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Digitally Connected Learning Environments to Enhance Communication and Collaboration

University Business, Oct 2009

“For students in particular, technology is almost an extension of themselves. They use it to communicate, to discover the world, to play games, to collaborate, to create things, to write, to read, and to organize their lives. Nothing can be more foreign to them than school without technology or where technology is relegated to its own special place.”

? Prakash Nair and Randall Fielding, "The Language of School Design: Design Patterns for 21st Century Schools"

As we continue to expand our knowledge of how 21st-century students learn in higher education institutions, we evolve the architectural design of community college buildings to support today’s modern digital learning environments. The 20th-century Industrial Age classroom filled with students focused on a teacher lecturing and writing on a blackboard no longer exists. It has been replaced by the Information Age classroom ? a digitally connected higher education environment where learning occurs ubiquitously at home, in the car, at coffee houses and restaurants, and on campus.

In our new digital world where learners “power up,” data is at students’ fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Many students under 20 years of age are adept with technology, according to faculty and staff standards. They have adopted practices that are quickly becoming the norm, such as instant messaging, text messaging, Googling and social networking. Students’ comfort with the internet means it isn’t “technology” to them ? it may be a way of life, as referenced in Diana G. Oblinger’s book, “Learning Spaces.”

Our understanding of how people learn in modern digital environments has dramatically increased. We recognize that while learning continues to take place in formal classroom and lecture hall settings, it also occurs informally in a “community” ? the space for casual group study gatherings, in social settings and when waiting in the corridor for the next class to begin. According to Deborah J. Bickford and David J. Wright, contributing authors of “Learning Spaces,” community catalyzes deep learning and should be a critical consideration when planning physical and virtual learning spaces. In addition, research on learning theory, how the brain works, collaborative learning and student engagement has taught us that people learn best in community.

To effectively support the variety of today’s informal and formal learning styles in digitally connected settings, new and renovated community college buildings must contain a robust technology backbone that channels data to multiple locations and in more ways than what was required in the past. Technology can greatly enhance interactivity in the classroom. For example, student response systems solicit and track student progress throughout a class by enabling anonymous polling. Many expect to see cell phones used as response systems in the next few years. Classrooms need not be isolated from the rest of the world. Used effectively and thoughtfully, technology in the hands of the instructors can bring new dimensions to the class.

Of primary importance is the creation of a fully integrated wireless environment. The era of plug-and-play technology has been replaced by play-at-will technology. In the higher education realm, ubiquitous wireless access is increasingly common ? and expected, Oblinger references in “Learning Spaces.” As students become perpetually connected to the internet, they no longer seek hardwired connections but expect omnipresent access to the World Wide Web. Today’s instructors and students don’t want to be chained to a data port to send and receive information. The mobility created by wireless communication, combined with an expanding class of wireless-equipped portable computers and PDAs, is leading to new instructional and social patterns. No longer do students need to go to a specific place, or even be seated, to use a computer. According to Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger’s book, “Educating the Net Generation,” this is challenging the very definition of learning spaces because learning can now occur both in an out of the classroom, in both formal and informal settings, and by lone scholars and among groups.

From an architectural design standpoint, the wireless network in a community college must be designed carefully to avoid dead zones and hot spots. In some cases, building configuration must be altered to optimize the network. For example, the elimination of a large quantity of data cabling and outlets in a facility leads to overall costs savings that pay for the wireless network. Most importantly, higher education facilities need to consider having wireless everywhere. They should provide total coverage of the campus and subsidize uniform mobile wireless devices offering convergence of phones, PDAs, gaming, and the internet. These wearable devices with universal wireless coverage mean access, information and computational power no longer tied to physical space such as a computer lab, as described in “Educating the Net Generation.”

The following projects, designed by SHW Group, showcase the range of formal and informal learning spaces available to both students and instructors in community college buildings constructed for the 21st-century digital information age. While all of the projects provide fully integrated wireless networking capability, each building also highlights unique architectural design alternatives to create community and effectively enhance learning and teaching in a higher education institution.

The Schoolcraft College Biomedical Technology Center in Livonia, Mich. was designed to incorporate the community college’s mathematics and science programs into a single facility. The technology-rich, interactive learning environment provides for a variety of learning methods and styles while its spaces afford individual study, random and informal learning, and interactive project and group work. Classrooms are fully integrated for collaborative and project- based learning. Smaller breakout spaces adjacent to each classroom provide more intimate, informal settings for group study. The heart of the Biomedical Technology Center is the Learning Theater, a multi-media environment equipped with multiple projectors, smart-board technology and four classrooms. The Learning Theater also provides a flexible learning and community center designed as a town square. A large club-like space has been designed to facilitate collaboration between faculty, staff and students. The entire building and its spaces are designed for flexibility, thus allowing for immediate reconfiguration and adaptability as technology and teaching methods evolve. The project’s technology and built environment are seamless with the inclusion of plug-and-play monitors, projection, data capture and retrieval systems, and digital displays to create a user-friendly environment.

The Jackson Community College Information and Technology Center in Jackson, Mich. is the result of a unique and innovative approach to 21st-century education. The architectural design merged the library, information technology, classrooms and multiple department staff into a single structure. In addition to being the community college’s academic center, it also provides state-of-the-art services to the surrounding local community. The project’s open planning concept creates multiple zones for individual, small-group and team-based learning. The two-story Information Commons, replete with mobile furniture and wireless networking, can be reconfigured from a quiet learning environment to a public, collaborative town hall meeting space. The classrooms, or learning studios, provide complete flexibility through integration of wireless data and media with lighting and furniture systems. The Collaboratorium, overlooking the Information Commons, is the centerpiece of the building. It is a fully interactive classroom and conference space with purpose-built furniture, large-format monitors, video capture and broadcast capability, and data capture and retrieval.

At the Jackson Community College, the Health Laboratory Center will accommodate the nursing and allied health programs when it is completed in 2010. The Genius Bar, located in the building’s lobby, highlights the technology-rich environment. This collaborative spine combines standing-height individual and collaborative learning with the social informality of barstools and digital displays. Adjacent spaces provide more private collaboration while small-scale “living rooms,” located just outside the classrooms and learning labs, are flexible interaction spaces for team-based learning. Alcove seating in the corridors allows for individual study or small group collaboration.

The learning environments created by these three design projects represent our current understanding of 21st-century learning styles and the integration of current information technologies into community college buildings. While currency is imperative, it is also important to design redundancy, flexibility, and expandability into the infrastructure backbone to allow our educational facilities to evolve. These buildings must be able to support the integration of emerging and rapidly changing technologies. And because they represent such a substantial commitment of time and resources, clients want their learning environments to be beautiful and fully functional now and well into the future.

Jim Luckey, AIA, LEED-AP, is director of design at SHW Group. He has 30 years of experience in planning and design of higher education facilities.

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