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Seeking Something New: Classroom of the Future

Transforming E1405 into a classroom of tomorrow

Located across from the Tozzi Trading Floor, E1405 has always been unique among classrooms at Ross. Originally conceived in the early 2000s as a compliment to the Trading Floor itself, it was among the first locations around the school to offer a WiFi signal. The technology was still new at the time, and so the room was designed to be a kind of “mobile lab,” a place where students could go after a lecture and work on what they had just been discussing with their laptops and not feel tethered to a projector or a hardwired internet jack.

The 70 uniquely shaped desks lent themselves well to the task, easily rearranged into small clusters thanks to a sleek design that, when viewed individually, brings to mind the Star Trek logo. For a different means of collaboration, E1405 served its purpose well. But if all of that doesn’t sound very impressive, it’s because it isn’t—not anymore. These days WiFi is everywhere, and mobile computing has taken on a new meaning in a world of tablets, smartphones and cloud computing. The things that once made E1405 different have become so commonplace that to not have them would be strange.

Nine 80-inch touchpanel monitors are key to the new E1405.

Last summer, Senior Associate Dean Wally Hopp began wondering what kind of improvements could bring E1405 up-to-date and give it a kind of next generation makeover. What would the Ross concept of a “future classroom” look like in 2013? The question became even more relevant in the wake of an announcement from namesake Stephen M. Ross of a donation that could pave the way for a new round of classroom design. These new classrooms could be molded by whatever proved most useful in E1405.

Inviting others into the brainstorming process, what emerged was the idea for a modernized collaboration space that put to use pieces of technology yet to be standardized. Much like E1405 was ahead of the curve with WiFi, the new E1405 would be ahead of the curve in other areas like large, shared, touch sensitive displays.

“Walking by a lecture the other day, I looked in and saw that the students were all working very diligently in groups, but they were huddled around a laptop in such a way that made it hard for the professor to really see what they were doing,” Hopp said. “E1405 could utilize space in a different way and improve that situation by somehow letting students put content onto a shared screen in such a way that the professor would be able to see each discussion, even from a distance.”

Products like media:scape by Steelcase served as inspiration. Billed as “the integration of furniture and technology,” media:scape gives participants the ability to share and access digital information on a shared screen quickly and effortlessly by plugging their devices into a kind of router located in the middle of the desk. One person could put up a spreadsheet from their laptop, after which someone else might want to show video material from their iPad. Switching between the two sources with media:scape is seamless.

WATCH: Transforming E1405 into the classroom of the future

Ed Adams, Director of Computing Services, found the Steelcase concept promising but didn’t care for the proprietary nature of the media:scape technology.

“We needed a way to cross Wally’s idea with a tech solution that we could manage, and so we began talking to Dynics,” Adams said.

Dynics is an Ann Arbor based computer hardware company that specializes in industrial computer systems and flat panel touchscreen monitors. Seeing no need to replace the desks in the room, which still lend themselves nicely to a quick reconfiguration, the key to the new and improved E1405 would need to be the large displays, so Dynics’ specialization seemed like a good match.

“The centerpiece of the new E1405 are the 80-inch touchscreens,” said Chris Frazier from Computing Services. “They come with the more traditional features like multiple USB and HDMI ports that let people plug in their webcams, keyboards, camcorders, laptops, but also come equipped with a fully functional Windows 8 PC that allows for some great possibilities.”

Software called "Solstice" makes it easy to share content wirelessly.

After considering options from the likes of Adobe and Cisco, a program named Solstice by a company called Mersive seemed the most promising. Adams originally heard about Solstice from colleagues at Yale.

“The idea behind Solstice is that users install a small, free program or app on whatever device they are using, and the program gives them the ability to send their content or display signal to the large touchscreen using the WiFi network,” Frazier said.

Using the WiFi signal, in other words, means no wires or cables, reinventing the concept of a truly “wireless” lab.

By the fall, E1405 had received nine 80-inch flat panel touchscreen monitors with a custom built PC mounted on the back. Windows 8, Microsoft’s latest touch-friendly operating system, drives the PCs, which also come equipped with Solstice and another annotation/white-boarding application called Ink2Go, a piece of software that allows for on-screen annotation and white-boarding.

These components immediately lend themselves to three possibilities in which faculty might use the new E1405—by using each of the nine monitors as standalone touch-screen PCs, by using the screens as a digital whiteboard, or by using Solstice to achieve the experience envisioned by Hopp, one which allows a group of participants to share content onto the nearest display at will, easily switching between devices.

“With Solstice, users can choose to share their entire desktop, or only a single window from their device, like a Google Doc for example,” Frazier said. “And all of the touchscreens are tied into a single instructor touchscreen, so an instructor could scan through all of the various student displays and choose one to put up on their own, central display.”

WATCH: Mersive's vision for Solstice

Of course, these examples are just that. An enterprising facilitator could tie all three functions together, or come up with completely new ways to use the technology, which is the intent behind the room.

“It’s a sandbox and we want to be able to get people in here,” Frazier said. “We’re not the users, so we need that feedback.”

Adams said the whole idea behind the room is that people would use it and bring their own ideas to help shape the design of new classrooms in the upcoming construction.

“This is the breakout room of a new class,” he said. “Wally’s idea was realized in such a way that we’re not restricted by fixed furniture or tethered laptops plugged in to a projector. So right now, while we see these three ways to use this technology, there’s nothing that says it must be done like this.”

Indeed, when E1405 hosts its first official courses in Winter 2014, the hope is that useful feedback emerges that helps further streamline the room. One class, TO618 by Professor Hyun-Soo Ahn, will offer two sections, one taught in E1405 and the other in a more traditional classroom. Ahn is already looking forward to how the experiences might differ.

Not everything in 1405 has been redone. The lectern in the “front” of the room has been pushed aside but is still there, meaning that an in-room PC can project to the three traditional digital projectors. And as mentioned earlier, the uniquely shaped tables remain, which when coupled with the massive touchscreens gives the room even more of a Star Trek feel. Into the frontiers of technology and education, E1405 is once again leading the way.


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