High-tech DMZ classroom connects students across Canada

Students from five different universities across Canada simultaneously pull out their smartphones to take part in a poll asking them about their experiences with the Canadian health-care system. Once the results are gathered, they appear on large screens at the front of all five classrooms. The poll sparks an interactive discussion between all five campuses on how their health-care systems vary, why, and what can be done to change it.

The unconventional class exercise is part of Making the Future, a social science course Ryerson began offering in 2015. The course gives students across the country the chance to discuss possible solutions to issues Canada will face in the future — all in a tech-savvy, camera-rigged classroom in the Digital Media Zone (DMZ).

Ken Dryden, former member of Parliament and NHL goaltender, approached Ryerson University last year to ask if it wanted to join the collaborative, technology-driven class he’d created two years ago at McGill University. Ryerson University said yes right away.


Digital Media Zone classroom uses state-of-the-art technology to connect incubators. (Leah Jensen/Ryersonian Staff)

“Ryerson is good at moving quickly on things that are innovative or that push the limits on where traditional education is,” says Monica Jako, director of strategic planning in the Faculty of Arts. “The course is very experiential by its nature.”

Crossing four times zones, Dryden rotates his time between Ryerson, McGill, University of Calgary, University of Saskatchewan and Memorial University in Newfoundland. Dryden also organizes guest speakers to come in each week to cover course topics such as energy, diversity, religion, philosophy, health care and aboriginal issues.

Located in the DMZ building, the classroom has a camera mounted to the ceiling that is capable of tracking a speaker as they move.

Another camera films the audience and two large screens display the live-stream video conference, while sophisticated speakers capture audio.

One week, a panel discussion was held in the class about Canada’s changing workplace. Four Ryerson-affiliated entrepreneurs were in Toronto, while Dryden moderated the discussion six hours away in Montreal. Students from all campuses could ask questions and engage in the discussion through the immersive technology.

Teaching assistant for the course, Ryan Walters, says this is an example of how the course seems to shrink the country, making the sharing of ideas across Canada more feasible and productive.

“It’s very different from recording a class and watching it. This technology links us together, where we can discuss differences regionally,” he said.

The equipment was fully funded by the Campus Linked Accelerator program, a 2014 provincial government initiative, from which Ryerson received $20 million. A company called Blue Jeans, which has a long list of clients, among them Facebook and Netflix, makes the video conferencing software. Blue Jeans subsidized part of the cost of the equipment for the university.

Ryerson is exploring the possibilities of using the technology to further partnerships, both domestically and internationally, explains Jako.

“What if we were to connect with a social innovation hub in South Africa, where students on both sides, from two continents, can work together on the same project?”

The course is offered through Ryerson’s Social Venture Zone.

This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb. 25, 2015.


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