Technology + flexibility = cool classroom

| April 14, 2011

When Sweet Briar’s first students took their seats in Benedict 101, they sat in the 1906 version of a state-of-the-art classroom.

While technology hadn’t stood still in Benedict’s classrooms in the intervening century, students returning for the spring 2011 semester discovered the extent to which times have changed. As was first reported in December, Benedict 101, one of the original learning spaces on campuses, was utterly transformed during the fall.

“The intent was to design a baseline configuration that has everything we would expect a classroom in the 21st-century to have,” said assistant professor of international affairs Spencer Bakich. “And to make it as cost efficient as possible.”

Bakich chaired the Instructional Technology Committee tasked with choosing the furnishings and décor, along with the digital and non-digital teaching components. Flexibility to accommodate any class configuration trumped all priorities, followed closely by optimal technology for teaching and learning in the digital age.

Junior Seanne Weekes says her experience in the room depends on how it’s used. “There have been some classes where the only real difference between Benedict 101 and another classroom was the color of the walls,” she said. “Then there have been classes where we use the smart board/TV/projector every day, and we rearrange the classroom regularly to facilitate different types of discussion.”

Rearranging is easy because the desks are lightweight, fold-down tables on casters. The interactive smart board and widescreen TV are on facing walls, allowing simultaneous projection of media. Layered white boards and removable hanging “huddle boards” provide plenty of writing space on the walls. The students’ chairs swivel and roll for mobility and storage trays underneath keep backpacks off the floor.

Wall-mounted “racks” house a power supply, clicker, an array of audio and video input and output devices and a Mac Mini computer that controls all of it. The rack allows users to operate the equipment through an unlocked front panel, while restricting access to a rear compartment — and the cable connections — to authorized personnel.

Another cabinet stores external devices, such as a webcam for video conferencing and a document camera for projecting notes on screen.

President Jo Ellen Parker funded the Benedict 101 renovation as a pilot project using a discretionary grant from the Mellon Foundation. While students and faculty are evaluating and providing feedback on the classroom’s design, the College is seeking additional funding to replicate the project in other classrooms across campus.

“As we learn what works and what doesn’t, we look forward to planning similar renovations to other learning environments on campus,” Parker said.

Jennifer McManamay

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