Archive for Thursday, January 19, 2006

Technology takes front seat in fort’s new classrooms

January 19, 2006

— The classroom of the future is in Leavenworth County today.

No - it's not in Lansing, where a new elementary school is on its way and scheduled to open in 2007. It's not in Tonganoxie, where a new middle school is now under construction.

The classroom is tucked away in Eisenhower Hall at Fort Leavenworth, where the U.S. Army has built a prototype for how the 96 classrooms being built in the new Lewis and Clark Center eventually will look.

Army officials last week gave members of the media a tour of the model classroom and the Lewis and Clark Center construction site. The center will be the new home to the fort's Command and General Staff College, which now is housed in Bell Hall.

"Bell Hall was built in 1958; it has been of good service to us for 50 years," said Lynn Rolf, director of educational technology at the Command and General Staff College. "But the infrastructure, the wiring, the bandwidth, all the data drops, the electricity, the plumbing, the water - it has served its purpose and it's to the point where it no longer provides us an academic or educational facility that's adequate to train the new leaders as they come here and go forward. That's what Lewis and Clark does."

Work on the $115 million project, which includes the eventual demolition of Bell Hall, passed the halfway point in December and is about 24 days ahead of schedule, said Bill Gross, program manager for the Command and General Staff College at the fort. Completion of the 410,000-square-foot center is scheduled for December with the opening day of classes in the center scheduled for August 2007.

But back to that prototype classroom. Walk into it, and you walk into the Army's version of the classroom of tomorrow.

Visitors to the room first gaze upon two 61-inch, flat-screen, high-definition televisions at the front of the room. Around the room sit eight worktables, each outfitted with computer with Internet access, large, flat-screen monitors and keyboards. At each table are two Herman Miller Aeron chairs, hailed by one magazine as "one of the 15 best-designed consumer products of the past 100 years."

Not as apparent to first-time visitors are the mounted cameras in the front and rear, which can transform the classrooms into distance-learning centers, beaming in images of instructors from the battlefields of Iraq in real-time, if desired.

Above the instructor's desk, recessed in the ceiling, is an overhead camera that allows the instructor to display documents, maps, books or media clippings on the big screens with the push of a button.

Computer wiring and electrical wire sit beneath the raised floors on which the classrooms sit.

All of the gadgetry, including lights, cameras and monitors, is controlled from a user-friendly "wireless tablet" that can be carried around the classroom by the instructor.

"We spent a year working on the interface and simple design so that anyone could come in with very short ramp up training, run the room and feel comfortable with it," Rolf said.

Comfort with the technology, he stressed, is an important factor in the classroom of the future.

"The worst thing you can do is to have a lot of technology-enabled capability in the room and the instructor and students shying away from it because they were afraid they'd break it or couldn't understand it," he said.

But the technology - there's an estimated $78,000 worth of state-of-the-art equipment in the classroom - isn't what drives the learning at the college, Rolf said. It's the give and take among instructors and students that does.

"Our table arrangement and everything else is designed so that that communication and discussion can go on without technology being an inhibitor to it," he said. "We want it to enable the educational environment in our curriculum."

Rolf helped design the prototype classroom, which in its two years of development is estimated to have cost $375,000.

The research wasn't done in a vacuum.

"Before we even began the project, myself and a small team traveled to Harvard," Rolf said. "We went to Arizona State University. We went to all the other service academies and the other educational institutions of the Department of Defense."

Each way along the line, Rolf said, team members asked, "What are you doing? What does your classroom of the future look like?"

They used those lessons, along with input gleaned from interviews, focus groups and surveys with students, to design the prototype.

Now, with the classroom built, educators from inside military and public and private institutions have been brought in to assess the classroom.

Rolf said those visitors have left "salivating" and asking three questions: "How much did it cost, how many can I get and can you come build me one?"

Rolf defends the prototype classroom and its price tag as a cost-saver for the project.

"We built a model classroom in order to prototype the 96 rooms so that we don't make 96 big mistakes," he explained.

Without a prototype, a small design mistake - characterized by Rolf as costing about $1,000 - could take on a life of its own.

"One little $1,000 mistake in one room, you multiply it times 96. It ($1,000) doesn't seem like a lot for a single room, but when you have that many, we had to get it as right as we could," he said.

The prototype already has proved its worth, Rolf said. A bank of lockers had been built to a depth of 10 inches. Plans called for 1,536 of the lockers to be built - one for each of the students at the college.

"Well, a backpack that an Army officer carries around now and their parka and laptop and everything else just don't fit into it," Rolf explained. "So once we had this built and displayed as part of the model classroom, we found out that the blueprints were wrong. We had to go back in and change it to 15 inches depth. That in and of itself saved several hundred thousand dollars. You can imagine 1,536 of these things being built wrong without us seeing it first."

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