From grade school to higher education, Smart Classrooms have become a mainstay of the modern educational environment. For the uninitiated, Smart Classrooms are digitally equipped learning spaces that come tailored with an array of teaching and educational resources, most of which are dependent on some form of digital technology. Smart Classrooms have become popular because they provide a flexible, self-paced learning environment; one that levels the playing field for students by making education more accessible to all types of learners. While some researchers claim to have identified as many as 174 different types of human learning modes, the most widely accepted educational paradigm is the VARK learning model which espouses four basic types of learners: Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing & Kinesthetic (Kaufman, 2021). Visual learners do best when information is presented graphically, be it in the form of illustrations, charts, diagrams, or photos. Auditory learners prefer to process information recited or spoken to them, via either live lectures, group discussion, or audio playback. Conversely, Reading/Writing learners respond best to text-based information, whether that information is absorbed by reading it or by transcribing it, so they do best with written assignments, research papers, and journals. Lastly, Kinesthetic learners need a more tactile, “hands-on” approach to their studies; they learn best via the use of simulations, personal experience, and/or repeated practice.
Smart Classrooms have the potential to eliminate problems caused by these conflicting student learning styles through the use of interactive technologies that promote universal student engagement. Properly engaged, students have been shown to learn, collaborate, and innovate in exciting new ways (Higher Education Review, 2023). With that being said, it is important to point out that while the term “Smart Classroom” might automatically suggest a futuristic, high-tech learning space, one that comes complete with individual student workstations, 3D virtual reality, high-speed 5G Internet access, and 4K video screens with surround sound audio speakers, that’s not always the case. The reality is often much more mundane, as classrooms that meet even the most basic of digital information standards still qualify as being a Smart Classroom, Lab, or Lecture Hall. For example, at many post-secondary institutions, a teaching space is considered to be a Smart Classroom if it merely comes equipped with nothing more than a microphone, computer, video projector. and whiteboard.
Such digital resources might be adequate to meet the needs of a lecture-based course, where the inclusion of any audio-visual aids, be it audio clips, slides, or photographs, certainly constitutes an upgrade. However, speaking from my perspective as a university educator, simply equipping a classroom with a computer and a whiteboard proves wholly insufficient to meet the needs of a 21st century, educational learning environment. These advanced technological needs became even more apparent in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic; a seismic event, both culturally and academically, which forced educators to embrace new instructional technologies, and begin utilizing online videoconferencing applications, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, as the primary means of interfacing with their students. So, the real debate has now shifted from “if” digital technology adoption is required in modern classrooms, to one of, “how” quickly can that technology adoption occur? (Alfoudari, Durugbo, & Aldhmour, 2023).
At most educational institutions, the party that is responsible for overseeing the installation and maintenance of the campus’ academic infrastructure is the Instructional Technology (IT) Department. There is no denying the important role that the IT Dept. plays in operating the institution’s digital grid, by administering the purchase of new hardware, managing crucial software upgrades, overseeing network security, and controlling the vast amounts of data being transferred each millisecond between students, faculty, and stff. Given the surge in Smart Classroom technology requirements, the demands on these IT professionals gets ratcheted up ever further. To alleviate some of that burden, many academic institutions have turned to third-party, Learning Management Systems (LMS) to help decrease the workload being placed upon their IT staff. An LMS is a proprietary, academic software platform that facilitates a host of interactive classroom support services. There are hundreds of different LMS brands, including popular programs like Blackboard, Canvas and Moodle. These LMS apps are designed to assist the teacher in everything from lesson planning to content creation, while offering students interactive learning features like discussion boards, moderated chatrooms, and online training and tutorial site links.
One drawback to LMS platforms is that they are not uniform in the level of technological support that they provide to users. This becomes a problem in the educational realm, as different academic disciplines typically require different levels of baseline technological support. Moreover, these differences in LMS technological support can be subtle, but significant. For instance, my campus recently transitioned from one well-known LMS to a rival platform, and while many of the LMS operational procedures mirrored one another, there were crucial differences in the way that the two systems handled media file uploads. As a digital media instructor, I have an assortment of media files to upload, ranging from music files to still images to full high-definition (HD) video footage. With our previous LMS, I had the ability to post media files onto the course website, and then determine whether to make those clips “view-only” or permit them to be downloaded by the students. Likewise, the students themselves had similar options for deciding how and where video files could be posted. Unfortunately, our new LMS lacks these refined media capabilities. As a result, my students now have to use another third-party software when submitting their video projects, a less than ideal outcome for a purported “Smart” classroom.
To be clear, this example is not meant to be an indictment of LMS outsourcing. Rather, I use it to call attention to the fact that, when implementing new classroom technology, it is vital to remember that mere functionality is not enough. The practicality and accessibility of that technology must also be considered, because Smart Classrooms must be designed in a way that accommodates the needs of the students’ (and faculty’s’!) overall user experience. Providing students with a positive user experience necessitates that they have access to Smart Classrooms designed to provide them with a fluid and integrated learning experience, regardless of differences in individual backgrounds or learning styles. For a digital media student, that means equipping a classroom with individual workstations, wide-screen video monitors, comfortable chairs, and headphones. Additionally, the students need to know how their media files can be accessed within the classroom space, and where those files are stored. Is the media saved on a dedicated in-lab network, on the general campus network, or on the LMS? Will those media files be protected behind an institutional firewall or other security protocols?
Note that these are just some of the specialized needs required to support one particular area of study. For other disciplines, a truly advanced Smart Classroom, referred to as an Immersive Classroom, needs to feature even more state-of-the-art technologies, such as the ability to incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality into a learning environment. It could manifest itself through the use of 3D holograms and augmented reality to assist medical students training to perform intricate surgical procedures. Or it could involve a collaborative effort between departments, where engineering students use virtual reality tools to design 3D building renderings, then network those results to construction students experimenting with advanced welding techniques (Peranzo, 2022).
Regardless of the form that they take, physical or virtual, Smart Classrooms are going to be a cornerstone of the U.S. educational system for at least a generation. They mark a turning point in educational philosophy, as we now work to prepare students for a future where simply possessing knowledge will not be enough. Instead, a greater significance will be placed on an individual’s ability to implement and utilize that knowledge in unique and creative ways. Smart Classrooms, properly designed will help to facilitate that transition.
Dr. Fornelli is an award-winning digital media producer who has enjoyed a wide- ranging career, in an array of fields including recording arts, journalism, film & television production, and advertising. Since 2001, he has been a lecturer at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), where his academic pursuits have focused on studying social media trends, viral media production, and distribution.