Q&A with Kathy Bohnstedt, Director of Classroom Technologies

Posted: April 8, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette.

Kathy Bohnstedt
Kathy Bohnstedt
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Can you provide an overview of your office’s responsibilities?

Classroom Technologies is responsible for the support and management of all non-departmental classrooms, open computer labs, and videoconferencing support currently at the Fairfax and Arlington Campuses. We will be taking over classroom and lab support at Prince William this summer. Working with Events Management, campus administration, and academic departments, we also provide technology support for events.

What are some recent changes in your office?

Classroom Technologies has been around in one form or another for several years. I’ve been director for a little less than a year, and we reorganized operations on the Fairfax Campus last summer. Innovation Hall was bringing a tremendous increase in the amount of technology available to the university, and we needed to reorganize ourselves to make the most effective use of our resources to support the faculty teaching in these classrooms. In the past, the office was organized by facilities–academic labs, electronic classrooms, AV services, and the Johnson Center technology. What I did was reorganize it by function since each group did many of the same things. Everybody supported events; most groups supported computers and did software loading; most had check-out equipment.

I created a classroom computing group that takes care of all the computers, whether they’re in classrooms or in labs. All the check-out equipment at the Fairfax Campus was consolidated into one office. All the scheduling of resources, computer classrooms, and everything else was put together in the Operational Support Office, as was all of the event coordination. We were trying to get to a one-stop shopping for faculty members so that they would have one place to go to make any kind of a request that they might have for classroom technologies. It’s a much more effective use of our resources, and it simplifies things for our customer base.

We’ve recently upgraded the videoconferencing services at the university. They were a little antiquated, very difficult to support, and very difficult to use, and, as a result, they weren’t used very often. We vastly expanded their capabilities and reliability. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in distance education and videoconferencing at the university, and the usage of it has grown dramatically this year and promises to continue growing. One of the challenges will be to provide enough facilities to meet that demand, and enough of the infrastructure to support it. There’s a certain bandwidth capacity that you can’t exceed, so part of what we’re doing is expanding the capacities of the backbone behind the conference systems that are in the classrooms. That way we can have more concurrent conferences. We hired Joe Hughes as the videoconferencing coordinator, and he has been working closely with academic departments on what their needs are. Videoconferencing is being used for many classes in the evenings, and we’re seeing it being used more for meetings. Its capabilities will be extremely helpful to academic departments that have staff and faculty at more than one campus.

We are looking to expand the e-mail express terminals at the Fairfax Campus, particularly in the common areas in the new residence halls. The terminals are now in the Johnson Center, Ciao Hall, SUB I, SUB II, and the Aquatic Center. Students can use them to check their e-mail and surf the web, relieving some congestion in the computer labs. Students can also bring their laptops to the Johnson Center, which has both a wired and wireless network, and check their e-mail there. We’re expanding wireless capabilities throughout the campuses. We’re seeing more students with wireless-capable laptops who want that service.

What was your involvement with the opening of Innovation Hall?

DoIT was very much involved in the planning of the building and the design of the classrooms. Planning and Facilities oversaw the actual construction, but I was very deeply involved in the design of the equipment and the user’s interface that actually went into all the classrooms. We oversaw that, working with the AV design vendor and then the AV installation vendor. We’re doing the same thing with Bull Run Hall [Prince William III] at the moment in the design of the classroom systems. By classroom systems, I mean the instructor’s console, the PC, the VHS deck, the control system, the projector, and the sound systems–all of the stuff that the faculty members use.

How did you go about deciding what technology to put in the classrooms?

When Innovation Hall was first being designed, DoIT held a rather extensive series of meetings with faculty to talk about what they wanted in the classrooms. This information was put together and given to the architects for incorporation into the rooms. Then we had another round of input from faculty members concerning the user’s interface. Because there already were a number of electronic classrooms on the three campuses, we were fairly familiar with what faculty members tended to use. But we had some demo equipment, and we invited faculty members to come in and kick the tires with the equipment and give us their input. We also had faculty members help us design the actual user’s interface on the control panels because we wanted to make them as simple and intuitive to use as possible.

Will you go through that process each time a new building goes up?

The experience with Innovation Hall gave us a pretty good grounding, I think, and our first two semesters in the building have validated what we’ve done. The building has proved to be very popular with the faculty members. They very much like the technology and the way it was designed for their use. Because we have so many departments that are on more than one campus, and we have and will have more faculty members that teach on more than one campus, we’re looking to standardize those classrooms as much as we can so faculty members don’t have to relearn. Innovation Hall is the guiding principle behind the design of Bull Run Hall.

What about classroom space that’s already in existence? Are you trying to put in new equipment that’s similar to what’s in Innovation Hall?

There are some constraints that are based upon resources. There’s an ever-increasing need for electronically enhanced classroom space, but the resources are remaining relatively constant. We have a number of electronically enhanced classroom spaces outside Innovation Hall at Fairfax, and a number of them at Arlington and some at Prince William. There is a desire to increase and enhance that, and it’s part of a plan that we’re creating.

What technology is used most in the classrooms?

Computers and computer projection, followed closely by document stand cameras–that’s a device that you can use either with a piece of paper and a pen, to write on, or show a textbook or a circuit board. It takes live video and puts it up on the screen. Faculty members are using that a great deal more in Innovation Hall than they’ve ever used it in the past, which was a little bit of a surprise. Also, with the dual projection systems in the Innovation Hall lecture halls, you can put up a photograph of a volcano and a schematic of what’s inside that volcano side by side. I think faculty members are really enjoying that capability in the lecture halls.

A series of faculty focus groups indicated that that faculty members believe students will make more and more use of laptops in the classroom. Are you trying to make provisions for that?

We are. It’s harder to do that with older classrooms. The difficulty with laptops is electrical outlets. The ITU has a wireless deployment plan, so you can get network connectivity to laptops that have Wi-Fi capabilities, but they also have a power requirement. In an existing floor, it’s difficult to get the power to the students’ seats, particularly when they are tab armchairs. That’s a challenge I haven’t really figured out yet. But in the classrooms in Innovation Hall and in the new buildings we have power at the students’ seats.

What kind of staffing does your department have?

Classroom Technologies employs about 75 students. Most of them staff the computer labs, but we have a number of who work in each of the support offices. They take care of the equipment, they handle faculty requests, and they go out on trouble calls. We try to train our wages employees to be as technically savvy and well-trained as possible, because the better trained they are, the more effective they’ll be in supporting the faculty member who needs help. Our goal is to provide excellent and immediate support services for the faculty members who are teaching in the classroom. We also have 28 classified staff employees–this summer it will be 30–across all three campuses.

Does your office maintain the equipment as well?

Yes, our technicians maintain the systems, and when there is an equipment breakdown, they either fix it, or if it’s beyond our capabilities–and that isn’t often–they’ll work with a repair vendor. We have fairly highly trained people in Classroom Technologies, and we’re increasing that as we go along. As the technology is getting greater in its complexity, we are training our people with greater complexity, to be as self-supporting as possible. We’re learning how to program–the touch panels are programmed, and it’s not the easiest programming in the world–and we’re learning how to do that ourselves so we don’t have to pay a vendor to do that.

What other groups do you work with at the university?

We’re working very closely with the server support group on the LAN architecture in Innovation Hall–MESA, Mason Enterprise Server Architecture. That’s being piloted in Innovation Hall, so my classroom computing group, which is responsible for computer operations, is working very closely with that group. The intent is that MESA will become the new architecture for the university over a number of years. We also work closely with the Support Center next door. We’re developing closer working relationships throughout DoIT and ITU. We actually share a position between the classroom computing group and the server support group because of the MESA project, as a way of increasing communication between the groups and making it possible for them to work effectively together.

What are some of your plans for the future?

We’re working on the 2010 plan and Bull Run Hall, and we’re beginning to work on Arlington II and Research I. We’re also working on increasing the online capabilities for request forms to give faculty members as many different opportunities and methods of contacting us. We’re looking for new ways to get feedback from our users. For example, I’ve asked Joe Hughes to work on a survey of the students who take classes via videoconferencing to get some feedback from them as to what their experience has been. Everybody in Classroom Technologies is very interested in feedback from the faculty and the students. We have a commitment to meet as many of their needs as we possibly can and find creative and effective ways to meet those needs.

Innovation Hall rather significantly increased the usage of technology. There was a great deal of instructional technology usage before Innovation Hall opened, but it just exploded when this building opened. We’ve seen that in the audiovisual office with the checkout projectors and laptops. Innovation Hall has been kind of an inspiration. I think faculty members were intrigued by the building and reoriented their course work. With Bull Run Hall opening, I think a very similar thing will happen at Prince William. We just upgraded existing classroom facilities at Arlington to better meet the demands at that campus. The use of technology at Arlington has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past three years.

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