McMaster’s biz school opens digital classrooms

A Canadian business school hopes to offer prospective students a Webcam-eye view of how technology is transforming the postsecondary educational experience.

McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business on Tuesday officially opened a pair of “digital classrooms” it has set up in partnership with consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The rooms are equipped with “smart” podiums that can be connected to the Internet and a camera in the ceiling whose iris auto-adjusts to objects placed on a desk, whether it is a flat piece of paper or a 3D-object, and places a clear image on a large screen. Instructors and students can use the facility to access Web sites for display and discussion purposes, while a Webcam has also been set up to link to the outside world.

“I have said, somewhat facetiously, that my goal in all this is to eventually get rid of all those old overhead projectors,” said Dean Paul Bates, industry professor in financial management services at Hamilton-based DeGroote.

“The fact is, we compete in the marketplace for students,” he continued. “We want to let a prospective student peer into a class and watch it go on and see what a university class experience is all about. The more you can keep them comfortable and keep them awake, the better your class is going to be.”

Bates said he and his wife financed the first of the two classrooms by themselves, then approached PwC to invest in the second one. PwC’s Canadian operation has recruited a number of DeGroote graduates over the years.

Jim Forbes, city leader for PwC’s Hamiton office, said it is important for students entering the workforce to be well-versed in the kind of IT-enabled settings that have been established in the enterprise. The digital classrooms, he added, will help give students an idea of how Web-based tools are used to gather information, share knowledge and deal with realt-time data.

“The training — you won’t necessarily shorten or reduce it, but I think what you’re doing is you can start at a higher level to get more in-depth,” he said. “Five years ago, everyone knew Excel and PowerPoint. Now we require a much higher proficiency.”

Eventually Bates said he hopes all of DeGroote’s classrooms will be similarly equipped, but that demand has not been a problem so far. The school is planning to construct a new campus in Burlington, he added, which will allow them to start with a “clean slate.”

“What’s exciting is that in the grand scheme of giving, this is a huge gift, but also one that is in reach of many,” he said. “We’re not going to out and asking for a million dollars. It’s more like $60,000. As others come and see the before and after, we think that they’ll feel motivated to do the same.”

Forbes admitted that even the most expensive digital classroom can’t replicate the real world entirely.

“The obvious gap is that you now are working as part of a bigger team,” he said. “There are some specific business issues where the level of detail is greater and requests are more fine-tuned. You’re dealing with a case analysis of a business problem rather than just textbook learning. It’s more live, more time-sensitive.”

Bates agreed that the IT is only one component of a quality education. “A great teacher should be a great teacher irrespective of whether she’s standing in the middle of a field or the most high-tech classroom available.”

While the digital classroom might make more work for DeGroote’s IT staff initially, Bates said it should ease off in the long run because it mean they won’t be carting A/V equipment or IT tools from one classroom to another.

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