Arizona, German students take Sustainable Cites course simultaneously

Photo by: Andy DeLisle
Photo by: Andy DeLisle

Classroom walls have come down throughout Arizona State University, as biology students discuss sustainability with classmates in Germany, art students share artworks with peers in Taiwan and a genetics class gets front-row seats in a laboratory across campus.

ASU has made a significant investment in classroom technology, adding computer technology and internet connectivity to all of the 483 classrooms on its four campuses. Most classrooms have screens or large video displays that allow guest speakers and other participants to appear live.

According to the EDUCAUSE campus computing survey in 2013, ASU is one of only 12 public universities of the 543 universities surveyed to have 100 percent classroom mediation.

Technology upgrade

Six years ago, about 36 percent of ASU classrooms lacked mediation, according to Jason Striker, communications manager for the University Technology Office. Faculty assigned to those rooms had to check out video projectors, laptops and sound systems if they wanted to use multimedia in their teaching, and the technology was outdated.

In 2008 the university spent about $3 million to provide 160 additional classrooms with mediation that included all the components necessary for creating a rich learning experience. By 2011 classrooms that were recently converted from office space were mediated.

Most classrooms have Wi-Fi, allowing professors to receive instantaneous responses to questions via “clickers,” mini electronic keypads that allow students to transmit short answers. Faculty members say it confirms whether students understand the material, and it engages students in a more active manner than a traditional lecture.

Among the technologies are these: Vidyo, a video conferencing tool for presenting guest speakers and talking to colleagues; Skype, an often-free way to chat with international students via phone or video call; Blackboard, a Web-based tool that provides discussion boards, calendars, quizzes and student progress reports; and VoiceThread, a free cloud application that allows professors to upload lessons and documents to discuss with students via microphone, webcam, text or phone.

“We no longer have boundaries to the classroom,” says Charles Kazilek, associate dean of technology, media and communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “We can beam in experts from across the world. We can take students into labs across the nation and the globe, and they all have front-row seats and can ask questions. It’s very powerful.

“I use video conferencing every single day, talking with my staff on different campuses, and with my students who can pop into my virtual room during office hours and chat.”

The Global Classroom

One of the most powerful examples of a mediated classroom is located in the C-wing of the Life Sciences building, where “Sustainable Cities: a Contradiction in Terms?” is being taught simultaneously to students at ASU and at Leuphana University in Germany.

Twenty ASU students sit at tabletop computers surrounded by numerous large screens, taught in person by two of the top professors at ASU. Another 20 are tuned in from Germany. Still another 20 students from each country are in adjoining classrooms working on research projects, as part of a second cohort of the three-semester class.

The Global Classroom, a pilot project funded by a $900,000 award from the Mercator Foundation, utilizes video conferencing; intensive writing assignments and student writing workshops; online exhibits; peer-to-peer mentoring; and in-person international exchange.

Students are encouraged to work with local institutions in both Phoenix and Germany, and to come up with innovative solutions for their communities, says Manfred Laubichler, President’s Professor in the School of Life Sciences, who is one of the developers of the course. The issue of sustainability requires an international perspective, he says.

“It’s great to see the students’ perspectives changing as they grow into broader ways of thinking,” says Jane Maienschein, Regents’ Professor in the School of Life Sciences, who also teaches the course. “They start to see there are different ways to approach a problem. Watching their minds open up as they work, often into the night, is quite inspiring.”

The right tools for the job

Mary Stokrocki, professor of art education in the School of Art, teaches in-person classes in an immersive online environment in which students create virtual digital worlds and sculptures through an online 3D world called Second Life. Students can search for and examine artworks from around the world; create and upload their own artwork; and discuss themes, symbolism, even math concepts. Most are current or future teachers who can use the technology to engage middle- and high-school students in other OpenSimulator virtual worlds.

Stokrocki received a Fulbright to teach digital ethnography through Second Life in Taiwan in spring 2012. Her ASU students correspond with students in Taiwan.

Alice Daer, assistant professor of English specializing in digital literacies, teaches courses on the study of how people write and communicate in online contexts, particularly with social media. She finds her students particularly enjoy having video conferences with people who work in social media: a corporate representative from US Airways, a researcher from another university, a software designer.

“It’s a myth that our students are ‘digital natives’ who know how to use all the tools,” says Daer. “They don’t. Therefore, instructors don’t need to be intimidated by technology, feeling like they have to be experts. Using technology is scary, and we’re all just making this up as we go along. But if you’re persistent and willing to make mistakes, you get hooked as a teacher when you find just the right tool.”

Alex Halavais, associate professor of sociology in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, cites studies from the Department of Education showing that the most effective learning occurs in hybrid courses blending online with in-person instruction. In addition to video conferencing with experts, he uses collaborative note-taking, in which students combine their efforts on a screen and develop questions together.

“I can’t imagine teaching without mediation at this point,” he says. “It gives me more flexibility for what I want to do.”

Classrooms of the future

David Pearson, research professor in the School of Life Sciences, a unit within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, relies on the electronic “clickers” to draw students into the topic. Students use them to submit answers posed in class.

“The clickers have revolutionized the classroom,” he says. “They provide anonymity when needed, they make answers more independent and the students quickly realize that discussions now involve them and their choices, personally. My lectures and presentations depend on the students being able to use clickers as a critical participatory tool.”

Kazilek says the classrooms of the future will be much more active than in the past. Even students in large classrooms will be engaged, as they respond electronically to questions from the professor and post comments on a real-time discussion board. They can interact with the instructor in the classroom or an expert in the field on the other side of the world.

ASU is seeing its scientists from a wide range of disciplines collaborate on research with colleagues from around the world, field reports being filed by its broadcast journalism students and video collaborations in the arts and theater. The university is just beginning to scratch the surface of bringing the world into the classroom.