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Kris Pang for Spectator

Touchscreens, HD cameras, and microphones fill 438 Horace Mann, an experimental Teachers College classroom the school is using as a model for a $60 million renovation of 46 classrooms.

The alien-like gleam of modern, sleek sea-glass tinted chairs in 438 Horace Mann draws in wandering eyes. Then, one notices the LCD touch screens lining the erasable walls, the sophisticated Polycom microphones dangling from the ceiling, and the high defintion video cameras peeking from the wall panels which allow lectures to be recorded from almost any angle—all of which make this Teachers College classroom very cutting-edge.

Completed this January, 438 Horace Mann is a prototype "smart classroom" for the 46 classrooms the college seeks to renovate as part of a $60 million renovation project to be funded by the $300 million capital campaign launched in November.

"These classrooms will be designed to foster close, creative collaboration for classes large or small, and they will enable future professionals in education, psychology, and health to thrive, innovate, and excel in a digital environment and make full use of the latest technology," James Gardner, associate vice president for external affairs at TC, said. "We are committed to supporting the work of our students and faculty by refurbishing and infusing more classrooms, labs, and other learning spaces with smart designs and the latest technology."

"It is my understanding that these new smart classrooms are part of Teachers College's effort to stay current and to have the latest technological innovations that will aid learning, teaching, and overall innovation for years to come," Vincent Jones IV, TC '14 and an administrative technology fellow who manages 438 Horace Mann, said.

But as much as the classroom offers a glimpse into the future of education, not all students at TC feel that technology-enhanced classrooms are the best way to spend the college's resources. Students at the college have recently expressed that the school doesn't adequately fund Ph.D. scholarships and pays lower salaries to course assistants compared to graduate students at Columbia.

"Despite $100 million being slated for scholarships, there has been a thread of thought that all of this [fundraising] money should go to scholarships and we shouldn't fund renovations until all Ph.D. students are fully funded," Bobby Cox, president of the TC Student Senate, said, referring to the fundraising campaign's $110 million goal for student scholarships. "We want the focus to be on funding our students and alleviating the burden of debt and then the rest can follow."

Cox said that although these smart classrooms are in line with the Teachers College mission to provide an interactive, engaging learning environment at the highest level, student scholarship should never come second to renovations.

Jones said that the while he was impressed by the technology in the prototype classroom, he thinks it might be more effective to have more simple upgrades across all classrooms.

"While I want my halls and classrooms to look nice and to be renovated, I'm not completely sure that having the degree of technology that's represented in 438 Horace Mann represented in every classroom is the best use of resources," he said. "I just don't think every classroom needs to be outfitted with Polycom and six screens and four video cameras and wireless microphones. It's just unnecessary and superfluous."

Jones said that the most important technology to have in a classroom is a good sound system, high-speed internet, ethernet cords and power cords to help with slow Wi-Fi networks, and an occasional SMART Board.

Maulshree Gangwar, TC '15 and a student in the International Educational Development program who has taken classes in the smart classroom, also said that such equipment wasn't needed across the board.

"I think the biggest problem here is student funding ... so I guess we don't need all the classes to be high-tech, but definitely a few classes," Gangwar said.

Still, she said she enjoyed the new opportunities offered by the high-tech classroom.

"We had five different screens, and it was such an interactive way to conduct whatever class discussions we had," Gangwar said. "They had these smart tables so you could write on them, and you always had activities around when we could just draw."

Jones said that student funding is certainly a concern but that renovations do not necessarily have to come at the expense of money allocated to scholarships.

"Just because we're having new classrooms does not necessarily mean that we will have less financial aid for students. Perhaps if we decide to have two screens instead of six screens maybe the funds will just stay in a building fund to keep the technology up to date for years to come," he said. "There's no guarantee that not renovating the classrooms or not hyper-outfitting them with technology will result in increased financial resources for Masters and Doctoral students."

Update: In Bobby Cox's quote, the "$100 million being slated for scholarships" is actually a goal of $110 million. Spectator has updated the article to include the more specific number.  |  @ColumbiaSpec

Teachers College Capital Campaign technology Susan Fuhrman renovations