Monday, December 31, 2007

Bollywood History of Modern India

Cover of the book Bollywood: A History By Mihir BoseLooking for something to read for the holidays, I came across "Bollywood - A History" by Mihir Bose. This is really a history of the Indian film industry, which, as the Wikipedia points out, is more than Bollywood. In part it is also a history of modern India, its suffering under British rule and US cultural influence.

Bose points out that a film was shown in India only seven months after the first one was shown in Paris by the Lumiere brothers in Paris on 28 December 1895. He relates how Maurice Sestier, on his way from Paris to Australia to promote cinema, stopped over at Bombay and put on a showing at 6 pm 7 July 1896. Another Australian connection is the actress Mary Ann Evans from Perth, Western Australia made films in India in the 1930s, under the name "Fearless Nadia".

I had my own Bollywood experience when, shorty after arriving in Goa I sat down on the dais next to the mother superior of the local convent school on prize day. One of the students doing the MCing announced "... and now a traditional dance from the people of ..." and several hundred students broke out into a Bollywood dance routine. On the same trip I a ttended the Goa Documentary Film Festival, where the guest of honor was "Gulzar", noted India film maker, who is mentioned several times by Bose.

Also the reliance of traditional Indian performance to Bollywood film was explained by Bose. The films derive their format from live performances which combine acting, music, drama and comedy. At the village level and at the state cultural center I attended live performances of this type.

Bollywood (Hindi: बॉलीवुड, Urdu: بالی وڈ) is the informal term popularly used for Mumbai-based Hindi-language film industry in India. Bollywood is often incorrectly used to refer to the whole of Indian cinema; it is only a part of the Indian film industry. Bollywood is one of the largest film producers in the world, producing more than 1,000 films a year,[1] with ticket sales of 3.6 billion.[2]

The name is a portmanteau of Bombay (the former name for Mumbai) and Hollywood, the center of the American film industry. However, unlike Hollywood, Bollywood does not exist as a real physical place. Though some deplore the name, arguing that it makes the industry look like a poor cousin to Hollywood, it seems likely to persist and now has its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. ...

From: Bollywood, Wikipedia
ps: Check your copy of the book to make sure all the pages are there. The copy I read was missing pages 17 and 24.

See also:

Web Accessibility for the Ageing in Europe

The World Wide Web Consortium have a project on web accessibility for the ageing (WAI-AGE). This is based in France and funded by the European Commission. So far they do not appear to have produced much, but Andrew Arch, who was previously at Vision Australia, has gone over to joint the team, so we might see some results in the next few months.

In terms of teaching web designers about the needs of the elderly, perhaps we need an online equivalent to some of the teaching aids used for physical designers. These consist of goggles to simulate limited vision, thick gloves to give limited hand movement and the like. Perhaps we could have a web service which would blur the text and images of a selected web site, to make them harder to see and reduce the size of the links, to make it harder to select. It might also run the text of the web site through a language translator twice to make it more difficult to understand and simulate intellectual impairments.

The project was planned during 2005 and 2006 and officially started in January 2007.. W3C/ERCIM is the primary partner. The project runs for 36 months and has 5 main objectives for increasing the accessibility of the Web for those with accessibility needs related to ageing within European Union Member States:

  • to inform the development of extensions on WAI guidelines and supplemental educational materials which can better promote and meet the needs of people who have accessibility needs related to ageing, with particular relevance to the needs of the elderly in Europe;
  • to better inform the ongoing work of W3C/WAI with regard to the needs of the elderly, and to create an ongoing dialog between ageing communities and disability communities, and other stakeholder groups on the needs of people who have accessibility needs related to ageing;
  • to provide educational resources focused towards industry implementors, including developers of mainstream technologies, assistive technologies, and Web designers and developers, through reviewing and revising existing WAI educational resources, and developing new educational resources which support the promotion and implementation of Web accessibility solutions for people with accessibility needs due to ageing;
  • to provide educational resources focused towards organizations representing and serving ageing communities, and towards individuals with accessibility needs related to ageing, through reviewing and revising existing WAI educational resources and to develop new educational resources which support promotion and implementation of Web accessibility solutions for people with accessibility needs due to ageing;
  • to promote increased harmonisation of Web accessibility standards so as to further build a unified market for technology developers and expedite the production of Web accessibility solutions, through promoting ongoing dialog between organisations representing the needs of the ageing community, and educating standards organisations and policy makers on commonalities between the needs of people with disabilities and people with accessibility needs due to ageing. ...
From: WAI-AGE Project Reference, W3C, 2007/09/21 10:44:31

Undulating table for student desk

Suspended Dining TablePreviously I discussed having a wave shaped student desks, with seats between the crests of the waves. Searching the web for any curved modular student desks which might be suitable, I came across a curved dining table by New York Architect Robert Bernstein. This has each diner sitting in a swivel chair, in an curve of a sinuous table. Bernstein suspends the table from the ceiling on slender stainless steel cables. This form of mounting seem to be his signature design and is used for beds and coffee tables as well, but it would not be a good idea in a class room due to the risk of injury on the cables. However, with legs added and made modular with desks being able to be added end on end, this shape might suit the flexible learning center.

Bretford Free Mobile ReturnsThere are also kidney shaped modular office desks from Bretford. They have
"Free Mobile Return", which are small kidney shaped desks with wheels. Two can be pushed together to form a four person table. They also have a system of metal legs and cable ways called "Liquid". Unfortunately, like many architecture and design oriented organizations, Bretford's web site is very hard to understand and navigate. In addition, as they make use of Flash, it is very difficult to refer to a specific part of the web site. Bretford Presentation TableThey also have an image of a learning room on their "presentation environments" page.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Dell Energy Calculator and Thin Clients

Dell have an Energy Calculator to estimate electricity consumption by their desktop computers and CO2 emission. Also they are offering a thin client system with 100 diskless Dell OptiPlex 745 or 755 desktop units running from a Dell PowerEdge 2950 server, Gigabit switch and PowerEdge 2900 storage server. However, taking the hard disk out of the OptiPlex desktop machine does not make it a low power thin client computer. With a 275W power supply, the OptiPlex can consume about 10 times the power of a reasonably sized system. Much greater energy savings (and lower cost) could be achieved with genuine thin client devices.

Dell are also offering a desktop computer, complete with LCD screen for AU$698. This is a Vostro 200 slim tower desktop, with Intel Celeron 420 processor, Windows XP Home Edition, 1 GB of RAM, 80 Gbyte hard disk and a 17 inch LCD monitor. This is offered as a business computer and is not offered to home users. The lowest cost home Dell appears to be AU$848 for the Inspiro 530 with an Intel PentiumDual-Core E2140 (1.6GHz, 800FSB, 1MB), 160GB disk and 19 inch LCD and DVD burner. The business unit comes standard only with a DVD-ROM drive (it can't write DVDs).

Song downloads selling in France

For Australia Day 2007 I created Amazon store of books about Australia and by Australians in French and Australians in German. I sent a list to the Australian Embassy in Paris and Berlin. These books have sold reasonably well, such as Arthur Upfield's Du crime au bourreau. But what has been more popular are travel DVD's such as Faut pas rêver : L'Australie. La grande traversée. Also recently individual music downloads have become popular, particularly AC/DC's Back in Black, Blow Up Your Video and Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. I wonder what impression this gives of Australia, with 1930s views of racial relations outback Australia in the Upfield books and 1970s rock music from AC/DC. ;-)


Thursday, December 27, 2007

Computer to stop seasickness on the Adelaide O-Bahn?

O-Bahn Busway AdelaideNew articulated (bendy) buses cannot be used on Adelaide's O-Bahn express route, as they would make passengers motion sick. Perhaps computer controlled dampers could be used to improve the ride.

The problem is reported in an article in Transit Australia: "New Articulated Buses and the Adelaide O-Bahn" (John Beckhaus, December 2007). The Obahn busway was opened in 1986. The buses are steered mechanically along its 12 kilometers of concrete tracks. This has been very successful but new buses are now needed.

Standard length buses can be fitted with the guide wheels needed to use the O-Bahn track, but new articulated buses have proved to be a problem. In the time since the original track was built, buses have been redesigned to have low height floors to allow easier passenger access without steps. This required the joint between the bus and trailer on articulated buses to be redesigned. The O-Bhan allows buses to travel much faster than they do on a regular road and this, combined with the smooth concrete Obahn track causes problems. The regular small joints in the track create a slight up and down motion in the trailer, making the passengers motion sick.

Bus maker Scania, along with Simon Smiler, DTISIA, and Peter Clarke produced a report on the problem: "Dynamic Behaviour of Modern Articulated Buses on the Adelaide OBhan". The oscillations causing the problem are between 5 and 7 Hertz (per second). Apparently this happens to be the frequency which causes the most discomfort to the passengers.

Adelaide is the only place where this problem has been found as other busways are not built from concrete track and do not have buses traveling at such high speed. The Cambridgeshire Guided Busway being built in Cambridge England, will be longer than the Adelaide system, but have a lower speed.

Mr. Beckhaus' article discusses possible solutions to the problem by using different design of buses or by modifying the buses by moving the engine to change the weight distribution. But as he points out these changes would be prohibitively expensive for the small number of buses needed for Adelaide.

The limitations of the suspension on low floor articulated buses are a well known problem:
Also, modern, low-floor pusher articulated buses usually suffer from suspension problems, because their wheels lack ample travel to absorb street unevenness, leading to passenger discomfort and relatively rapid disintegration of the superstructure.

From: Articulated bus,Wikipedia, 21:24, 23 December 2007.
However, I suggest that without fundamentally changing the suspension of articulated buses, it should be possible to remove the small regular oscillations induced by the O-Bhan track, with some form of damper. This is done with structures such as suspension bridges where oscillations are found after construction. Small devices are attached to the cables of the suspension bridge to detune it, so the oscillations do not build up. The same should be possible with a bus and computer control can be used to do the tuning continually, to adjust to road conditions. The electromechanical devices needed for this are already mass produced for passenger cars and the expertise to fit them exists in Australia.

To minimize the amount of mechanical work needed, electronically controlled dampers could be used. These can be controlled by a small computer, detecting the oscillations using an accelerometer and applying a signal to the dampers to cancel it out. That may sound very complex and expensive, but accelerometers are now used in the inexpensive hand controllers of the Wii video game and electronically controlled dampers are fitted in some models of GM Holden cars made in Australia (also knows as "magneto rheological dampers").

It may be possible to use the same control computer as used in passenger cars to control the dampers, or if a custom computer is needed, one costing under $1000 should be sufficient. As the dampers are only needed to supplement the exiting bus suspension, they need not be large and those for passenger cars should be sufficient.

Adding computer controlled active damping to the trailers of articulated buses could be useful in improving the ride generally and overcome problems with this type of bus. The suspension could be made softer where the road allows and then firmed in milliseconds when required.

Computers for Lawyers

Over Christmas lunch I was asked how to send documents to people in court. My first reaction was to point out that some courts now accept electronic documents. As an example the Federal Court of Australia has an eCourt Strategy, with an Electronic Filing System to lodge e-documents and even a eCourtroom (some courts are considering legal changes to make e-work cheaper). But this has not yet filtered down to local magistrates courts. For these those in the court, inlcuding professionals assisting in the case, may need to supply their own computers, be able to print document for presenting to the court and communicate with their offices.

In large city locations this is less of a problem with major legal firms, who have their offices located near the court and have staff with wheeled handcarts to carry documents back and forth. But in other locations, getting documents to the court is a problem.

The obvious solution is a laptop computer, a small printer and a wireless Internet connection. However, the typical laptop computer bought as a desktop replacement is heavy and cumbersome. A sub-notebook computer may be a better option. A smartphone might even be used, if documents are only occasionally needed. This can be connected to a printer by USB or Bluetooth.

An alternative could be the ASUS Eee PC, but the wireless device needed would have to be checked for compatibility. Many wireless ISPs and mobile data providers only offer Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac compatibility. The devices they provide will usually work with Linux, simply by not installing the software provided and using the networking features in Linux. But you need to know which option to use and where to enter the supplied userid and password.

Usually documents will be sent to the court by email. But this assumes there is someone back in the office to send the document and they are reading their mail or answering their phone. An alternative would be to be able to log onto the corporate system and retrieve the document from the court. In any case the network connection used must be secure enough for the documents accessed.

Portable printers present a problem. These usually cost more than desktop units, have small fiddly batteries, low capacity expensive cartridges and jam prone paper paths. One way around this is to use a thermal printer (as used for old fashioned fax machines). These need no printer cartridge and provide their own roll of paper. Modern fax paper is relatively stable (but the court might still want to photocopy it for stability). An example of such a printer is the Pentax PocketJet 3. This has Bluetooth, allowing access from a smartphone, or USB. There is a battery option.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

iRex iLiad another e-Book reader

iRex iLiad eBook readerThe iRex iLiad is an e-Book reader, similar to the Sony Reader, and the Amazon Kindle, with an electronic paper display and low power processor. However, like other eBook readers, the iLiad is expensive (US$699) compared to subnotebooks like the ASUS Eee PC (2 G model US$299). Underlying Linux operating system is limited::
Because of its open Linux operating system, the iLiad is able to run third party applications created for it.

Developers and users wishing to create or run third party applications can request shell access from the manufacturer. Developers have been able to improve on the devices functionality by porting viewers such as FBReader, and programs such as abiword and stardict.

From: iLiad, Wikipedia, 2007

Computer screen mounted desk lamps?

Philips Ambilight TVPhilips "Ambilight" range of flat panel TVs have lights around the edges and on the back. The light level and color is automatically adjusted so the lights match the brightness and colour of the image on the screen. This is claimed to reduce eyestrain. If this works, perhaps the same technique could be applied to desktop LCD computer screens. Apart from reducing eyestrain, this might be a way to provide very power efficient lighting for offices, schools and homes.

The latest Philips "Ambilight" range of flat panel TVs have a translucent bezel around the screen with colored LEDs in it. These are adjusted to blend with the image on the screen. Perhaps the same approach could be taken with LCD screens in offices. A row of LEDs could be placed around the display. These would be automatically adjusted to suit the image on the screen and the room lighting level.

A much simpler approach would be to have some holes in the enclosure to let out some of the light from the back light of the LCD screen. Some Apple notebook computers illuminate the logo in the lid this way: the logo is made of translucent plastic, allowing the backlight to show through. Using this approach the lighting would not change color or brightness with picture content, as the Phillips system does, but would automatically change brightness in step with the backlight.

Both LCDs and the fluorescent back lights used in LCD panels are very efficient. If the lights on the screen could replace some (or all) of inefficient incandescent room lights, this would save on power. Lights on the screen could be powered from the screen power supply, from the computer or from a separate mains supply.

Of course, placing lights on the screen is contrary to usual recommendations for office lighting, which have the light at high intensity, above and behind the desk. However, these recommendations were developed at a time when office workers read from paper flat on a desktop of several square metres. These guidelines may need to be revised where an LCD screen and keyboard is used for most work, with a desktop area of one square metre or less

Lights on an LCD screen should be sufficient to illuminate one square metre or so of desktop used around it. This would be enough to see the keyboard in front of the screen and some paperwork on either side, plus use the telephone

An adjustable low power fluorescent or LCD task lighting, might be used to supplement the screen light. This could be USB powered, or from the screen or computer power supply, to prevent having to provide a separate mains power supply.

Low power room lighting

If each desk is provided with general and task lighting, then the room light can be lower. The room need only be bright enough to allow people to see their way around and prevent glare. This could be achieved by using low wattage LED or fluorescent lights which double as emergency lights. This could be used to lower the installation and running costs of the lights.

Offices are commonly equipped with two lighting systems: a high brightness mains powered one for everyday use and a low voltage battery backed system for emergency use. The mains powered system provides reading level light everywhere in the office. The emergency system provides only enough illumination to find your way to an exit. The emergency lights need only operate from batteries for a few minutes and so need not be efficient or provide glare free lighting.

The standard room lights could be replaced with efficient low wattage fluorescent or LED lights, designed to provide a comfortable level of illumination for general office use, but not bright enough for reading or close work. Some, or all, of these lights could have battery backup, so they would also be used as the emergency lights. The new lights might be retrofitted into existing fittings. Very small LED and fluorescent light fittings can be added to the existing ceiling surface or suspended from it. The lower power required would also allow less cabling to be used, lowering the installation cost.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

More ASUS Eee PC Models Available

ASUS Eee PC 2G BlueASUS Eee PC 2G PinkThere are now models of the AUSUS Eee PC available with 2, 4 and 8 Gbytes of flash memory via

The lowest cost 2G model (US$299.99) seems to be available with the cover in: Pink, Blue or Green.

ASUS Eee PC 2G GreenASUS Eee PC 4G BlackThe 4G model (US$399) is available in black and white.

ASUS Eee PC 8GThe 8G model (US$499) seems to be only in white. In Australia the distributor, Myers, seems to only have the 4G model in White (AU$499).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Giant Post-it Notes for Meetings

Wall clinging dry erase padRecently I was part of a government brainstorming session on the future of IT. In place of the usual "butcher's paper", they brought along Write On Cling Sheets. These are sheets of white plastic with a static charge. You press them against a wall and they stick there so you can write on them with a felt tip pen.

The sheets worked reasonably well, but stick to each other when removed and become wrinkled.

3M Post-it Self-Stick Easel Wall PadsA better idea might be 3M Post-it Self-Stick Easel Wall Pads. These are essentially giant Post-IT notes. Each sheet has the same removable adhesive as a post-it note. They are not erasable, like the cling sheets. But after the cling sheets have been used once they look a but wrinkled and grubby.

One enhancement 3M could make to the wall pads would be to add a serial number to each sheet. That way after a furious brainstorming session it would be possible to work out which idea came where in the sequence and if you had lost any.

Interactive whiteboardOf course an Interactive whiteboard or Interactive white board capture devicelow cost capture device would be useful, but these require power, usually a computer and considerable setting up. Also they will not work in high ambient light and there hi-tech nature can inhibit the free flow of ideas for some people.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marion Mahony Griffin's Magic of America

The Magic of America by Marion Mahony Griffin, Electronic Edition, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2007The Walter Burley Griffin Society will be having a talk Sunday 20 January 3.00pm, by Jack Perry Brown, Director, Ryerson & Burnham Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago. They released a web version of Marion's book The Magic of America, last August. The talk will be held in the Haven Amphitheater, designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin:

Walter Burley Griffin Society Inc. invites you to

Marion Mahony Griffin as Author: The Voice of Magic of America

Sunday 20 January 3.00pm
Haven Amphitheatre
corner The Scarp and The Barricade, Castlecrag

Jack Perry Brown, Director
Ryerson & Burnham Libraries
Art Institute of Chicago

will talk about the Art Institute of Chicago's exciting project completed just last August that publishes on the net The Magic of America written by Marion Mahony Griffin when she returned to USA after Walter Burley Griffin's death in India in 1937. It was in part intended as 'a testament to their life and work together'. The website created to publish this important architectural document collates 1400 pages of text with approximately 650 accompanying illustrations from the three known copies of The Magic of America. Go to

How to get to the Haven: There is no parking at the Haven Amphitheatre so we suggest you leave your car in Rockley Street and walk the 500 metres along The Bulwark to the Haven. Alternatively leave your car near The Citadel and walk about 300 metres down the steps between 17 and 19 The Citadel then follow the roads downhill to the Haven.

Wet weather alternative venue: The Community Centre, Castlecrag.

Further information:
contact Kerry McKillop 02 9958 4516

See also:

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Turning a classroom into a flexible learning space

These are some suggestions for the conversion of rooms into a flexible learning center. The example is for the Department of Computer Science (DCS) at the Australian National University, but may be of interest to others.

Only the design of the physical layout is covered, and it is assumed the spaces will be used for traditional teaching, as well as computer aided blended learning and studio teaching. It is based on recent visits to USC, UQ, the MIT iCampus, and having delivered a course in the existing labs and at a remote location. Please note that these are suggestions only and do not necessarily represent the policy of the ANU.

Why Build a Flexible Space?

The initial reason to look at changing the DCS spaces is that the furniture is in need of replacement is some of the computer labs. There is also the opportunity to correct some deficiencies in the rooms and provide for more learning options. These include blended learning combining computer based and face to face instruction, mini-lectures (10 to 30 minutes), computer based tutorials, group working, student presentations, computer based assessment, remote presentations and remote group work.

The rooms are equipped with light gray laminate benches with steel legs. The benches have the look of a chemistry laboratory, which does not provide the right business office atmosphere for IT work. The legs of the benches are at the front, making it more difficult for a group of students to work together.

One deficiency in the design is that there are limited facilities provided for a presenter. There is an open space at the front of the room with a wall mounted projection screen and white board. An overhead projector on a trolley is provided. However, there is no desk, computer or lectern provided for the presenter and no provision for placing a projector to use with the screen.

The lab computers are placed facing the side walls of the room. As a result the students have to turn 90 degrees to be able to see the screen or presenter. Th were intended for computer based work, not presentation.

The rooms have some good points, such as a generous allocation of space per student (1200 x 900 mm of desk), wide walkways for instructor access (1800 mm) and garden views from full length windows along the back (and for the two end rooms, side windows as well).

Other Options

Students at the ANU learn in many ways, including lectures, tutorials, laboratory sessions, exercises and assignments. Some of these activities have purpose built rooms associated with them, particularly lectures, tutorials and laboratories.

Computer based learning is now supplementing, and in some cases replacing, these spaces and the modes of learning they are used for. It is not clear which mode of learning will be most useful, and this will differ from subject to subject and for different students. Therefore spaces which can accommodate different techniques are needed. Rooms which can only be used for one learning style and with one type of elelctronic technology will have limited use.

With its iCampus project, MIT built an online facility for experiments and a matching TEAL rooms. These rooms hold 100 students at "cabaret" style round tables, with the instructor in the center presenting "in the round" and electronic screens on the walls. The students work in groups of three, sharing one computer.

The eZones at the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of Queensland (UQ) hold 11 to 20 students, each with a computer. The room is oriented on an axis, with two long curved benches running down the room and the presenter at one end, but electronic screens at each end.

Monash University’s School of Information Management & Systems used a room for 25 students for its Bauhaus studio style of teaching, with a center large table and semicircular desks on each side.

CIST Building

The ANU's Computer Science and Information Technology Building (CSIT) has the ground floor devoted to seminar rooms, computer labs and other teaching spaces. Included at one end of the ground floor is N101, which despite its name, is used for advanced computer science and CSIRO ICT seminars.

A central corridor runs down the middle of the building, with tutorial rooms on the southern side and computer labs on the northern side. Half way along on the southern side is an entrance and open plan area.

The central corridor is windowless for most of its length creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. There is limited space near the door for students to gather informally.

Information Technology Business Center

Using the approach suggested by Dr Kathy Lynch at the University of the Sunshine Coast, the ground floor of the building could be modeled along the lines of a high technology business of the type IT students would aspire to work for (or own). To achieve that look, the central entrance and open plan area could be remodeled as the entrance and reception area. This would provide a place for students to meet and to find out about activities. This area would be also used during breaks in evening courses when the refectory areas of the ANU may not be open.


One of the existing tutorial rooms next to the foyer, or the lab next to N101, would be remodeled as a cybercafe, with a kitchen, cafe tables and a bench seat around the wall with data points and power for laptops. This would be used for informal gatherings and for students wanting to work alone at the bench. It would also be used for breaks in courses and for drinks before or after public seminars. The existing drink and snack dispensing machines in the corridor would be moved to the cafe.

Tutorial rooms

The existing tutorial rooms would be retained in their current configuration. Consideration could be given to installing glass partitioning in the walls, or larger glass panels in the doors, to make the corridor more open to the outside. Flat panel screens could be installed for presentations in rooms using notebook computers.

Consideration could be given to building a thin client computer into the flat panel screen for presentations. This would run Linux applications locally and Micrsosoft Windows applications via a remote server.

Computer Labs

The computer labs would be remodeled with new curved benches, similar to the eZones in the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of Queensland. These would be long benches joined to the wall at one end (for data and power access) and curving out into the room. Students would sit on one side of the benches where the are against the wall and both sides otherwise. The end of one bench would hold the instructor's console, with an equipment cabinet underneath.

The seating would be arranged to allow students to see the end of the room with the instructor. A projection screen and white board (with optional interactive white board capture device, Interactive whiteboard, and/or air mouse) would be located on the wall behind the instructor. A smaller flat panel screen, showing the same image as the main screen, would be located on the opposite, and/or side walls, to enable the instructor to see the presentation and for any students who have difficulty seeing the front of the room. This would also allow the instructor to see what is presented without looking back at the main screen or down at their computer.

Open area desks at UNSW LAW Faculty PHOTOGRAPHY JOHN GOLLINGSThe desks would have wave, or sawtooth front, similar to those in the UNSW Law Library. The desks would vary in depth from 300 mm at the narrowest part to 800 mm at the widest. One student would sit in each trough of the wave, between two crests. The student would sit at 45 degrees to the wall (as in some business class aircraft seating). They would be able to look directly at their computer screen and, by looking 45 degrees to one side, see the instructor and white board. Each student would have 1200 mm width of desk space.

The desks would be supported from the back, with no legs at the front, allowing seating to be placed at any point. Cables would be carried in cable ways, under the desk at the back, with holes in the desktop for cable access. Under desk power points and shelves would be provided to hold cables, power supplies and communications devices.

Desks in the middle of the room would have students on each side, with the cantilever legs and cable-ways underneath in the middle. The desk surface would be shaped like a sting of pearls, with the crests of two waves coinciding. The top surface of the desk would be flat and unencumbered (apart from desktop computers), allowing the wide sections to be used in a similar way to circular tables for group work, with six students collaborating around each section.

Floor space allocation

Students in the current DCS labs have a combined desk and floor space of 1200 x 1800 mm, or 2.16 square metres each. Changing to curved desks would make them effectively less deep, reducing the floor space used to approximately 2 square metres per student.

The University of Melbourne guidelines recommend 2 square metres per student for a "Cabaret-Style" Collaborative Learning room. This is less than the 2.38 sq m per student for the MIT TEAL room and half the 1 sq m per student UoM specify for a lecture theater (1.5 sq m for a tutorial).

An ANU course, such as "Information Technology in Electronic Commerce " (COMP3410), has 31 hours of lectures and 14 hours of tutorial/laboratory sessions. Assuming the recommended UoM floor areas are used, this would require an average of 1.16 sq m per student per hour, less than half that of the MIT TEAL room. The refitted DCS labs with more space efficient than TEAL rooms, but much less than lecture theaters.

Example of N111

The DCS computer labs are each a slightly different size with doors, windows and columns in different locations. However, a typical room is 9,000 mm deep by 71050 mm wide, with a 600 to 1200 mm section of one corner of the room taken up with the doorway and widows at the far end and, in some cases, one side of the room.

Using N111 as an example: 9,000 x 9080 mm with a 600 mm cut-in for the door along one side, making an effective space of 9,000 x 8,480 mm. This would allow for four rows of six student places and two rows of five (minus one where the is a pillar), making thirty two student places, plus a presenter desk.

Modes of Learning

The labs would be used for:

1. Individual computer, desk work: One student would occupy each computer place.

2. Small group work: Groups of two or three students would cluster around each wave crest, sharing one computer.

3. Large group work: Groups of six students would cluster around the crests of two opposite waves of the center tables, sharing two computers.

4. Mini lecture/tutorial/presentation: Students would occupy each computer place and watch an instructor, or student group presentations on the white board or electronic screen. A terminal window would allow them to view the presentation on their own screen and they would be able to use the computer for exercises.

5. Remote presentation: Individual, small or large groups of students would watch a remote presentation on the large screen and their own computers. Cameras, microphones and Interactive white board capture devices in the room would allow the whiteboard, instructor and students to be seen and heard remotely.

The instructor's bench at the front of the room would be equipped with the same facilities as ANU lecture theaters, including a microphone and controls for recording lectures, and a computer.

The students would have standard personal computers, or thin client workstations, equipped for Linux and (optionally Microsoft Windows) applications.

What Not to Do

Freestanding tables: industrial mat sideIndividual circular tables, of the style of the iCampus TEAL room world require either underfloor cabling or conduits from the ceiling for data and power connections. Underfloor cabling would require either a false floor or drilling of the concrete. Interlocking flooring is an option, but is not proven in a learning environment. Overhead cable would require poles which would block vision. In any case, the freestanding desks would be fixed in place by the cabling and would not have the flexibility they first appear to have.

Open Plan: As show in Architecture Australia (Sep/Oct 07) on design of schools. and designs for Victorian Schools, there is a trend to use open plan for flexible learning. This has areas with different levels of formality separated only by partial height screens. However, Dr Lynch empathized the need to control noise and provide a sense of ownership of the space by the students. Noise control and privacy are difficult to achieve in a completely open plan space. Full height walls with doors are preferable. Doors and walls can have glass windows.

High tech gadgets: In his talk on the MIT TEAL room, Philip Long talked about the use of old fashioned chalk boards, as well as computers. It is suggested that the one instructor's station be equipped with the same controls to allow for presentations using the video projection screen from a computer and the same Digital Lecture Delivery system as in ANU lecture theaters. There should also be provision for a document camera, and/or overhead projector. However, the room should be able to function without any elelctronic gadgets.

Microsoft Windows: The Department of Computer Science predominantly uses Linux software. It is suggested that Microsoft Windows be accommodated using a remote server running the windows applications, with the user interactively via a terminal window on the Linus desktop. This will make maintenance easier and also will be useful experience for the IT students, as Microsoft Windows is likely to be phased out from the desktop by business and governments from 2008 onwards.

Ezones at University of Queensland

Ezones on Level 2 of the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of Queensland After visiting the Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI), I dropped into the new eZones at the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of Queensland (UQ). eZones are UQ's term for a computer equipped area, usually in a library. Most of these are quiet individual study areas, but some in the new library are dual purpose teaching areas. These are in addition to other Collaborative Teaching and Learning Centre Rooms, at UQ.

What follows is a brief description of the computer and room setup of the UQ Biological Sciences Library building. It should be noted that this concentrates on the computer and learning areas, not the other library functions (which still includes loaning books). The building is four floors high, with most of the computers on levels one (ground floor) and two. All levels are advertised as having "Data points for network access and powerpoints are available for connecting laptops", although I did not notice these on my visit. Also Wireless access is available throughout the building. This is in addition to the supplied computers which have Internet access, Microsoft Office and EndNote.

Floor plan of level one of the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of QueenslandLevel one has one long bench around the glassed eastern wall of the building with computer workstations. This bench runs from the north to the south entrances to the library and is overlooked by the welcome desk. One end of the bench has an adjustable height surface installed. There is a shorter island desk between the wall and reception desk. There are also the desks with computers in alcoves at one end of the building.

Level 2 has a computer help desk (the " AskIT desk") , 3 Ezones rooms with projection screens and two open plan areas with plasma screens.

Floor plan of level two of the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of QueenslandE-Zones

The three "E-ZONES" are each approximately 9 x 9 metres. They are arranged in a row with sliding glass partitions between them, so they can be opened out into one long room. There is also a sliding glass partition from the center room to the foyer. The two end rooms also have conventional hinged doors.

When classes are not scheduled, all the partitions and doors are left open, allowing the computers to be used for individual study. The center room has 11 computers arranged on a circular desk with one computer on a higher platform, presumably for an instructor. There is a hole in the middle of the table with one segment missing allowing access to the center. This seems to be for access to the equipment as the center area is too small and lacking in sight line past the computer screens to be used for teaching.

The computers used are DELL Optiplex 745, with Dell 1707FP, 17 inch LCD screens, a standard DELL corded keyboard and corded mouse. The computers are mounted on a custom DELL stand designed to hold the monitor at the front and the processor in a slot behind. The result is that the processor boxes are off the desk and not visible when looked at front on. However, from the side or behind the boxes have the appearance of small attache cases suspended in mid air and are obtrusive, blocking the sight line.

Each end room has 20 computers arranged on two curved desks. One desk starts in the far corner of the room, runs flush along the outer wall and then curves out to form the instructor's desk. The
instructor's desk is elevated and has a telephone and room controls on it, plus a cabinet underneath for audio visual equipment. The other desk starts in the inner far corner of the room and curves to run through the middle of the room, with computers on each side. The result is that all computers are accommodated on only two desks, with all cabling be able to be run from the wall and under the desks. This is a very good arrangement, eliminating the need for posts running cable from the ceiling, or for access up through the floor, but at the same time avoiding having the regimented school classroom look of long straight benches.

Each of the three rooms has two video projectors mounted in the ceiling, facing the front and back walls. The back wall is painted white and appears to form the project screen. The front wall is a movable glass partition and so has a motorized retractable screen lowering from the ceiling.

This room arrangement appears practical and robust. The dual use for scheduled classes and informal use seems workable. The desks appear to be 900 mm deep and so are large enough for adult students, without wasting space.

The biggest problem with the rooms is the computers mounted above the desks on the monitor stands. These create a level of visual clutter, requiring the instructor to be at an elevated desk. Also there are many cables visible behind the computers and a very large tangle of wires under the longer desks which are likely to create a maintenance problem and may be a safety risk in the long term. More integrated units with a computer in the LCD would reduce the wiring and clutter, at the risk of less flexibility.

The arrangement of three rooms appears useful. There are white boards on wheels in the rooms as well. These look like an afterthought and not part of the original design, but add flexibility. They may have also been added to provide a privacy screen behind the instructors consoles in the two end rooms, to make it more difficult for a student to look through the glass behind the instructor and read their screen. Alternatives would have been electronic switchable glass or directional frosted plastic film, or some form of louvers to give the impression of space from a distance but prevent an observer seeing clearly through the glass close up. However, a white board is much simpler, cheaper and more flexible than such options.

The rooms are carpeted with the library's standard carpet.
The desks are a dark laminate. The windows have translucent glare control retractable blinds on windows to control sunlight. It could be argued that the precious views would be better allocated to other rooms and the teaching space could be nearer the core of the building with fixed screens on the walls in place of windows. Internal windows into the open plan areas and though there to the outside would have allowed views without the need for sunlight control.

Open plan areas

An open area of the same floor has Y shaped desks each with nine computers. These are arranged with two computers on each arm of the Y and three in the middle. The desks are not against a wall, with cabling running down a central access point into the floor. Baskets under the desks hold cabling and the power supplies for the DELL desktop computers (the computers being mounted on the LCD stands). It is not clear what this areas is intended for as it is equipped for group instruction but in an open plan area.

On one wall adjacent to these desks are alcoves containing a flat panel wall mounted screen and a triangular desk with three chairs. The desks have audio points for using of the screens. Along the opposite wall is a bench with more computers and one computer mounted higher (for an instructor?).

Floor plan of level three of the Biological Sciences Library Building, University of QueenslandLevel three has four small and two large group rooms, at opposite ends. These have windows on one side and floor to ceiling glass partitions into the open area of the library. These have square desks and are not computer equipped. The center of the open area has an S shaped desk with computers. Most of the floor area is taken up with bookshelves, providing a reasonable level of privacy for those using the glass walled meeting rooms.

Computerized labs at University of Queensland

On Monday I visited Mark Schulz at the Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) at University of Queensland. I met Mark earlier in the year when he and Philip Long visited ANU to talk about the MIT/UQ iCampus project. Mark will be back in Canberra in early 2008 to talk about progress.


The part of the iCampus project I was most interested in was the TEAL (Technology Enabled Active Learning) learning rooms. However, the part of the project UQ are concentrating on is iLabs, with online access to experiments. This allows more students to have access to expensive equipment safely. The architecture used has a "service broker" computer system which grants the students access to a experiment remotely. Normally the service broker will be at the student's institution and the computer controlling the experiment near the experimental equipment. The two systems can be on opposite sides of the world.

iLabs was created for physics experiments, but could be applied to any experimental equipment which can be computer controlled. The concept of the service broker has a lot in common with the way access to supercomputers for scientific purposes is granted on a so called "grid" system. is granted via a grid network. It might be useful if the iLab was to adopt the same protocols as used in other parts of the universities for online access. Also many of the techniques which are used to optimize response time over packet data networks could be applied to the iLab.

It might also be fun, and of some practical value, to provide an accessible interface for the disabled to the iLab. In addition to being used by people with limited or no vision and other disabilities, this could be used to provide an interface for hand held wireless devices. It should be a very useful gimmick to tell potential students how they will be able to show off to their friends by controlling a nuclear accelerator via a mobile phone.

One issue which came up was how much the learning environment needed to look like a work place. In my visit to
University of the Sunshine Coast, a few days before, Dr Kathy Lynch emphasized that the learning space should look business like. In the case of the iLab, the equivalent to the office would be a laboratory. So a standard university room with computers in may not provide enough of a lab-type atmosphere. But by the time these students graduate, many labs will; be computer controlled and look much like a business office anyway.

Labs for Software Engineers

The idea of "labs" may not seem relevant for computer scientists and software engineers. However, these increasingly involve interfacing to equipment and to hand held devices, not just desk top computers. As a result computer science teaching rooms will need some of the equipment of a lab and facilities such as cameras to allow a demonstrator, or a student, to show the operation of some equipment to a group. Supercomputers are also an example of a remote experimental piece of equipment which students share remotely.

Broadband for a Sustainable World

The December 2007 issue of the Telecommunications Journal of Australia has four papers on "Broadband for the Sustainable Environment". These are the winners of the Eckermann-TJA prize, for papers with ideas on how to help the environment using broadband.

The competition was conceived by Robin Eckermann, who is best known for his work as Chief Architect on the TransACT fibre optic network in Canberra. I have arranged for him to give talks around Australia next year with the ACS.

The winning papers:
  1. Broadband communication enables sustainable energy services, by Mike Dennis, Haley M Jones:

    Australia's electricity supply infrastructure requires investments exceeding $100b over the next 25 years to maintain quality of service to domestic users. Being careful to distinguish energy service needs from electricity delivery, the case is made for distributed energy services which offer improved sustainability outcomes to the traditional monolithic generation model. A key enabling technology for commercial success of the proposed paradigm is a broadband communication infrastructure. Broadband is essential in meeting the cost reduction and performance targets that would allow a distributed energy service model to succeed. Using broadband, a large number of novel business opportunities arise. A case study on solar water heaters is presented showing that a broadband enabled smart controller can realise 20% greenhouse gas savings for a conventional solar water heater and 75% savings for an electrical water heater.

  2. Broadband telecommunications and urban travel, by R J Nairn:

    Energy consumption associated with transport is one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. As the information economy expands, the potential to use broadband to eliminate a percentage of daily trips grows. In particular, broadband can make it possible for a percentage of the workforce to work effectively and efficiently from home on at least one or two days a week.

    This paper explores key economic and environmental benefits of a hypothetical 5% reduction in daily trips. Using a simulation model to assess the impact on traffic flows indicates that such a reduction would result in a 5.6% reduction in greenhouse emissions in Canberra, a low-congestion city, and 17% in Sydney. It would also result in savings of 5.54% in road maintenance, accidents, motorists' time and fuel costs or about $145 million annually or $1,000 per household by 2011. In Sydney these would be 10.5% or $5 billion annually or $3,300 per household.

  3. Broadband and the environment, by Roger Saunders:

    Availability of broadband to rural and remote communities would enable agriculturists to use Landsat, Geo-positioning and Agronomy to better manage the environment. Landsat imaging has developed significantly since the first Landsat satellite launch in 1965. Data now available from these can provide beneficial applications including improved water management, crop assessment, land clearing, soil erosion, salt contamination and pollution. Access by farmers and graziers to information and analyses from commercial organisations via high speed broadband on land conditions and the effects of some agricultural practices provides an opportunity to prevent or minimise environmental damage and support effective use of water resources.

  4. The role of broadband in the quest for environmental sustainability, by Tracey Dodd:

    Broadband is changing the way in which we work, communicate and access information and entertainment. These changes have significant implications for environmental sustainability. Broadband is increasing the speed and capability of the Internet, generating new possibilities and making online applications far more attractive for businesses and the community. This paper discusses the role of broadband in contributing to sustainability under three headings; social, environment and economic.

Datacenter in a shipping container

Sun Project Blackbox prototype virtualized datacenter in a shipping containerSun Microsystems have designed a prototype earthquake proof data center to be delivered in a standard 20 foot shipping container. Their claim that this is the world's first virtualized datacenter built into a shipping container is hard to credit as the military have been putting computers in transportable buildings for year. But this might be the first attempt to produce a commercial off the shelf product.

Inside the Sun Black box containerized data center showing  cooling system and control panelOne innovation Sun claims is that the system uses water cooling instead of air conditioning. However, the opened door of the container shows ten very large fans. It is not clear how heat is transferred to the outside. Normally an air conditioner would be used so that just three small pipes are needed to be passed through the wall of the data canter, for coolant and condensed water.

ISO Twistlock connectorIt should be noted that while shipping containers are designed to be robust enough to survive transshipping, they are not necessarily suitable for use as permanent freestanding buildings. Something like the Sun Blackbox would normally be built into a building with a roof over it and walls surrounding it. There are numerous systems for incorporating containers into buildings which could be used. Standard ISO shipping containers have 3 "twistlock" connectors on each of their eight corners. There are an assortment of devices designed to connect multiple containers together using the twistlock connectors , to attach a containerized the building to its foundations and to add a roof.

For a secure freestanding structure, it might be better to use one of the modular concrete buildings designed for railway trackside electrical equipment. One of these from Garard was displayed at the Australian Rail Conference Exhibition 2007. These buildings are about the size of a shipping container made from one continuous piece of reinforced concrete. They have the advantage of having been designed to meet government security standards. The buildings can be made on site, or delivered on a truck (or train) pre-wired with the equipment installed. Because they are made of one piece of concrete, they are very secure and less likely to leak. It may also be possible to design one which would fit a shipping container inside. In that case the concrete building could be built on site or delivered empty, and then the shipping container full of computers simply slid inside.

It should be noted that shipping container data centers will not necessarily be a good use of space. The containers are narrow and will only have room for two rows of rack mounted cabinets, with a walkway between. There will only be access to the front of the cabinet, with no access to the back, making maintenance difficult. In most cases it will be better to use a larger room which can provide better access. If space is at a premium and a large data center is needed, then a pallet warehouse could be used (I suggested this to the Chinese government in 2003).

Also before investing in a new data center, an organization should conduct an inventory of its current data and processing requirements. In most cases it will be found that more efficient use of applications can be used to reduce the data and processing requirements, so that a smaller data center can be used, reducing the cost, space and energy use. Use of efficient XML based data storage and Web 2 applications can greatly reduce the needs of the organization for storage and processing.

Instead of virtualizing inefficient PC desktop applications, they can be replaced with properly engineered efficient applications designed to run remotely over a data link. This could reduce the processing requirements between ten and one hundred times. As an example, an organization which would have needed one of Sun's shipping container data centers, could instead downsize to one rack mount computer, the size of a four drawer filing cabinet. Apart from being one hundredth the size and use one hundredth the power, this would cost about one hundredth as much to buy.

Outsourcing the data storage or processing to a location with more space and power can also be considered, but not necessarily as far away as Iceland. The Canberra Technology City (CTC) is a proposed large data center for government and company use in Canberra, with its own power station.

Of course, alongside the shipping container data center will be needed a shipping container cafe, for the workers. ;-)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Thin Clients from the Sunshine State

John Nichols, CEO of ThinLinX, holding a waterproof case with an LCD screen and HOT-e thin client Linux computerOn my way out from USC I stopped at their innovation center to visit thin client startup company, ThinLinX. This is a startup company specializing in thin Linux client computers. John Nichols, CEO, showed me some prototypes. They are currently seeking financial backing for the next stage of development. He talked about some of the trials they have conducted in Australia and New Zealand.

The "Hot-e" computer runs Linux on an ARM processor, with a Debian linux environment for software developers. The computer cases will be made in China, but the circuit board will be made, and the units assembled, in Australia.


Currently there are two models: HL100 and HL200, both with 64 MB RAM, 8 MB Flash Memory,l USB 2.0 ports, Compact Flash slot Type I/II, SD/MMC socket and 10/100 Ethernet. The HL100 has not video output and intended for machine monitoring applications, web cams and the like. The HL200 adds a XVGA DB15 CRT plug for video output.

Planned for February 2008 are
the HL101 and HL201, upgrades adding WiFi, Bluetooth and 256MB of flash memory.

HL300 is planned for March 2008, with a AMD Geode LX 700 processor, up to 512MB RAM, and up to 2GB of flash. Most significantly, the Geode is an x86-compatible processor and is used in the One Laptop per Child computer and some other low power Linux computers. This will make it easier to run commonly used applications on the system.

The ThinLinX computers are true thin client computers, requiring data storage and processing of applications top be run elsewhere. This makes for a lower cost system, but at the cost of more complexity and risk of a single point of failure. Most of the perceived risk and complexity is illusory. Running a couple of dozen ThinLinX computers from a server is likely to be easier and more reliable than setting up conventional desktop PCs. However, the perception will be that this is harder.


ThinLinX are offering their low end models for SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition) applications, where a small computer is needed to monitor and control some machinery. This need not be in a factory, it could be the solar hot water system in a home. Larger units can be used for thin client applications, replacing some desktop computers. ThinLinX also offer access to Microsoft Windows applications remotely, but I have my doubts about how useful this is.

One application
John mentioned was to provide the processing nodes for a WiFi mesh network, for public safety applications. John had one of the HOT-E devices mounted in a watertight "Pelican" type case with a small LCD display, as a prototype for use by emergency workers in the field.

Thick Thin Computers Easier to Sell

"Thick" thin client computers, like the Zombu, would be much easier to introduce gradually to an organization and look less of a risk than the ThinLinx. With 4 GB of flash memory, the Zombu can have its operating system, office applications and a useful amount of user data storage on board. This makes the Zombu a self contained computer which can operate without the need of a remote server for much of the time. The
ThinLinx system could be cheaper an easier to manage in the long term, but it would be more difficult to get started.

Thinner Thick Thin Client

John Nichols' problem is to work out what features to build into the thin client. Each extra feature might only add a few dollars, but for a low cost device every dollar matters. How many customers will use the WiFi, Bluetooth, Compact Flash slot, SD/MMC socket or Ethernet? Some customers will use some features, but how many are willing to pay for all?

My suggestion would be to produce a thinner version of the HL300, which could be thickened by the customer. This would have the x86 compatible processor of the HL300, but with fewer interfaces and less memory. The
WiFi, Bluetooth, Compact Flash slot and SD/MMC socket would be omitted. There would be 512 of RAM standard. Only 8 MB of Flash Memory would be provided by default. Extra communications (WiFi, Bluetooth, 3G) and memory (Compact Flash, SD/MMC or simple USB sticks) would be provided via USB. A typical configuration for a Zombu type thick client system would have a 4 Gbyte USB flash device for the operating system and office applications.

Flash Apple Ultraportable Flash MacBook end of the PC?

According to rumor, Apple will release a flash memory 12 inch screen sub notebook MacBook next month. The reports have emphasized the slimness of the unit. But what might be more significant is that this could make small notebooks with flash memory, and even flash desktops, from other makers more acceptable. Other makers could respond quickly by replacing the hard disk in their sub notebooks with flash and leaving out the DVD/CD drive. The Apple unit is the size I suggested for thin client Linux sub notebooks. However, the Apple is likely to be about four times the $500 price I would see the low end units selling for.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunshine, blended learning and thin client computers

Greetings from sunny Queensland where I am looking at blended learning techniques for a couple of days. On Friday I visited Dr Kathy Lynch at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Kathy has a background in using computers for business and learning, VR and mobile computing, interface design and evaluation. But what was most relevant was her work on innovative learning spaces, with studio-based teaching and learning. She has also researched the preferences of students for other teaching methods.

Studio Based Learning

Kathy talked about using a studio based or Bauhaus style of teaching at Monash University:

... the integration and encouragement by artisans / craftsmen as mentors to their students / apprentices together with the cooperative work and combination of their skills; the melding of craft and tools in a simulated workplace; and the establishment of contacts with industry (Flores, 2000). The idea of students learning from a ‘master’ in a cooperative and a simulated professional environment are at the crux of the pedagogy for the degree. ...

From: Are we there yet? IT graduates - Bauhaus style, by Lynch, K., Barnden, A., Carbone, A., & Gonsalvez, C., ASCILITE 2002
This stuck a particular chord with me as I gave a seminar presentation to the students of the "New" Bauhaus, based in Dessau Germany on hi tech design. I visited the Bauhaus museum in Berlin a few years ago. But it did not occur to me to look at their teaching techniques.

What Kathy has been doing with studio based learning is similar to what happens with the flexible learning centers I have been looking at. The lecture theaters and tutorial rooms are replaced with a suite of rooms which, as Kathy suggests can be made to look like a modern business office. There are computer equipped rooms for different levels of formality, from informal cafe style to mini lecture rooms. Some rooms have provision for student's laptops, whereas others are equipped for computers for each student.

Sunshine Coast University is currently building a new business orientated facility at their USC Noosa Centre, which will be impressive when compelte (in the main street). The Library is already equipped with clusters of computers.

Some insights from Kathy:
  1. Business-like surroundings: The students appreciate an atmosphere which looks like the sort of business they would like to work in. The furniture, decor and fittings should reflect this business atmosphere, rather than that of a school. The walls can have works of art, the furniture can be bright and the floor polished wood rather than dull carpet. A reception area can give a sense of arriving (even if it is not staffed with a receptionist). The cafe can be equpped with a two door dishwasher allowing students to feel ownership of the space. The "boardbroom" can be equipped with a large table and executive type chairs.
  2. Comfortable work areas: One issue is to provide spaces for students to work alone and together without being disturbed by others. This can be done by having different areas to suite different work. The Cafe area can have a bench around the wall allowing students to sit at a laptop or paperwork for individual work, withing the hubbub of the area. Tables in the cafe can sit groups. Private rooms can hold small groups for more privacy. The computer equipped rooms can have different types of tables for individual and group work. Kathy suggested movable partitions to allow some more privacy for groups in such rooms. However, she also cautioned about furniture which is supposed to be movable, but which is too cumbersome to do so.
  3. Content design a big cost: Kathy pointed out that while furniture and computers may appear a large cost and take long term planning, the cost and complexity of preparing the course content may be the limiting factor. True studio learning requires changing from a system where the course is arranged in modules to suit the teachers, into one arranged to suit the students. This requires lecturers to coordinate the contributions so that the student has one consistent body of material. Also computer based content needs to be developed and tested. Creating online learning simulations takes much more effort than traditional chalk and talk. In my own case I am attempting to bridge the gap between traditional lectures an evolutionary process bridging the two, taking existing content and making the minimum of changes to allow it to be used for blended learning. In this way the course content can be used for traditional lectures and tutorials, can be used for distance education or in a studio.
There are still considerable impediments to such spaces being widely available. Computers are becoming cheaper, smaller and having wireless data. But computers still need power cabling and take up desk space. Spaces designed for individual one-student one-computer can be difficult to reconfigure for group work or for teacher instruction.

In terms of something which I can take back to apply at ANU about blended learning:
  1. Respectable: Use of computer assisted learning spaces is academically respectable and there is a body of research and practical experience behind it. This is not just a new fad.
  2. IT Problems: There are unsolved problems with the arrangement of computers and communications for learning spaces. These are difficult enough and interesting enough problems for university IT researchers to investigate. This is not just a matter of buying some off the shelf equipment. In particular I believe that thin client computers can make a contribution to lower cost and more flexible learning spaces.
  3. Content Problems: Creating content for the studio environment and maintaining it, is a challenge for universities, particularly the more traditional ones. This will require new skills from the staff and a level of coordination.
DCS at ANU is looking to remodel some of its existing computer labs. These currently have three straight rows of grey laminate benches with a desktop computer for each student and cabling built into the benches. The first option I considered was to replace these with MIT iCampuus TEAL style round tables seating nine students each. However, these tables are designed for a much larger space, seating 100 students, whereas the ANU environment would have 25 or 50 students. Also the round tables would be fixed in place by the computer cables. Even if a raised floor was used, which would allow the cables to be moved, this would be a relatively fixed design.

The next option I looked at was to keep the same basic room design, with three rows of fixed benches, but curve the benches. Creating a wave shape (sinusoidal) to the benches would allow students to sit in a curved section for individual work and then change to sitting around the outside of the curve for group work. This design could retain the same fixed benches, with simplified cabling arrangements.

The existing benches are 900 mm deep, which is more than required. This could be replaced with a straight section 450 to 600 mm deep, then a curved section 300 to mm deep and about 900 mm wide. Each student could have about 1200 mm of bench space. Instead of sitting facing the wall, the students could sit at 45 degrees. One arrangement would have two students sitting back to back in a recess. This would have the advantage of allowing a large space which could then be used for a group. It would have the disadvantage of half the group facing away from the front of the room. An alternative would be to have one person per space, all facing 45 degrees to the front of the room, much like sleeper seats in the business class cabin of an aircraft.

The center bench could be made similarly. One insight from Kathy was that the center bench was used differently in such spaces. The class will work individually or in small groups around the outside of the room and then come together around the large center table for group work.

Thin Clients and Other Universities

On my way out USC I stopped at their innovation center to visit thin client startup company, ThinLinX (see coming post). Kathy suggested visiting the University of Queensland, Ipswich campus, but I only got as far as the main Brisbane one (see coming post). But I have been to the Ipswich one before and see such features as a stream running though the Library floor and the A/V studio in a former insane asylum morgue.