The best teachers in the world can struggle to reach their students if the right technology isn’t available. Likewise, the best students won’t be engaged if they aren’t in an environment that’s conducive to learning.
“Better technology creates a better classroom environment,” said Alex Gabriel, Coordinator of Academic Technologies at Thomas Nelson.
Gabriel and his supervisor, Ruth Smith, along with the Learning Space Design team, are helping Thomas Nelson upgrade several classrooms to improve the learning experience for students. Faculty members whose classrooms have been affected are impressed by the improvements.
“Overall, this technology is light years from previous technology,” Keisha Samuels, Assistant Professor of Human Services and department chair, wrote in an email to Smith. “I appreciate you and your team for moving forward to enhance academics at Thomas Nelson.”
Smith, Director of Academic Technologies, noted that another teacher, returning to her classroom after spring break to find the upgrades, said to her, “I can’t believe it’s the same room.”
That was the team's goal as they have put in countless hours on the project since last summer. The team also met routinely with the Emerging Technology committee, which is comprised of instructional technologists, audio/visual personnel, teachers, vice presidents and deans. The two groups discussed needs and met with vendors.
“We’re changing the culture about technology in the classroom,” Gabriel said. “Prior vendors would come in, show their stuff and install the stuff. It was a single decision, so we wanted to change that culture … to make sure the teachers were involved.”
Nurturing faculty involvement in the process was key. “We were trying to make sure that the faculty and technology work together, and come up with what works for the teacher, not the vendor,” said Smith.
The Learning Space Design team selected the product Promethean, an interactive display board that includes a high-powered camera, after weighing many options. Thomas Nelson is the first school among Virginia’s Community Colleges (VCCS) to use Promethean.
Teachers can use touch to make notations, edits or remarks on the display board. Among programs the team bought was ActiveCast, which allows the use of up to four devices, such as iPads and smart phones, at a time on the display board. Smith noted it’s easier to show video and the teacher can create 3D rotation, which is useful in anatomy classes. The upgrades in the large rooms will feature an 86-inch monitor while medium-size rooms will have a 75-inch monitor large enough to see from the last row of the classroom.
Smith and Gabriel said updating Promethean or ActiveCast in five or 10 years will be easy. All that will need replacing will be the operating system or a chip, not the big display boards.
Choosing classrooms to upgrade was another big decision. “To select the rooms to install the new technology, we looked at issue track tickets to see which rooms were really bad. We looked at rooms with high utilization,” Smith said. “We wanted to spread it out between the divisions.”
The team is updating one room at the Historic Triangle campus and several in Hampton. Those include one in Diggs Hall, two in the Hampton III building, two in Hastings Hall, one in the training room and two mobile carts.
Samuels said the upgrades help her do her job better. “I streamed videos, displayed documents, moved back and forth between documents and videos,” she said. “Oftentimes, Human Services/Counseling is a discipline that many view as not technologically advanced, which is not true. We actually incorporate technology in everything we do from teaching to practical application.”
Dr. Gwen Clash, who teaches English, said she transformed her lesson plans given the upgrades. As a result, her English Fundamentals I class was far ahead of the usual pace three weeks into the first summer session.
“They are totally engaged,” she said. “They are still here when the class is over. They don’t want to leave.”
Clash's student Blair Manley, a 29-year-old from Hampton, remembers using a projector years ago.
“It’s totally different … better,” she said of Promethean. “You can actually see what [the teacher] is doing on the computer versus turning the computer around just to show the students what they have to do. You can write on the board and underline and show examples of what’s going on.”
“It makes me want to learn more,” Manley said.
In addition to Gabriel, the College's Learning Space Design team includes Jonathan Todd, Telecommunications Technician; Damond Pope, Information Technology PC/AV Technician; Nick Moberg, Information Technology Network Specialist; and Jason Vance, eCampus Coordinator Academic Affairs.