Designing a distance-learning classroom is far more complex than putting together one of its chalk-and-talk cousins. If you want to do it right, you have to figure out the lighting, sound, and technology infrastructure, not to mention the configuration of the room, long before the first brick is laid.
E-classrooms—wired hubs where students can simultaneously listen to lectures, watch video, and communicate with colleagues in a number of locations—come in all shapes and sizes. The higher-end ones feature recessed networked PCs with Internet access and group application sharing software at every station. More modest facilities have projection screens for presentations, cameras that provide views from multiple angles, and mics for every one or two participants. In either case, learners and instructors may be linked by ISDN or T1 lines or satellite technology.
Consulting firms that specialize in configuring these facilities are turning up all over the country. Whether you enlist the services of one of these firms or go it alone, you have to do your homework before you start drafting blueprints. If you don't, you may end up building a very expensive facility that becomes little more than a storage room for technology.
This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Inside Technology Training and appears on TechRepublic under a special arrangement with the publisher.
Drawing up the design
Before you call in the architect, find out what kind of facility your organization needs. Talk to other trainers who will be using the room, think about what kind of classes have been taught in the past and how they have been taught, then consider how the room might be used in the future, says Teri Hampton, broadcast manager for interactive distance learning at Countrywide Home Loan Inc. in Plano, Texas.
Hampton uses her company's interactive classrooms to provide sales and other types of training to employees at 45 branch offices. The company also uses the rooms for "fireside chats" with the company's CEO, multi-point conference meetings, and IT work groups.
When designing the room, Hampton knew she needed to accommodate all those activities. So she made sure every station had a linked PC that allows for application sharing and teamwork. She also saw to it that the company's 4,000 offsite employees had the software they needed to see and hear the instructor and to watch what's happening on the instructor's screen.
Countrywide delivers its training through a dedicated satellite that costs $25,000 a month.
"It sounds like a lot, but the company used to bring in roughly 40 people a week for training at $1,000 a head," Hampton said. By implementing an e-classroom, Countrywide saves $135,000 a month on travel and lodging costs alone. Another advantage? The company can connect and train employees with little notice.
Don’t forget the instructors
Understanding users' needs also means designing a room that won't intimidate techno-leery trainers.
"There are teachers who will still use chalkboards, whiteboards, overheads and slides," said Craig Park, vice president of strategic development for Intellisys Group, a multimedia systems integrator in Woodland Hills, CA, that builds e-classrooms.
Park's firm accommodates those instructors by pointing a camera at whatever "old-fashioned" media displays they need.
"Remember, the teacher needs to accept the selection of technology for the room to be used. The key is to make it friendly, easy to use, and the technology should be transparent," he said.
Choosing the technology
Your research will help you decide how your facility will be used. But unless you're an audiovisual geek, you may not know what equipment you'll need.
The plethora of choices can make your head spin: Do you want to display images on PC monitors or an LCD display? If you go for an LCD, will you do front or rear projection? (Front is cheaper; rear is quieter.) How do you choose the right VCRs, DVD players and document cameras? And how do you know what you'll need to hook it up and what software packages you'll need to connect your instructors and remote learners?
Don't think you have to go it alone when making these decisions. Many vendors sell packaged rooms or systems. They can help you put together a spec sheet for all of the necessary technology. Technology or audiovisual consultants also can help you determine what equipment you will need, and will shop around on your behalf to get the best deals from vendors.
When designing her company's distance learning facility, Hampton turned to JCPenney and EDS, two local corporations that have e-classrooms, for advice.
"We relied heavily on EDS to help us figure out what equipment we needed," she said.
Hampton ended up buying a platform and satellite system from Gilat Satellite Networks Ltd. She purchased the audio and visual equipment, including cameras, PCs, microphones, Codecs, and VCR and DVD players, from a separate dealer.
You can also find help and support through associations, such as International Communications Industries Association and the United States Distance Learning Association.
Finding the right consultant
When staff from the University of Wisconsin Extension began planning the Pyle Center, its distance learning facility in Madison, they did a nationwide search for an audiovisual consultant with experience in distance learning.
"There aren't a lot of them out there yet," said Dennis Gilbertson, associate director for instructional communication systems. Gilbertson attended USDLA's Telecon and Telecon East conferences and ICIA's InfoCom show. There, he found Wave Guide, an Atlanta consulting firm that eventually won the contract to design the facility.
Don't forget to look in-house for experts who can help you with the development process, either. And be sure to invite the IT people to the table, as they are the ones who can help you figure out what technology you need to make your training room work.
Gilbertson recommends keeping an eye to the future when designing your e-classroom.
"Every distance learning classroom should be an ongoing work in progress," he explained.
To keep your facility useful for years to come, he recommends putting in extra wiring, outlets and conduits, and leaving room for future cables and phone lines to accommodate new technology.
"It's much easier and cheaper to put conduits in the wall before the sheet rock goes up," he said.
Hampton agreed. When she purchased audio equipment, she bought a 14-port model, even though she only needed four ports in her audio mixer to accommodate a DVD player, two VCRs and a CD player.
"It's just one more way to think long term," she said.
Have you had the chance to design your own wired classroom? How did you do it? What were the problems and the satisfactions? Send us a note and tell us how you built your modern-day schoolhouse.