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Taking Technology to New Level

November 29, 2005

EVANSTON, Ill. --- By day, it’s a high-tech lecture hall, but it’s definitely not your typical “smart classroom.”

After hours, the Ryan Family Auditorium on Northwestern’s Evanston campus hosts everything from concerts, dance performances and film screenings to panel discussions and New Student Week events.

Transformed with technology, the 600-seat Ryan Family Auditorium in the Technological Institute has become a top-quality venue for the entire University community.

“This is such a fantastic improvement, and it really opens up so many doors in terms of the types and quality of programs that can take place here,” said Jonathan Lewis, events production coordinator for Norris University Center.

The upgrade of the auditorium by the Classroom Committee, Information Technology's Academic Technologies division and Facilities Management during the past few months is part of the University’s commitment to upgrade all Evanston classrooms to smart classroom status over a 10-year period. State-of-the-art systems include a cinema-quality projector, mobile lecterns with touch panel controls, digital annotation (similar to the electronic chalkboard used by TV sports commentators) and a high-resolution digital document camera. Audio has been updated to meet the wide-ranging demands of the digital media age, with improved audience coverage, fidelity and overall level to make a real impact when called upon.

The $250,000 renovation challenged even IT classroom designers, partly because of the room’s size — it’s the largest classroom space on the Evanston campus — and the auditorium’s use by so many different types of University events. In addition to daytime classes held in the Ryan Family Auditorium, a variety of activities take place during evenings and weekends. The facility has hosted events as diverse as a Webcast of Northwestern’s Martin Luther King Day events, a lecture by award-winning physicist Stephen Wolfram and a primary debate among Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate.

IT needed to ensure that the improvements were sufficiently flexible for classroom use as well as for special University events.

“We started planning for this two years ago,” said Bob Davis, associate director for NUIT Academic Technologies. “We’ve learned from both the mistakes and successes of this new technology being introduced at other universities, and the time was right for bringing it to some of the larger venues here at Northwestern.”

Instructors appreciate cutting-edge technology such as the digital document camera, which is capable of zooming in 500 times to display text and 3D images. The new digital annotation system makes it easy to highlight portions of video or text being projected in the auditorium. With network monitoring, IT support staff can view a “mirror image” of activity taking place at one of the lecterns onstage; staff can troubleshoot problems remotely if necessary.

“Our goal is to support the most effective teaching practices of our faculty and to enrich the possibilities for special events in this auditorium,” said Kathy Leoni, manager of classroom technologies for IT. “These technology improvements respond to the many changes in information services that have taken place since the auditorium was last renovated in the 1960s as well as changing student expectations and preferences for learning.”

For after-hours events, University staff and audiences alike appreciate improvements to the facility’s audio-visual system.

“If a group scheduled an event over at Ryan Family Auditorium, we needed two or three people to deliver and set up equipment,” said Dan Foley, technical services manager for Norris University Center. “Now we only need one person, and most of the time there’s no need for extra equipment. It’s a huge savings, especially for student organizations who can do so much more for less money.”