University of Washington

Active Learning Classroom Design - Seattle, WA


While the technology in active learning classrooms tends to be complex, that does not need to be the case. Very often, simpler technology can achieve interaction and collaboration.

“These classrooms allow us to move to teaching methods where students are more engaged, use more neural connections and thus enhance their ability to recall what they learn.” Explains Linda Vorvick, Director of Academic Affairs at the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program, Department of Family Medicine.

Design Goal

Last year Vorvick worked with CompView Audio Visual to design a lower-cost, yet sophisticated active learning classroom at the School of Medicine. It uses seven glass-surfaced marker boards, a matrix switching setup with inputs for seven student laptops, a sound system, podium and two projectors.


The new active learning classroom at Washington is part of MEDEX Northwest, the university’s Physician Assistant (PA) training program. “PA education is really difficult,” Vorvick says. “They have a lot of detailed medical information they have to learn, and they have to learn it fast.”

Because much of the classroom time includes traditional lectures, and because the program regularly uses local specialists such as guest lecturers, the new room would have to support more standard teaching methods as well as group-based active learning. “It’s too much of a change to happen all at once,” Vorvick explains, “especially since our instructors have already developed extensive, lecture-based materials.” Still the program’s six core professors, including Vorvick, are committed to incorporating active learning methods.

Over the last few years, Vorvick has looked carefully at what a program really needs to make various teaching methods possible.

The students need to be able to take notes and share text and sketches as they work through activities. The team provided two methods to do so. They can sit and use their laptops, or they can stand and write on 48” x 96” marker boards wall-mounted around the room. “For most activities, they prefer the marker boards, and that’s great,” Vorvick explains. “There’s research that shows people are more likely to remember something if they write it by hand than if they type it on a computer.”

After a group session, students need to present their findings to each other. Vorvick says the team looked at using interactive boards, which would be able to send images from hand-written notes directly to the projectors, but then they realized that students all have cameras in their smart phones. Once captured, the marker board images can be routed to the projectors wirelessly via iProjection, Epson’s free app for Apple and Android devices, for a less expensive solution.

MEDEX Northwest’s program extends over four campuses in Washington State and Alaska, and certain classes are shared using video conferencing equipment. So the classroom had to support that technology with cameras, microphones and a LifeSize video codec.

Many active learning rooms have multiple flat panel displays –one or two for every student group– but Vorvick says that’s overly expensive and unnecessary.

Deborah Klein, General Manager for CompView and her engineers recommended two Epson PowerLite Pro G projectors because of their ability to provide very bright, sharp images large enough that everyone can see them clearly. “That’s especially important in a medical school, where you need great color,” she says.

In designing an active learning classroom, Klein stresses the need for technology that is very easy to use. “We installed a touch-sensitive AMX control screen and programmed it to show a floor plan of the classroom,” she explains. “You simply touch an image of the laptop or device you want to project, then touch an image of the projector, and your video appears on that screen.”

Six wall plates, each with an HDMI input, allow students to connect their laptops and other digital devices to the projectors, and an AMX Enova network works in the background to transport and switch the signals. “Using the control screen at the podium, the instructor can send any student device, plus their own laptop, document camera and video from a Blu-ray player to either or both projectors,” Klein explains.

To simplify operations further, the CompView team designed a sound system with eight ceiling-mounted microphones covering the entire classroom. Four Audix microphones are mounted above the front of the room and always on to pick up the instructor’s voice. Four more multi-directional ClearOne pods pick up students’ voices during group presentations and class-wide discussions. The CompView team tied everything together with a Polycom audio processor, which provides microphone mixing, equalization and the processing needed for video conferencing calls. Twelve Tannoy ceiling speakers provide audio within the room.

“In the MEDEX active learning classroom students are retaining more than they would with an instructor just standing and talking,” explains Vorvick. “The educational literature is very clear. If you use the information you are trying to learn, you will remember it at a deeper level than if you just hear it in a lecture.”

Project Summary


Active Learning Classroom with 7-glass-surfaced marker boards; sound system; 8-ceiling microphones; podium; 2-projectors; video cameras, video conferencing; matrix switching setup with inputs for 7-student laptops; collaboration


Classrooms, Collaboration


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