Inside an E-clasroom

By Eden Estopace
Friday, October 26, 2001

Everybody knows what a traditional classroom is. But how does one envision the classroom of the future?

Computer-equipped classrooms are now a dime a dozen and computer-aided instruction is fast becoming the norm in well-funded educational institutions. Information is exploding on the World Wide Web and technology is making almost everything possible. How does one sift through a plethora of possibilities to conjure up the perfect image of a high-end electronic classroom that will be the norm in this side of the world a few years down the road?

With the very fluid and dynamic technological landscape at the moment, it isn’t so hard to imagine what the future holds up its sleeve. In fact, in one of the country’s top universities, the nucleus of this fully wired "e-classroom" is now taking shape. Smart learning
Smart Class No. 1: Picture a roomful of smart computers – 42 fully interactive multimedia workstations with high-speed Internet access hooked to a master workstation; a not-so typical classroom fitted with state-of-the art apparatus from electronic interactive boards to wide-screen projectors to video cameras.

Each student is furnished with a headset and a set of state-of-the-art gizmos that allow him to communicate with the instructor directly and vice versa. Want to raise a hand or ask a question without bothering the entire class? Press a button and the instructor can speak to you in private. Lost or in need of in-depth assistance? Press another button and the instructor will be able to peep through your screen to monitor your work or take control of your workstation to demonstrate a process. Wish to confer with group mates seated at the opposite end of the classroom without leaving your seat, click several buttons and your little group can hold a mini-conference.

The options are much more varied: In a truly paperless classroom, students take exams online; submit assignments, reports or seatwork online; project one’s work onto the wide screen for everybody to see or comment; surf the Web for information while a class is in progress; or hold classes outside the classroom via e-mail, or chat sessions.

The advantages are obvious: enhanced personalized instruction even in big classes, individual tutoring, direct supervision and monitoring of students’ work, enhanced communication between teacher and students, and greater class interaction. It is truly an educator’s dream classroom.

Smart Class No. 2: Picture seven Pentium III PCs centralized by a Windows NT server with dual Pentium III-Xeon, complemented by laser printers, high-speed 3D scanners, and photostylus color printer.

One thing makes these two smart rooms special – they are a mentor’s classroom. For three years now, faculty members of De La Salle University-Manila (DLSU) are being trained in the proper use of educational multimedia technologies in these twin electronic classrooms, particularly in the effective utilization and production of innovative instructional media.

Set up in 1999, DLSU’s Center for Educational Multimedia (CREM) was envisioned to become a center for educational innovations and e-learning. In cooperation with the Institute for Faculty Development, it helps the faculty learn and move from traditional media to innovative computer-based technologies. But why be exclusive to teachers?
When mentors embrace e-learning, the whole university actually benefits. According to Bro. Miguel Rapatan, FSC, CREM’s founder and director and an associate professor at the Department of Communication, the center’s goal is really the improvement and enhancement of teaching.

Rapatan says, "Teachers are now discovering that there is a special way of using technology for classroom learning and that actually it is now the preferred mode of learning for young people. Based on the feedback that our teachers are getting from the materials they’ve developed in class, students’ response is very positive."

But the downside is also easily gleaned: Will technology take away the human aspect of learning and social interaction?

"Not necessarily," Rapatan says. CREM, he explains, does not utilize technology for technology’s sake but rather seeks to uncover the pedagogical possibilities of existing technologies. "Our program emphasizes that technology is not a baby-sitter or an extension of the book and no way can it take over the human aspect of learning. We contextualize discussions and make sure that student learning is very practical and is related to actual teaching."

Robotel, the provider of the smart class system and a leading manufacturer of teaching systems designed to enhance teaching quality and learning effectiveness in a multimedia classroom environment, supports the philosophy that for today’s computer and communication technologies, to be effective, must integrate instructor-led, classroom-based training models.

The program today has actually three components: training, production and consultancy. It trains the faculty for free, encourages them to produce materials they can use for classroom instruction and provides all the necessary support for their continued use.

Another significant question is: In a country where only 1.8 percent of public schools have Internet connections, will the advent of the e-classroom further widen the digital divide that is currently broad enough to polarize the social structure? Albeit unintentional, it is an affront to a public school system that remains ensconced in the dark ages.

This early, CREM is already training its sights outside the DLSU campus. To broaden its reach, the CREM faculty extends professional and technical assistance to other educational and non-educational institutions, particularly in the area of skills training and multimedia production. It offers trainings to educational and non-educational institutions.

To date, it has trained faculty members of Centro Escolar University and St. Paul’s College, and has lent its expertise in producing an educational multimedia CD-ROM for the National Museum, the Rizal Shrine in Dapitan and the Department of Tourism. Leading the way
After the conclusive victory of the Archers in the recent UAAP, it seems that La Salle is leading the conquest in another field – information technology.

To put up CREM, the school has invested P7-8 million for each of the two e-classrooms and continues to incur a monthly maintenance cost of about P2-3 million for each. While CREM is currently exclusive to DLSU mentors, the plan is to construct a similar facility in every college in three years’ time.

So far, this is only one of the many undertakings of the institution in the field of IT.

In the Philippines, the DLSU is the academic institution that has the most number of public computers and the biggest bandwidth (1.5 mbps), giving all its students wide access to the World Wide Web.

It is one of only two schools in the country that were granted a license to use the Integrated Virtual Learning Experience (IVLE), an online course management system developed by the National University of Singapore. Among other things, it provides the tools, resources and techniques for student-instructor communication, group interaction and interactive support.

IVLE is actually one of the modules in CREM’s training programs for teachers.

With its cutting-edge advantage in information technology, the DLSU has been designated by the 17-member ASEAN University Network as lead school in the establishment of a virtual university in the region. The Commission on Higher Education has also named the DLSU’s College of Computer Studies (CCS) a "Center for Development for Excellence in IT." The Department of Science and Technology (DOST), on the other hand, has designated it as a Virtual Center for Technology Innovation in Information Technology (VCTI-IT) partner. New tools, old values
With its aggressive pursuit of educational technologies to enhance classroom learning, the DLSU, however, is the first to admit that online learning is not for everyone. At least, not at this point.

DLSU’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) is currently offering an MBA Online Program, which features semi-realtime and semi-online modes of teaching and learning. Based on the results of a pilot online class held last year, some students were found to have encountered difficulties adjusting to a virtual learning environment.

The school management, however, is undeterred by these early setbacks.

"Teaching is performance, teaching is theater, teaching is a medium focused on students. Classrooms per se must be active learning places and technology can be fun, interactive and user-friendly," stresses Rapatan, who has a doctorate in Education, Communication, Computing and Technology in Education from the Teachers College of Columbia University.

"We hope to exercise leadership in the creative and innovative use of educational technologies, always mindful of the pedagogical dimensions of the effects of technology in teaching," he says.

Admittedly, any institution with a sizable budget could easily assemble a similar technological showcase as DLSU’s e-classroom. But the real challenge of tomorrow’s classroom – and the more difficult process – is putting together an educational philosophy that would make full use of the impressive line-up of technical apparatus now available in the market, and a well-thought of courseware that would put together an electronic learning experience, one that would not simply offer a fragmented hi-tech experience but a functional whole that would redefine learning.