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.

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