Richard D. Rush, AIA, CSI, is a principal in the Office of Michael Rosenfeld, Inc., Architects, West Acton, Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is his first article for Facilities Manager.
Campus administrators, facility managers, faculty, and facility designers have a single central design focus: the well being of students during the course of their education. When the computer formally entered into the campus educational experience in the 1960s, few people in higher education really grasped the impact the computer would eventually have. No one thought of it as an educational liability. The physical insertion of the computer was often considered an equipment problem, not a facility design problem.
From the beginning, the computer seemed to be a contradiction. It had a viewing screen, but could not be used to actively draw pictures. The only sound and touch associated with it was the sound of tapping fingers touching a keyboard-not unlike the sound of an electric typewriter. The full computerized sound, visual effects, and touch experience occurred by manipulating the joystick in the cacophony of a computer game. Students who graduated from college in the last decade are the first group of people to grow up with computers. They played computer games;. actually they were mesmerized by the games. Accordingly, early computer software developers were confident that if they could channel the energy that these same children put into games into educational projects, something really revolutionary could take place in education.
Microsoft led the research in the understanding the relationship of the full sensory experience to the computer-enhanced learning environment. One oblique spin-off of this important research occurred in museum exhibition design. Armed with a structured conceptual understanding of how the educational experience of a museum visit could be enriched, museum exhibit designers quickly began to include computers in their exhibits. No less prestigious museum than the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, "America's Treasure House of Learning," pioneered such new exhibit designs. These new designs helped transform the museum exhibits into hands-on interactive experiences with three-dimensional multicolored movement, voice-overs and music-the more bells and whistles, the better. The lesson was pretty simple-learning can be a series of overlapping multimedia experiences. Perhaps it wasn't the first example of "infotainment," but it was a very significant early application of it.
In addition to the imaginative game environment, there were three separate paths of expression being pursued on the "business" computer: words, numbers, and graphics. Computers have made electric typewriters and adding machines obsolete. Soon, film photography will join the ranks of these dinosaurs. The "mouse" was added to the keyboard and "integrated" software was born. Hip educators could perform mathematical equations, write a textbook, and animate the illustrations.
Fast forward in time to the contemporary laptop-equipped classroom. The wireless laptop is on the desk in front of the student. It has a microphone, speakers, a mouse, and a keyboard. Students can listen to long-distance audio or read visual messages via the Internet. It will light up and even function if necessary in very low light. Earphones will make the listening totally private. It can be, and often is, a flat screen, student environment of its own-a classroom within a classroom or a library in your dorm room. In this scenario, the student sitting in the next chair may not exist. Both the class and the teacher may be inside the laptop. The learning experience is self-contained-not all that different from reading an old-fashioned paperback book, especially in this private, isolated, educational context.
Few educational professionals would argue that this self-contained environmental and educational experience is really self-sufficient. It is not an accident that the government-sponsored inspiration for the microchip was space travel-the race to the moon. The space program has proven that we can exist in an environment without gravity, although NASA still relies upon simple gravity to return the shuttle to earth.
The "gravity" of the traditional campus environment is human-to-human real-time communication. College administrators, facility managers, faculty, students, and designers are all dependent upon social interaction. All these groups, collectively and individually, have a personality. The spatial counterpart of these personalities is expressed by brick and mortar-not pixels. Extremes of heat, cold, moisture, sound, and light all detract from the optimal computer-centered environment. Computers require reduced light, quiet, cleanliness, humidity control, and increased security. The traditional interaction of the built and natural environment has often been diminished by the addition of the computer in the classroom.
In the last ten years, inserting computers onto the college campus has taken on the quality of a race-a mad dash from chalk to the microchip. There have been pioneers, mainstream participants, and laggards. In some ways, the large and more famous universities have chosen the more conservative path, while community colleges have actively pioneered distance learning. Research universities, heavily dependent upon research funding, have been forced to invest heavily in computers and install them in the existing buildings on campus.
In the urgency of this atmosphere, thousands of computers have been installed on campus in places that were ill prepared to receive them. This urgency has caused the following problems.
None of these adverse conditions reinforce learning. On the contrary, they all detract from the relationship of the sensory experience to the computer-enhanced learning environment documented by Microsoft early in the development of the computer. Rather than overlapping layers of sensory experiences that reinforce learning, campus personnel have created just the opposite-distractions. In all fairness, the traditional classroom has evolved over many years of trial and error. The speed with which the computer has been added to the campus environment has not permitted ample time for the perfecting of many critical design inter/relationships.
Perhaps even more troublesome amidst the recent proliferation of computers on campus is that the full magical quality of the computer to entertain while it educates is still largely unrealized. Students burdened by environmental design failure seek out an alternative environment that they can control. They plug in the laptop in a place where they can see, hear, and learn in peace. They often resort to a "gravity-free" environment. They seek solitude.
Now that the first wave of computer installations have occurred at the majority of higher education institutions, there is an enormous body of environmental experience to review-both positive and negative. There is very little excuse for those responsible for designing new computer-assisted learning environments to remain ignorant of what has been done before. A representative generic online information resource is "Classroom Design Forum" at www.classroomdesignforum.org. This site claims 40 years of experience managing the construction and renovation of hundreds of classrooms at a major midwestern university. The technology departments of many schools often have websites describing their programs down to the age and reliability of the equipment they use.
Just as classroom teaching requires experience, designing a learning environment is not for novices. It is a complex interaction of dynamic relationships that must balance acoustics, thermodynamics, lighting, geometry, electronics, wire management, maintenance, security concerns, and ergonomics. It must accommodate the diversity of the present and the imagination of the future. The task requires a team of design professionals coupled with articulate equipment and furnishing producers. If done correctly, the administrators, facility staff, faculty, and students should be part of the team. Using this approach every time a classroom adds a computer can be expensive in professional design time. One good solution is to construct a prototypical classroom or mock-up designing a learning environment.
Most schools have a multitude of classrooms but only a few basic types. The mock-up idea is to use professional design assistance to create a series of typical classroom environments and test them in real time with real teachers and students with actual courses. Often, new furniture designs are a result of such experimentation. Connecticut College is one such school that recently initiated their own innovative lecture hall design. Over a period of several months the designers and the users formed an interactive team to produce innovative viewing and seating possibilities for the lecture hall. At the University of Rhode Island, a similar emphasis produced two classroom prototypes that are serving several remote campuses.
Seamlessness and Flexibility
Many times the effort is made to insert computer technology into a classroom but not at the expense of the advantages of the traditional classroom. In other words, when the computers are turned off, the classroom can function "seamlessly" as a conventional classroom. The important distinction is function. The computer-integrated podium, ceiling mounted projector, speakers, smartboards, document cameras, blackout window shades, and card swipe locks on the doors are difficult to conceal. A student desk large enough to hold a computer, even a small laptop is bigger than one intended to hold a paper tablet. Such hybrids are quite common. The goal is flexibility.
Flexibility in the college environment has many meanings today. One meaning is to take a course at another campus while remaining on your own. It the last two years, Five Colleges, Inc., including Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Amherst College, Simmons College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, have initiated in-house videoconference capabilities. The result has been a general increase in collaborative teaching and a simplification of the general capability that students at these schools are able to take courses at any one of the five schools.
A similar notion of flexibility exists at Bentley College, in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Students may attend class or alternatively log on to the class through the Internet (IP). The voice-over-IP class meetings and website course content enable a student to choose between the traditional class setting or sitting at a computer "in class" at a remote station.
Classes Without Teachers
The computer has also spawned a new kind of learning environment-the small group teacherless classroom. This room may be formally or informally located in the library, the student center, a dormitory, or even a lounge at the end of a corridor anywhere. The key ingredient of such a classroom is that it be a place where a small group of students, usually less than ten, can actively share thoughts and information while simultaneously using computers. Wile the classroom functions without a teacher, the students still have the choice to invite a teacher to physically attend or to participate online.
Another trend easy to identify is that the computers and products that coordinate with them are shrinking. The Media Laboratory at MIT continues to experiment with miniature cameras, microphones, and computer technology in order to invent "Things that Think." The object of this research is to transfer the intelligence of the computer from the desktop to wearing apparel and other familiar objects. With this in place, the computer will be even more pervasive. These ideas are present in a somewhat less esoteric way more and more in our daily lives.
See What You Say
New developments in cellular phones now enable a cellular phone to "point and shoot" a photograph. The new "mMode Pix" service allows customers to attach a miniature digital camera to a cellular phone. The display screen of the phone then becomes a viewfinder. The digital photo is a standard jpeg format and can be sent by e-mail. Other new phone services include voice-activated dialing with picture capability and a product that attaches to a phone jack and makes any two remote phones into real-time videophones. The idea of using the telephone as a teaching tool is an intriguing one since most students already carry them.
When the full spectrum of human interchange is enhanced by the microchip, the education that takes place on campus can be deeper, wider, and richer. The campus has always served to strike a balance between the personal education of the individual and the collective extension of knowledge itself. A cool computer gee gaw should always have an intentionally warm place in a well-designed campus.