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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

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How SDSU is Creating Optimal Learning Environments

Classroom renovations at SDSU incorporate purposeful technologies to maximize student success.
By Ryan Schuler

“The main goal is student success. Giving students the best possible learning environment is so important.”

San Diego State University’s strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” incorporates specific goals to support student success, including a focus on scholarships, the addition of the Math and Writing Centers, and campus life initiatives for commuter and residential students.

Another of the strategic plan’s student success initiatives is hiding in plain sight: the shift to Smart Classrooms. The university’s Instructional Technology Services (ITS) department has been responsive to the campus-wide need for smarter classrooms since the late 1990s, when technologies such as email, internet and digital video were becoming the norm in society.

Since that time, technology has exploded, and it’s not uncommon for a student or faculty member to carry three “smart” devices at once. One of ITS’ missions—led by SDSU’s Senior Academic Technology Officer and Director James Frazee—is to harness the power of  technology and use it to enhance the learning experiences of students and faculty in the classroom.

Today, SDSU faculty interact with thousands of students each day in the more than 200 Smart Classrooms on campus, all designed and maintained by ITS. Evidence supports the fact that active learning increases student performance, especially in historically challenging subject areas like science, engineering and mathematics.

“The main goal is student success,” said Rudy Arias, ITS project manager. “Giving students the best possible learning environment is so important. We want to make sure these spaces are as flexible as possible to accommodate any faculty member’s teaching style.”

Informing smart learning environments

SDSU's efforts to upgrade its classrooms and provide the best possible learning environments for students is not by chance. In order to design the optimal setup for a learning space, ITS draws on educational technology literature, industry experts, and perhaps most importantly, data gathered from Help Desk support tickets and feedback from SDSU faculty, staff and students.

This information, coupled with site visits to survey outdated equipment and infrastructure, are among the tools ITS uses to prioritize classroom upgrades.

Each individual learning space design depends upon the primary functions of the lecture hall, classroom, or lab space. Many classroom upgrades have included mobile furniture for active learning, automated lecture capture, ADA-compliant podium installations, upgraded audio systems, L.E.D. lighting, height-adjustable tables with large writing surfaces, and new projectors.

ITS completes an average of 15 classroom upgrades per year on SDSU’s main campus and 3-4 classroom upgrades at the SDSU-Imperial Valley campus.

Where will we go next?

The most advanced of the Smart Classrooms are five Learning Research Studios (LRS) Frazee and his team built, putting SDSU on the map as an internationally recognized leader in the design of active learning environments. These LRS spaces enable faculty to teach with state-of-the-art technologies, and include faculty and students in the educational technology research and design process.

“When we see a need to experiment with new technology, we’ll use one of the Learning Research Studios,” Arias said. “It’s important that we then listen to the feedback of the faculty and students.”

One of the LRS spaces, is the Learning Glass Studio. The Learning Glass technology, originally designed and built at SDSU, allows instructors to write lecture notes while maintaining face-to-face contact with students. While the instructor writes on the transparent board from left to right, the image is captured on camera and flipped so students can view the notes on monitors positioned throughout the room. Research conducted in the Learning Glass Studio demonstrates the importance of face-to-face interaction—allowing for a more dynamic, engaged and interactive learning experience.

The most recent Learning Research Studio project, particularly popular among faculty and students, is the Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) space. Located in Adams Humanities, it serves as an incubator for immersive learning through virtual and augmented reality. The space is outfitted with both HTC VIVE and Oculus Rift head-mounted displays and is currently used as the VITaL space and the hub for the SDSU student Virtual Reality (VR) Club and Gaming Clubs. The area allows students to learn through immersive learning. Here, nursing students can diagnose a virtual patient or an astronomy student can soar through the solar system—through VR—in an effort to learn about individual planets.

Sierra Morehardt, a junior computer science major and founding member of the VR Club, believes these technology-driven, collaborative spaces improve student success.

“While working in SDSU’s new VITaL space, I have learned so much about how this technology is being used in all sorts of fields, such as astronomy, marine biology, nursing, and even public speaking courses,” she said. “The VITaL lab offers hands-on learning experiences that are not possible through traditional teaching.”

Smart Classroom Upgrades at SDSU
SDSU's efforts to upgrade many of its classrooms underscore the university's commitment to student success.