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October 24, 2002

Pitt experiments with wireless as alternative to data ports in classrooms

With the demand for computer-friendly classrooms outpacing the supply here, Pitt has been experimenting — successfully — with wireless technology as a less expensive alternative to “old-fashioned” data ports, the University Registrar said last week.

Samuel D. Conte said his office has been working with Pitt’s Office of Computing Services and Systems Development (CSSD) and the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) on pilot wireless projects in classrooms in the Cathedral of Learning and the Chevron Science Center.

“So far, these experiments have been successful,” Conte told the University Senate’s educational policies committee (EPC) at its Oct. 15 meeting.

Spreading wireless technology is “a lot cheaper” than installing computer ports, Conte said. But if Pitt classrooms were to go wireless, the administration would need to decide whether to provide electrical outlets for students’ laptops or require them to operate under their own battery power, he said.

More than one-third of the Pittsburgh campus’s 214 classrooms, 52 seminar rooms and 49 auditoriums are equipped with instructional technology such as data ports, VCRs and CD/DVD players, Conte said.

“We’d love to have all 315 instructional rooms up to date, but it’s amazing how far $1.25 million [the Provost office’s annual budget for upgrading Pittsburgh campus classrooms] doesn’t go,” he said.

“As we do classroom renovations each summer, we’re increasing the availability of this stuff arithmetically, but the demand is growing geometrically.

“I will tell you that one of the problems we have run into is that some faculty members have [falsely] claimed that they need these features, just so they can get a classroom that’s close to their offices,” Conte said.

CIDDE’s media services unit delivers instructional equipment such as VCRs and audio players to classrooms that lack such things. But EPC member Deborah Arron, an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Physical and Recreation Education, complained that CIDDE refuses to deliver to her department’s classrooms in Trees Hall, a steep uphill climb from the lower campus.

“I guess it’s an issue of accessibility, but it makes it very difficult for us,” said Arron.

Conte promised to discuss the matter with CIDDE administrators.

Throughout last week’s EPC meeting, he urged faculty with complaints about Pittsburgh campus classrooms to contact the University Registrar’s office.

“I can’t emphasize enough that if faculty have concerns about classroom conditions, they should get in touch with our office,” Conte said.

With only two Registrar’s staff members assigned to scheduling classrooms for thousands of course sections each term (albeit with the help of sophisticated scheduling software), office personnel can’t possibly police Pitt’s classrooms to ensure that rooms aren’t overcrowded, A-V equipment is working and instructors aren’t snitching chairs from each other’s rooms, Conte said.

“If we don’t know about these concerns, we can’t act to rectify them,” he said. “I’d much rather that someone complain to me than just complain in the hallways.”

Classroom problems that are the responsibility of Pitt’s Facilities Management office — broken window shades, for example, or a steam heat radiator running amok — also can be reported to the Registrar’s office.

“Even if it’s a problem that’s outside our control,” Conte said, “we can bring it to the attention of people who can fix it.” That includes forwarding complaints about rooms for which the Registrar’s office itself does not schedule classes, he said.

In an average academic term, the Registrar’s office schedules classes and determines which academic units get priority for space in only about 30 percent of the Pittsburgh campus’s instructional rooms, Conte said.

In another 30 percent of those rooms, Conte’s office schedules classes but individual schools have dibs on certain buildings. For example, the Registrar’s office handles scheduling for Benedum Hall, home of the School of Engineering, but engineering courses take priority there.

“In the remaining 40 percent of [Pittsburgh campus] instructional space, the schools have scheduling control and priority and I have no access,” Conte said.

New, more comfortable chairs are among the low-tech items on which Pitt’s classroom upgrade funds are being spent. A classroom renovation project launched during the early 1990s ran out of money before Pitt could replace some of its old chairs, noted Conte.

“So, there are still some Cathedral of Learning classrooms that have modern equipment but also chairs that probably were here when I was an undergraduate a long time ago,” said Conte.

Because new, wider-armed chairs take up more space, Pitt has been lowering the maximum capacity numbers that it posts for some classrooms, Conte said.

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 5

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