In the center that is planned across the mall from Newman Library, the walls between departments and colleges will dissolve. Here in the campus' first truly interdisciplinary building, faculty members from across campus will collaborate in multi-disciplinary teaching efforts and advanced technology research. The resulting innovations may change the character of education for generations to come.
by Netta Smith and Sandy Broughton
Imagine a classroom of the future. Gone are the traditional lecture hall desks, bolted to the floor, with cramped, flip-up writing surfaces, all facing towards a chalkboard. At your disposal is the latest in advanced communications, information technology, multimedia instruction, special power, lighting and acoustics, and about 30,000 square feet devoted solely to state-of-the-art classroom instruction.
"Give this the consideration of your wildest imagination." That was the invitation Virginia Tech staff architect Michael Hedgepeth extended to a group of about 40 university faculty members who gathered over the months to discuss design features of instructional spaces within the planned Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center (ACITC). The new building is the most visible example of Virginia Tech's commitment to understanding and changing the way classes are taught, by allowing students and faculty to use instructional technology to improve the quality, efficiency, and accessibility of the teaching and learning environment.
In this truly interdisciplinary building, English classes will meet side-by-side with history, psychology, engineering, and mathematics classes, and professors will be able to remove flexible partitions so that students in the various classrooms can explore subjects of mutual interest. According to Susan Brooker-Gross, associate provost for undergraduate programs, "This building will be designed with the flexibility to perform many functions for many different disciplines." No other academic building on campus is designed to be shared in that way.
The four-story building is intended to be a manifestation of the entire university learning experience--a highly visible place for the scientific study of communication technology, investigation into pedagogy, and a wide range of research in other areas. Ninth-district Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher has called it "a beacon on the information superhighway."
A massive electronic reference room in the building will connect to the fourth floor of Newman Library. Large windows convert the facility to a dramatic, glowing landmark at night.
Technology systems will position the ACITC as a testbed for new learning environments. More than 30,000 square feet--about one-third of the space--will be assigned to 11 high-technology classrooms equipped with state-of-art communication and presentation capabilities. Ten experimental classrooms ranging in size from 1,000 to 3,600 square feet will provide options for experimentation with collaborative learning and distance learning. One classroom will be specially designed as a world-wide videoconferencing facility.
A 4,000-square-foot auditorium--the largest on campus--will provide space for multimedia presentations.
An adaptive lab will include adjustable computer workstations to accommodate wheelchairs. Some computers will open programs or type in response to spoken commands. "Talking" computers will read documents to those with limited vision or learning disabilities. Closed-captioned monitors will enable those with deafness to comprehend videotaped presentations. Computer output can be oversized or in Braille. In the midst of the learning activities, research will be conducted on new ways to meet the needs of special populations.
A virtual-reality CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) will allow researchers, students, and industrial affiliates to design and explore subjects in a three-dimensional real-time format.
"We knew it was important that the building be integrated with existing structures on campus," says Joanne Eustis, director of planning and program review for information systems. With that in mind, the committee selected the architectural firm of Phil Esocoff and Associates, which produced the university's master plan. "They're not aliens coming in," Eustis says. "They know this campus and have a vision of what it is becoming."
Sandy Broughton is the information officer for the College of Human Resources and Education.
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In 1997, Virginia Tech researchers, students, and industrial affiliates will be able to design, explore, and study a limitless range of subjects when the CAVE comes to campus as part of the university's development of an Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center (ACITC).
The CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) was created by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a grant of $850,000 to Virginia Tech for the acquisition of a CAVE as an interdisciplinary research and educational tool. Several Tech colleges and the university's research division also are contributing funds for the $1.6-million project.
But what is the CAVE?
It has three walls, a floor, and a 15-foot high ceiling. The walls and floor are screens that receive 3-dimensional images from four video projectors. The images, produced by high-powered computers, are projected in stereo so users wearing stereo glasses find themselves immersed in 3-D space. The CAVE also has a synchronized sound system.
The CAVE user can manipulate projected images with a wand, which is similar in function to a personal computer's mouse. The wand enables the user to put images in motion and to isolate segments of images for analysis or repositioning.
The CAVE can hold up to 10 viewers, each of whom will experience all of the visual and auditory sensations that simulate "being there."
A test pilot, for example, can sit in a folding chair inside the CAVE while projected images offer him the sensory experience of being at the controls of a fighter jet. "He can test fly and crash the jet a hundred times and never be hurt or lose an airplane," says Ron Kriz, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics at Virginia Tech.
Kriz, director of Tech's Visualization Laboratory, helped spearhead the effort to bring the CAVE to the university, and says there are only four CAVE infrastructures in the world right now. The NSF selected Tech as a grant recipient because the CAVE project has broad-based support throughout the university and because the Human Computer Interaction Center can evaluate CAVE technology and functions.
At Virginia Tech, the CAVE can be used by faculty and students from all university disciplines. Mathematics professors can bring their students inside geometric shapes. Engineering classes can put together and take apart complex structures. Veterinary surgeons can prepare for operations by viewing large-scale simulations of animal organs. Architecture students can design 3-D structures and rearrange them with the wave of a wand.
Three research areas are targeted for CAVE applications during the first year of use: molecular modeling in biochemistry, failure and reliability in fiber-reinforced composites, and molecular modeling in material science.
Liz Crumbley is the information officer in the College of Engineering.
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Words are the currency English professor Lucinda Roy deals in. As a poet, she thinks deeply about the words she chooses. Four years ago, when Roy learned to use a computer under Virginia Tech's Faculty Development Initiative, she realized that the technology was the perfect vehicle for thoughtful, comfortable discussions in her black studies class.
"Computer discussions give you time to think, time to pick your words," she says. "And they give you some anonymity. I remember how embarrassed and self-conscious I used to feel speaking on issues as the only person of color in my classes."
Roy's cyber-class on the civil rights movement and literature bore out her hunch. Formerly silent students were "speaking" online, and women were participating more than usual. In fact, the class was almost too successful--students were spending four or five hours in online discussion. "I know because I was there, too," Roy says.
Roy's course--one of 30 cyberschool classes in the College of Arts and Sciences and among the more than 150 at Tech with some computer-enhanced components--had the added advantage of being on the Internet and open to "'net surfers" from outside the class. In the first session, a former Freedom Rider from the 1960 civil rights demonstrations asked if she could participate in the class.
"She was a great resource," Roy says. "She risked her life to ride that train from Atlanta. Because she is white, she showed that this was an integrated movement. On the last day the class met as a group, she came in from West Virginia. It was an amazing experience."
Roy, who is also the Gloria D. Smith Professor of Black Studies, has a deepening commitment to computerized education. She has taught two cyberschool classes, coordinated the College of Arts and Sciences' cyberschool, and has chosen instructional technology as one of her focuses in her newest role of associate dean for curriculum, outreach, and diversity.
Her latest initiatives include a $200,000 project, using Sugar Bowl money, in which athletes take portable computers on the road to keep up with their classes between games. She's also coordinating the Lifelong Learning series, developing with arts and sciences alumni the technology classes that will help them in their careers.
"Virginia Tech is definitely ahead of the game in the use of instructional technology," says Roy, who practically needs her own scheduler to keep up with speaking requests from schools eager to learn about Virginia Tech's use of computer technology.
"We are in the top 5 percent of institutions experimenting with this," she says. "Other vanguard schools are the University of Illinois, Cornell, Stanford, and Penn State."
More than 1,000 Virginia Tech faculty members have obtained and learned how to use personal computers through the Faculty Development Initiative in which Roy participated. Some of this training will go on the planned Advanced Communication and Technology Center building--faculty often have to learn about computers by watching a videotape. Faculty are very enthusiastic about what can be done, but the burning question, she says, is always time. "Students may e-mail you 10 times a day, and if you have 300 students in a class, you are going to have to set some limits."
Overall, though, Roy thinks computer technology is one of the best things happening on campus. "Students have the option of doing more, moving faster through programs, and saving tuition money," she says. "But the most important factor is the quality of learning. Students can become better, more active learners using this new technology."
In a town dubbed "The Most Wired City in America" by Esquire magazine, on a campus that boasts free Internet access in every dorm room and office, students and faculty have been using Virginia Tech's technological resources in some highly innovative ways for quite some time. Now, Tech faculty are taking the "room" out of "classroom" by offering some courses completely online, in an educational revolution known as cyberschool.
The cyberschool project began a little over a year ago, when faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences and computer experts in the division of information systems forged a partnership that would allow faculty to not only make greater use of services such as e-mail and the Internet in their courses, but to use technology to completely redesign classes in response to students'learning needs.
Arts and sciences faculty are teaching more than 30 cyberschool courses over the school year, in disciplines ranging from biology to black studies. Students can create art galleries, submit research data, and converse with classmates, all from their home or on-campus computer lab. The course formats vary from professor to professor, but cyberschool classes share certain basic characteristics.
All lectures are online. Regular face-to-face meetings are usually scheduled during a semester, but these are often optional. A professor posts lectures on the class web site, complete with explanations (and usually illustrations) of topics; students may access a lecture at any time and can ask questions by e-mail or by conversing in a real-time Internet "chat room" at a prearranged time. Any member of the class can enter its chat room and type messages to the professor or other students. Responses come in seconds.
"The chat room is more interactive than e-mail," says Mary Beth Oliver, who has incorporated the chat room into her "Research Methods in Communication Studies" cyberclass. "The students know I'm going to be there at certain times to give and receive feedback about the class."
Faculty integrate the Internet into their classes in other ways, as well. Students in Bailey Van Hook's cyberclass, "Virtual Galleries: Curatorial Issues in Contemporary Art," are required to visit two new art sites on the web each week. "In Blacksburg, there's not much opportunity to see contemporary art," Van Hook says. "Virtual reality is a very good alternative."
Assignments are usually submitted via the Internet or e-mail, which can be more efficient than traditional methods. For example, each student in Van Hook's class created a contemporary art "gallery" in HTML (the web's internal language) using images provided on their class home page. This satisfied the obvious objective of helping students learn how to unify an art exhibit, while also teaching them a skill that is in high demand in almost every field--making web pages.
"It's actually more interactive this way," says class member Lora Danielle, a senior in art history. "We get to see everyone's gallery and the critiques of them at the same time, rather than just discussing them later in class."
Keeping up with the e-mail in cyberschool can be time-consuming for faculty, says Van Hook, who wrote more than 72 personal notes--at least one note to each student for each assignment. In fact, Van Hook feels like she can actually interact more closely with students through cyberschool than through traditional teaching methods. "'Distance learning' is a misnomer," she says. "It seems the opposite of that to me."
Davis Bailey, a sophomore in Oliver's cyberclass, says cyberschool is only as impersonal as the students and faculty make it. "Mary Beth actually took pictures of us on the first day of class, and put up a biography page on the class web site so we'd know something about the people we were talking to on e-mail or in the chat room," he says.
In addition to providing a variety of skills and opportunities for student/faculty interaction, cyberschool offers flexibility that enables students in a variety of situations to attend classes. In Van Hook's summer cyberclass, one student logged on from Washington, D.C., one from Myrtle Beach, and one married couple stayed at home with their child while taking the class. Cyberschool's autonomous, self-paced nature can be a benefit, but it can also be a hazard for students who tend to slack off. On the flip-side, Oliver points out that cyberschool students can always review past lectures online.
All the convenience a cyberclass provides for the students comes at a trade-off: cyberschool is very time-consuming for the professor. Both Oliver and Van Hook vow they could never run a cyberclass without an enormous amount of help from the information systems staff.
"To be fair, starting a cyberschool course is what's really overwhelming," Oliver says. "But even modifying the curriculum from semester to semester is much harder than for a regular class."
What are some other drawbacks to cyberschool? "Technology," Van Hook answers quickly. "For example, my modem pool access from off-campus took a while to go through the system."
These concerns will no doubt iron themselves out as technology at Tech catches up to the advancements being made, Oliver says. In the meantime, cyberschool has great possibilities for the changing needs of the college student population.
"And," she adds with a gleam, "it's a challenge."
(Virginia Tech's cyberschool home page can be accessed at http://www.cyber.vt.edu.)
Tara Tuckwiller (COMM '98) was a Virginia Tech Magazine intern and assistant editor of the online Virginia Tech Magazine.
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John Carroll speaks a great deal about vision; but it's the sort of vision with foundations under it.
Carroll envisions Virginia Tech's interdisciplinary Center for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) as a place where "pro-active technologists" are "guided by moral vision," a place where social value, technical value, and commercial value are joined. It will be a place where the people who invent and develop technology also take a critical, human-oriented look at that technology.
HCI researchers analyze and design user-interface technologies (such pointing devices). They study and improve the processes by which humans and technology intersect. And they evaluate new applications of technology (for example, a shared virtual environment to support remote-collaborative science education). They increase the chance that new information technology can actually be used by people for real purposes.
"There's a shortage of people who can both take the skeptical view of technology--the user-advocacy position, the social-impacts position--and use that as a source of guidance to invent the future of technology," Carroll says. "That's a reason for the center--to build the bridge between technology and human beings."
The HCI center combines the expertise of faculty members in computer science, engineering science and mechanics, curriculum and instruction, humanities, communication studies, industrial and systems engineering, psychology, accounting, information systems, and other areas.
Carroll emphasizes scenario-based design of technologies: "We can use detailed envisionments of what people might experience with a piece of technology to guide every stage of system design and development activity from requirements analysis to implementation; doing so keeps you focused on what matters most."
Two major projects under the sponsorship of HCI are the immersive virtual environment CAVE and a $1.1-million grant from the National Science Foundation to work with Montgomery County Schools to create a virtual physics classroom.
The virtual school system will allow students and community members to work collaboratively on experiments and other activities in a virtual laboratory. It will give higher quality access to students from rural schools, make community expertise more directly available to students, and allow parents to participate in a virtual science fair that runs all year along. "This is a way to strengthen a community and its school system by bringing home the technologies of cyberspace," Carroll says.
Carroll envisions the HCI center as an integrator of the many technology activities in the planned Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center. His group will bring new technologies together with analyses of people's abilities, needs, preferences, and practices. "HCI's contribution is to make useful applications of new technologies, to understand and plan for effects on people and their organizations, and to evaluate what technology does for people and to them," he says.
"I look forward to the Advanced Communication and Information Technology Center as part of a great experiment in cooperation and integrated effort across colleges and departments. The building itself will present a symbol to the whole university--a symbol of cooperation for more effective and usable technology."
Sally Harris is the information officer for the College of Arts and Sciences.
by Netta Smith
The new Advanced Communication and Information Technology Building will be a physical and symbolic bridge between the traditional library of paper and Internet workstations tied to online libraries around the globe.
Gail McMillan, director of the university's Scholarly Communications Program and head of the library's archival Special Collections Department, says the electronic library will have roomy facilities equipped with the latest technology, including an ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) network. ATM is a type of large pipeline that will allow a vast amount of material, including audio and video, to move over the network simultaneously. Virginia Tech is at the cutting edge of testing this new technology through a recently announced partnership to provide a statewide WAN (wide area network) that eventually will connect the university with thousands of locations around Virginia. Students will have access to online journals, theses and dissertations, reserve materials, electronic versions of state newspapers, a text version of local CBS newscasts, and much more. The new ATM will be capable of transmitting the newscasts with audio and video.
"I'm very pragmatic," McMillan says. "Some people want to theorize and make detailed plans for the future. But being flexible is the only way to keep up with such rapidly changing technology."
She's hopeful the new facilities will the additional space required to involve more people in electronic projects and spur growth by increasing the program's visibility.
McMillan and her staff convert publications, photographs, and documents into electronic format and advise faculty members and students about creating and using digital materials. Many faculty members, departments, and students have home pages. Currently, the university publishes 13 online journals, some only in electronic form.
Graduate students already publish their theses and dissertations online. A Funds for the Improvement of Secondary Education (FIPSE) grant from the U.S. Department of Education will provide a programmer to automate and speed up the process.
According to McMillan, one of the most exciting recent experiments is digitizing slides to create a database of images. Currently, they are creating a slide library for an art history course. "There are 100,000 art, art history, and architecture slides on this campus," she says. She'd like to see them all digitized so that anyone with Worldwide Web access can call images up on screen in seconds, then copy them to their own computers or print copies for future reference. She also wants to convert slides of veterinary operations and of aging documents and photographs in the Special Collections Department into digital images.
McMillan is confident that the students will push faculty members to do even more online work. Already, many faculty members are providing reference materials for their classes through the library's electronic reserve system online so that students have access to all course materials, sometimes including lecture notes, in one location. She foresees the library becoming even more involved in these processes.
Once in the new facility, McMillan plans to provide more faculty development training in use of electronic resources. "As faculty members learn how much they can do electronically and become more confident doing it, we should see a large increase in the amount of materials available online."
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