You are here


8 ways colleges can design technology-rich spaces

Points for planning technology-rich academic buildings
University Business, July 2013

You have space on campus for a new building, and visions of a cutting-edge learning center dance in your head. The technology-infused building will be so magnetic that admission applications will pour in, professors will clamour for classroom assignments, and local businesses will plead for partnerships.

Of course, funding won’t be an issue because the new technology center will be so innovative and visionary that bonds and grants will stream across your desk like ducks in a pond.

Ready to begin?
Planning for technology-rich learning spaces does take enormous chunks of time and effort—not to mention funding—but those visions needn’t be wistful dreams that fade once they float outside the confines of an administrative office. Here are eight tips for planning technology-rich academic buildings.

1. Put together the right team, right away.
At Gulf Coast State College (Fla.), administrators envisioned the Advanced Technology Center as a building that would appeal to numerous groups on campus and in the business community. The facilities and IT departments partnered with architects, construction firms, and instructors on the project, says John Mercer, vice president of business and administration. Focus groups of campus constituents met over the course of a year to determine wish lists for the building, which will house multiple academic departments and will also be available to community organizations, business partners, and other agencies when it’s completed this summer.

“IT folks wanted to prepare for anything and everything that could come in the next 30 years, while instructors wanted everything they’d seen that was high-tech,” Mercer says. “Getting them all involved early gave everyone a stake in the project, and let people see multiple perspectives.”

2. Get creative with funding.
Gulf Coast had some financial resources for the 80,000-square-foot facility, which had a construction pricetag of $35 million, but officials also established a funding stream from the local business community. “Panama City is known for tourism and the military, so we saw this building as a place that would help the area grow economically,” Mercer says.

For example, the college will move its culinary program into the building, which can provide food and beverages for events held in the new structure. Because of that decision, several local restaurants have made contributions to the project. Also, the
college set aside office space for the Chamber of Commerce and other economic development agencies.

3. Put the backbone in place first.
A strong telecommunications backbone should be placed in the building, so that any future technology can be handled. “My rule of thumb is that you have 20 percent of the pipe empty, so you can use it in the future,” says Joe Sorci, designer and project architect from Florida Architects, which handled the Gulf Coast project.

He notes that it’s best to have empty conduits from the building’s main distribution point to subtelecommunication rooms on each level. From there, the technology capabilities are distributed to each room. “With that backbone, you have future expansion capability,” he adds.

Because many technology spaces feature movable furniture and flexible walls that can change the size of rooms, the best place for wiring is under the floor, says Sorci. That also makes repairs easier, because facilities and IT departments won’t have to cut into the walls to find problems.

4. Consider key furniture decisions.
Several companies specialize in furniture for education and technology spaces in schools, with options ranging from modular desks to lab desks to conference tables. Flexibility is a key feature, and pieces can be reconfigured into various configurations. This is especially important in high-tech classrooms where wires emerge from the floor space for A/V and other equipment.

Sorci says he has had issues with furniture vendors delivering on their promises about how the pieces will work within campus classrooms. One example is the modular desk; while these desks should be able to be moved, sometimes doing so is too difficult in a way that’s useful. He suggests getting details about how exactly the product lines will work to fit the needs of building occupants.
Also, Sorci insists on having one company install the furniture rather than letting each vendor do it themselves. “That prevents numerous issues with putting all these different pieces into place,” he says.

5. Design social spaces, not lecture halls.
People tend to like interacting in a group, and classroom teaching has certainly moved in that direction, points out Tom Simister, principal at Sasaki Associates.

Also, students are arriving at colleges and universities with the expectation of team-based learning, and a technology-rich space should accommodate that, says Simister.

In other words, the days of lectures from podiums in the front of the room are numbered. “Regardless of your budget, you need a lot of capability for interaction and group discussion,” Simister says. That might include several breakout areas within a classroom or outside a larger space, or it could mean flat-panel screens around the room rather than on a single wall in the front.

The technology should also be geared toward collaboration, notes Herman Daniels, Gulf Coast State’s chief IT officer. The Advanced Technology Center has no projectors, only displays. Having those displays around the room helps instructors create more team-oriented lessons, he says.

“It’s not easy to build your technology plan around collaboration, but it’s worth the effort,” Daniels says. “There’s a shift toward a different setting for education, in which we’re all communicating with each other, and that’s where we want to take our efforts. It’s fun, because we’re plowing new ground.”

6. Create a demo lab first.
Faculty members and facilities and IT staff at Central Oregon Community College got to test drive lots of technology in helping design the school’s $15 million science center, which opened last fall.

Yost Grube Hall Architecture set up a technology demonstration lab, where faculty and IT could play with the software and hardware that could be used in the new classrooms. Also, different room configurations—including modified lab spaces and breakout areas—were tried out.

“Once people could actually test out technology and layouts, it sparked very vibrant and open conversations,” says Matt McCoy, vice president of administration. “We were able to evaluate technologies like file systems and video production without making a huge investment and hoping for the best.”

7. Provide ample faculty training and support.
Many institutions have implemented cutting-edge (and expensive) technologies, only to see them go unused, notes Larry Marcus with One Source Technologies, a firm that provides IT consulting and services for the higher education design company, Credo.
“I’ve seen projects in higher ed where great technology is put in place, but not enough training was provided, so that tech sits idle,” he says. “Or there wasn’t enough IT support for that technology, so if anything broke, it would stay broken.”

If a college doesn’t have enough training and support for specific technologies, then they shouldn’t be implemented, says Marcus. Simply getting a grant for a certain kind of technology doesn’t mean a school should automatically put that in place.

“Determine the ongoing cost of the solution, and make sure you’ve got folks in place who can do training,” says Marcus. “For smaller schools, it may be better to choose something a little more expensive that includes support than going with a lower-priced option that doesn’t.”

8. Consider the effects of BYOD.
Determining a technology mix is important, but don’t forget that students are bringing their own devices, Marcus says. In the past, schools had to think about what they’d put in the hands of their students. Now students show up with smartphones and iPads. Learning spaces should be designed to accommodate students’ devices. For example, students might be asked to do in-class polling using their phones rather than the more traditional clicker devices. Or presentations could be done by attaching a student iPad to a screen. “BYOD is happening all over, and it’s totally changing the way that schools should look at classroom design and infrastructure,” says Marcus. He suggests installing software and hardware that’s cross-platform.

While not every solution will work for every institution, administrators can achieve grand tech visions with strategic planning.

Florida Architects,
One Source Technologies,
Yost Grube Hall Architecture,