As The eLearning Guild’s white paper Learning and Performance Ecosystems makes clear, every organization has a learning and performance ecosystem of some kind. (See Sidebar 1 for a definition.) More and more enterprises have broadened the range of their ecosystems by adding eLearning, mobile, and technology-enabled social elements.
Definition: A learning and performance ecosystem enhances individual and organizational effectiveness by connecting people and supporting them with a broad range of content, processes, and technologies to drive performance.
At the same time, business organizations will continue to maintain spaces dedicated for use as classrooms or as meeting rooms within their learning ecosystems. In many (if not most) cases, these rooms have little or no technology to support the learning and communication processes beyond a whiteboard, a projection screen, a projector, and (more and more frequently) Wi-Fi and a large display monitor. There are often other pieces of equipment that support conferencing at a distance—speakerphones and dropcams, for example—as well as conferencing software, but the main concern in this article is the lack of support for participants in the room itself. Larger organizations tend to have at least some rooms with most of the equipment identified in this paragraph. Smaller businesses may only have the whiteboard and a conference table.
What more could you want in these rooms? This suite has been judged “good enough” for decades. Furthermore, if something could be added to the equipment and technology suite, what purpose would it serve? In this article, I’d like to suggest some answers to these questions.
What’s missing in corporate classrooms and meeting rooms?
The Guild’s white paper cited above notes, “For a while now, K-12 and higher education professionals have been using the ecosystem concept to get their arms around the expanding learning options that are available to students today.” Digital presentation solutions have been available for some time, and most schools use interactive products in the classroom. In some respects, the corporate market has been underserved, with much of the software development being aimed toward the education market, and most vendor attention being focused on schools because they appear to be a larger opportunity. However, there is suitable software for corporate use and much of the hardware available is compatible with business use.
In general, corporate classrooms and meeting rooms are not equipped with these more advanced digital presentation solutions. They are most often set up in a way that presupposes one-way communication with a minimum of visuals and limited interaction—that is, for lectures and presentations. The exceptions to this are “war rooms” (see “Why You Need a War Room”). War rooms are set up specifically to support collaboration and to facilitate strategic thinking and problem solving. Without going over the top about war room equipage, I would suggest that there is much in common between what a war room is set up to support, and what a corporate learning space, designed for adult learning, should be able to support.
Consider what takes place in these rooms: teaching, collaboration including collaborative learning, and meetings intended to solve problems or develop new initiatives. What’s missing in these rooms? Here are some of the capabilities that are seldom found in corporate learning spaces:
- At a minimum, support for dynamic graphics that eliminate death-by-PowerPoint presentations
- Support for recording sketches on the whiteboard; the sketches made during instruction, collaboration, and meetings (such as for eLearning development projects) are often extremely important, but are not saved or at best are saved by means that require additional work to distribute (hand-made copies, smartphone photos)
- Support for interactive graphics that can illustrate processes far better than static images
- Support for collaboration between people in the room—adding to the sketches and notes, contributing to brainstorming, etc.
You can probably think of even more ways in which learning could be supported in the classroom, yet is not because there is no practical means of doing so.
Why do this?
Given that classroom delivery and meetings are not going away, do they always have to be largely passive, one-way experiences? We can hope not.
Individuals participating in learning or in meetings in these rooms are accustomed to interactive technology, and to better graphics than quick hand-drawn sketches on a whiteboard or newsprint pad (the ubiquitous flipchart). As upcoming generations join the workforce, individuals are not only accustomed to better, they expect and demand it. They haven’t exactly been spoiled by eLearning and videogames or by what they can do on line, but the experience in the classroom tends to be far more passive and far less engaging.
It isn’t that technology by itself makes learning happen better, it is that technology provides the instructor or presenter with more options for engaging participants, and it offers the participants with an experience that is closer to what they are accustomed to. That is, it does if the instructor, facilitator, or presenter is prepared to make use of the technology in an effective way. In addition, research suggests that properly designed multimedia supports deeper learning. (See References at the end of this article.)
What does it take?
Most digital presentation solutions for classrooms and meeting rooms in corporate settings, if not based on a large-screen display, revolve around an interactive whiteboard (IWB). The whiteboard itself need not contain any technology at all although some do. Other elements of the suite will include a computer, a projector, and software. Pull-down projection screens can also be included, although this may involve some different arrangements as to the type of equipment and software needed.
Depending on the type of whiteboard, there may be stylus sleeves that attach to dry erase markers, or other forms of stylus. These contain transmitters that allow a tracking module, built into the whiteboard or mounted nearby, to determine the marker’s location. Pressing the marker onto the board makes the connection between the transmitter and the tracking module. Even if a computer is not connected, these devices contain memory; they record the information written or drawn with them so that when they are connected to a computer, they download the information. These systems all allow saving the information in PDF format and some include software that converts handwriting into editable text. This makes the files easy to share with participants and with others who were not present.
Other equipment may include interactive slates or pads that communicate with and control the whiteboard technology and use the computer software, and clickers (or response units) that support polling participant responses and knowledge assessments.
With such a suite, you can capture what you write as you write it, and you can save it, edit it, and share it. Your audience wouldn’t need to take notes by copying verbatim what you write, and the information could be easily distributed to all attendees digitally.
With both a whiteboard and a projector, your computer is connected to the projector (wired or wirelessly) and projects the computer image (your digital content, slide presentation, or browser) onto the whiteboard surface. With a portable device (the slate or an iPad) wirelessly linked to the computer and an electronic stylus, you could stand at the whiteboard or anywhere else in the room and control everything on your computer (much like you would a mouse). With your content projected onto the whiteboard you could easily annotate, highlight, etc. anything on the board helping to make your presentation interactive instead of static.
Many spaces have pull down screens rather than (or sometimes in addition to) a whiteboard. The stylus devices discussed above require a hard surface for the tip of the stylus to push against and trigger communication between the stylus and receiver. These devices won’t work on the pull down screen, so a wireless slate is a great solution for presenting in these situations. The slate allows you to control your computer from the slate, and annotate, highlight, etc. as you present. These are the least expensive interactive solutions you can purchase as they also include interactive presentation software.
Even where you have a whiteboard, the slate allows the presenter to roam rather than have to be at the whiteboard or a computer. It will also work if you are presenting on a LCD display, allowing you full control from wherever you are in the room. You could even use the slate for audience participation by passing the slate around. Mobility when presenting can allow for much greater audience engagement.
A wireless slate isn’t the only way to do this, there are apps available for most tablets that allow you to connect the tablet to your computer and control your presentation. There are also many ways to add collaboration to your meetings and presentation, assess understanding with audience response systems, access non-digital material with a document camera, distance eLearning solutions, and numerous other options, and AV considerations to a complete custom solution.
There is no one solution that fits everyone’s needs. You will first want to look at what equipment you already own and the design of your meeting and conference rooms to determine which equipment is going to fit and work best. If you have several rooms to cover you might want to consider options that are portable and easily moved from one room to another. If portability isn’t an issue, a fixed solution might work better. The point is that you probably already have your digital content, the next step is to deliver that content in a meaningful and engaging manner. Standing by a computer going from one slide to the next is rarely meaningful or engaging. The tools available play a key part of meaningful and engaging presentations. They are readily available and inexpensive.
I cannot overemphasize the need for training. Most of the existing technology available does the same things, but how they do them is very different. Some product manufacturers recommend a full day of training to learn the basics while others require an hour or two. If your users aren’t provided training, they either won’t use the tools or won’t use them properly. If possible purchase from someone who holds authorized training credentials on the product(s) you are interested in and who can provide the training and first line support. This will also be someone with the experience to assess and understand your needs and fashion a solution, not simply pitch and sell you a product. Your efforts to bring your presenters, trainers, managers, and sales force into the digital presentation age will be well rewarded.
Clark, Ruth C. and Richard E. Mayer. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. Pfeiffer: New York, 2011.
Mayer, Richard E. (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. Cambridge University Press: New York,2005.