lights don't need to go all the way down, enabling students to see to take notes and faculty to interact with their classes.

Kickul says that the new systems have allowed PowerPoint to become very popular in the St. Francis classrooms. Faculty use it for lecture support and often require students to do PowerPoint summaries of their term papers. This helps the whole class to benefit from the colleagues' research rather than having it viewed solely by the instructor.

Different elements appeal to different faculty. "We had an art teacher who everyone predicted would never use the technology," says Jerry. "She kept saying, 'I can't get Word to work right' or 'I don't see how I can use PowerPoint.' Then she discovered the possibilities available by signing on to the Internet. She had been to all the great museums and had lots of slides she could show, but when she discovered that she could go to a website and access paintings at the Louvre or project a view of the Parthenon for a study of ancient Greek sites, she got really excited."

A mass communications lab provides a different kind of interaction for students. While an instructor demonstrates a computer graphics program on the main screen, students can manipulate the image on their own systems.

"We felt that our biggest challenge was to make sure faculty would use the technology," says Mark Snodgrass. "The key to that has been the consistency of the equipment. Every classroom has the same equipment of the same quality that functions in the same way. It allows faculty to walk into any classroom and be confident they can get the technology to work for them."

Building the system
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Such dependability is a far cry from the early days when Jerry and Mark were creating their own patched-together systems. "We refer to that period as our 'wooden phase,'" says Mark, "because the central component was a huge solid oak podium at the front of the room that held an overhead projector and various pieces of equipment we rigged together. We wired our own speakers and added components from Best Buy. It was pretty primitive, and so we nicknamed it 'the Titanic.'" Yet faculty loved the possibilities inherent in the technology and made the three makeshift classrooms popular.

Then Kevin Cavanaugh of United Visual approached them and said he could provide turnkey systems that would vastly improve quality and functionality. As Snodgrass says, "We weren't looking forward to configuring more Titanic-equipped classrooms and listening to the complaints when things didn't work smoothly. As faculty have become acquainted with the classrooms developed by United Visual, they keep saying, 'Oh, these are really neat.' We can only respond, "Well of course, they're designed by people who know what they're doing.

"These classrooms are pretty much busy all day long and into the evening," says Snodgrass. "Some instructors even threaten to cancel classes if they can't get one of these rooms. It's amazing how dependent people become on technology once they start using it. We sometimes kid them and ask if they've forgotten how to lecture the old-fashioned way. 'Hey, remember when you actually had to write on a chalkboard?'"

With more than 80 percent of the classrooms at St. Francis University boasting the United Visual design, those days may be gone forever.