Tiers and Recriminations: UAF Classrooms take step back in technology

By Kaitlin Johnson

Sunstar Contributor

A tier four smart room is state of the art. It’s equipped with a document imager, projector, computer, DVD player, sound system and television. A tier four smart room allows professors to digitally scan a bone sample and project the image onto a screen for large classes to see, using the document imager. A tier four classroom costs between $40,000-60,000.

This year, the Office of Information and Technology decided it isn’t worth it.

UAF has 50 smart classrooms, 12 mobile smart carts and three labs. The smart classrooms are leveled from tier one to four, one being the most basic. The challenge is to keep all that equipment updated and to stay in a budget, said Karl Kowalski, Executive Director of OIT.

“A lot of this was paid through grants and other sources without being allotted an annual operating budget,” he said. “It’s fallen into disrepair and it’s harder to keep running. When the equipment isn’t working it’s frustrating to teachers.”

OIT is funded largely through student fees. They receive 30 percent of students’ technology fee as allotted by the Technology Advisory Board (TAB). This year, the TAB allotment amounted to $140,000.

“While generous, this obviously isn’t enough to maintain classrooms and equipment,” Kowalski said.

The department receives additional funding from the university and student network fees, but that money goes toward other aspects of OIT, like maintaining wireless internet across campus and administrative costs.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of professors are requesting smart classrooms, said Anna Brumbelow, UAF’s Academic Schedule Coordinator. Faculty and their departments submit requests outlining what type of technology they require to the scheduling office, which then tries to find rooms that will match their needs and schedules.

“We’re getting more and more requests for smart classes,” Brumbelow said. “And we’re not always able to meet those needs. It’s definitely a give and take from our side and theirs.”

With an increased number of faculty implementing technology, OIT has reexamined the way its resources are divided.

In the past, OIT annually replaced one third of the computers in UAF’s three public labs and the equipment in two tier four rooms. After discussing alternatives with the chancellor, TAB, and other faculty and student forums throughout last year, the department decided to adopt a different model, Kowalski said.

This year, OIT updated 11 classrooms, but reduced them to tier one. The more sophisticated equipment – such as document imagers, computers and televisions – was removed and replaced with new projectors, screens, sound systems and a laptop port. The new equipment cost $15,000 per classroom. The TAB gave OIT an additional $70,000 to support the new model.

“The feedback we were getting was that we needed to get back to basics,” Kowalski said.

The change has had mixed feedback.

“One faculty member emailed me and said it was the best decision OIT’s made in years. Another faculty said, ‘What a horrible decision! I don’t have a lap top and my department can’t provide one so the classroom is basically worthless to me now,’” Kowalski said.

The change was a surprise to many faculty. An email giving official notice of the changes was sent by Kowalski Sept. 1, although he said the registrar was supposed to have emailed faculty sooner.

Some faculty, like philosophy lecturer Michael Dean, did not know about the changes until they arrived in their classrooms the first day.

“I showed up with my power point all ready and nothing was there so I had to just figure it out,” Dean said.

Professors that need help using their smart technology don’t even have tech support behind them.  On the technology, there is a button to request help, but when pressed, a voice says, “There is currently no help available. Please try again later.”

Because departments and the scheduling office weren’t given notice of the changes until after the schedules were set, some professors were assigned rooms without the technology they needed. The problem has been biggest for faculty without laptops.

“If you didn’t have a laptop, you’d either have to purchase one or check one out from the library,” Dean said.  “It could be a huge inconvenience.”

Kowalski said the mixed reaction has forced him to reconsider the new upgrade model. He wants to give professors the technology they need, but it becomes a question of providing the level of technology professors want or providing the amount that is needed.

“If we had the necessary funding, I think it would be more important to have the more advanced technology. But given the current fiscal situation I think having more of the basic equipment is a better use of resources,” he said.

Kowalski said OIT will continue to consider faculty, administrative and student input.

“If students or faculty are passionate about a technology, they need to let us know.

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