The new college classroom

How technology molds education at UGA

The new college classroom

A user’s avatar glimpses paintings at the Georgia Museum of Art’s online home in Second Life, a user-created digital world. UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning owns a virtual island in Second Life, which is available free online.

Juniors Catherine Henry (left) and Taylor Sauls ask a question during Cobb’s pharmacokinetics class. Henry and Sauls are in the Pharmacy South Building on campus, but the class is also broadcast to students at the Medical College of Georgia UGA Clinical Pharmacy Program in Augusta.

A student picks up her pen, looks at the teacher, waits for a minute and presses a button on her table.

A camera trains toward her seat and the microphone at her station buzzes to life. “I have a question,” she says to the teacher, whose image is on the theater-sized screen at the front of the classroom.

This is a regular scene at the College of Pharmacy, where distance learning is a part of life. The students, who have long kept track of their social lives on Web sites like Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly using cutting-edge advances to bolster their academic pursuits as well. Welcome to higher education version 2.0.

“We built this building with this technology in mind since distance learning is so pervasive to us,” said Sarah Jones, a program coordinator in the College of Pharmacy. “We have six classrooms equipped with cameras and microphones that are capable of videoconferencing to our remote sites, and we use them on a weekly if not daily basis.”

Linking the college’s students and faculty to each other requires stacks of computer equipment, continuous upkeep and two full-time personnel, but it’s worth the effort, especially as the students fan out in their fourth year to take residency positions across the state, Jones said.

In a sense, it’s a microcosm of the challenges and opportunities that technological advances provide for modern universities.

The culture itself is undergoing many changes.

The use of technology and social media in particular is changing the landscape and culture as a whole, and that’s seeping into the classroom,” said Nelson Hilton, director of UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning. “It brings up a whole new question, not only where is the classroom, but what is the classroom?”

Face-to-face instruction, long the sole practice of teaching, is no longer always necessary. According to the CTL’s David Noah, learning can take place even in virtual communities. One such space, a program called Second Life, is an online 3-D world built and operated by more than six million users worldwide. CTL owns a virtual “island” in the program where students can meet for class, listen to lectures and interact through digital human representations called avatars.

“The sense of engagement you get in a virtual world is very real. You really do become your avatar,” Noah said. “I have several avatars. They vary by race, gender and species. It’s been eye-opening to see how my interactions in Second Life vary with the type of avatar I’m using.”

A user’s avatar glimpses paintings at the Georgia Museum of Art’s online home in Second Life, a user-created digital world. UGA’s Center for Teaching and Learning owns a virtual island in Second Life, which is available free online.

Avatars can also visit the virtual home of the Georgia Museum of Art, which currently is closed for renovations. Its space in Second Life is a close replica of its real-life counterpart, complete with high-resolution images of the artwork housed in its galleries.

“It’s very real. People will walk in, stare at a painting and analyze it just like they do in real life,” said Jenny Williams, public relations coordinator at the museum. “I feel that art appreciators in Second Life act very similarly to how they act in the museum.”

As lines between the “real” world and the “virtual” world become even more blurred, it’s important that students and faculty understand not only how to operate within both worlds but also how to enhance them, said Casey O’Donnell, who oversees the UGA Video Game Lab in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s New Media Institute.

The lab is a project that started last year as a means to help students harness video games, which are fast becoming a viable communications medium.

“I consider myself an anthropologist. My research focuses on how interdisciplinary people come together and make things,” O’Donnell said. “I happen to like games as a way of showing that because they’re fun, and I have a knowledge on how to make them.”

Currently he’s working with Kathrin Stanger-Hall, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, on a project that tasks UGA students with creating 2-D and 3-D video simulations of hard-to-visualize biological processes like membrane potentials, glucose homeostasi, and filtration dynamics.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that students do more work and work harder if you give them the resources and the tools they need to create something and make them do it,” he said.

And games, which force the user to become a part of the experience, are a perfect example.

“If you’re reading a book, you’re getting a story but you’re not interacting with it,” he added. “When you play a game, you’re in a way living that story. It happens as you make it happen. It’s a completely active experience.”

Perhaps the hardest part of educating a generation of young people who are increasingly wired and mobile will be parting with the centuries-old lecture-and-learn teaching format.

Maybe there will be an app for that. 


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For more on multimedia instruction at UGA, visit the Center for Teaching and Learning Web site at

About the Author

Matt Weeks is senior reporter for the UGA News Service.