Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Specifciations for a flexible computer classroom

Here is another attempt to design a multipurpose computer equipped classroom for a flexible learning center. The idea is to get away from the idea that a school or university needs separate "computer rooms", lecture rooms, tutorial rooms and the like. The teaching can be part online, tutorial and group work in the one room. However, if the room is to be equipped with computers, the furniture cannot be moved and a design with fixed furniture accommodating different activities is required.

Software for Teaching

Course Management Software

Moodle and Sakai appear to be the leading contenders for open source (free) course management software. I have used Moodle for teaching a course to local government staff in their training room and at the ANU to public servants. It uses minimal server resources and requires only a web browser on the classroom computers (no special software). The ACS uses Moodle for teaching postgraduate IT students online and I used the same installation to set up a Green Special Interest Group.

Sakai is newer than Moodle and may have better features. The ANU uses Sakai for its "collaborative workspace". But I have not used it to prepare a course and there may be less support available as it is newer.

There are non-open source CMS, such as Web CT/Blackboard, which are usable. ANU uses Web CT extensively, but I don't think it as good as Moodle.

The Integrated Content Environment (ICE) is free open source software designed to allow you to create course notes. It takes word processing documents and turns them into well formatted printed notes, PDF documents and web pages. I found it a bit too complicated for my purposes, but for those producing a lot of course notes, it is worth looking at. There are some similar non-open source products.

Custom Collaborative Software

The ANU uses custom developed collaborative software for the software engineering students. This was written by the students. It provides an online document store, so the students can work on group projects, tracks who is working on what and allows them to report the time they put in. This uses free open source software such as Subversion, which is also used by ICE and allows complex documents to be prepared by teams of students. Microsoft's sharepoint provides some similar capabilities.


Following the announcement of the
Federal Government's intervention, I speculated on the design of prefabricated modular classrooms in aboriginal communities. The idea was that shipping container sized modules could be built in a factory, with all the power, cabling and computer technology already installed. This could then be shipped to the community and a building of local materials constructed around it, using local labor, with whatever materials and design suit the local environment. That way the community would get a high tech facility, but not one which looked like a de-mountable toilet.

Modular classrooms could be fitted out for low energy use, as well as with rugged computer technology. Doing all the cabling and plumbing for this in a factory would greatly simplify construction and building the technology into the building, would protect it from the environment, theft and vandalism.

The UTAS Architecture school designs buildings from wood, and might be able to design classrooms.


More intimidatly, I was looking at the design of computer equipped classrooms for running the sort of courses I have been teaching. These courses combine short lectures, tutorials and workshops. Some of the time the teacher (or a student) is presenting from the front of the room, using a large screen, sometimes the students are doing exercises individually on a computer and sometimes working in groups. I have also had the class do online, in-class examinations.

In the conventional university, TAFE or school, these different styles of learning are done in separate purpose built rooms. However, using the studio-based teaching which Dr Kathy Lynch at the University of the Sunshine Coast has worked on, they are all done in the one place, Bauhaus studio style. I have some understanding of this approach, having participated in this style teaching with the students of the new Bauhaus.

After I started looking at this style of room design, I found the ANU Computer Science department was looking to refurbish one of its computer labs. So I looked to see if this sort of flexible design could be used. Here are some draft requirements, prepared based on my looking at flexible learning centers:


ANU want to remodel one existing computer lab of approximately 80 square metres, or two smaller rooms, into a flexible learning room accommodating 40 students, a teacher and teacher's assistant. Each student and teacher requires a computer workstation and approximately .5 square metres of desk space. Ideally all students should be able to see their own computer screen, the teacher and wall mounted electronic screens at the same time. As well as working individually, there should be provision for three students to work around one computer workstation. It is also desirable, but not essential, if they can work in larger groups (up to nine), sharing a larger desktop and screen. Ideally the different student work arrangements should be possible without moving desks (to allow the furniture to be robust) and by swiveling or sliding electronic screens (so they are easy to adjust but hard to break or steal).

After considering various designs, talking to researchers and designers, it is suggested to have the students sit at long benches running down the room in rows, much as the existing computer lab design. However, the benches would be curved to provide a nook for each student to sit in. For small group work, the students would sit around the projections between the nooks. For large group work the students would move the the middle of the room, sitting along one of the benches, using it like a board room table. The front end of the benches would provide the teacher workstations, near the electronic screen. The benches would be joined to the wall at the back to carry the cabling (or have one pole from the ceiling to carry cabling and allow walk space around the back). There might be smaller electronic screens along the sides and back of the room, for those students who have difficulty seeing the front and to be used for group work.


After some calculations and a look around, it can be assumed each student needs a space with a depth of 750 mm and width of about 600 mm to accommodate a computer keyboard, mouse, flat panel screen and processor. In addition they need about 600 mm width total to the sides for paperwork. There should also be a way three students can sit around a desk, sharing one computer. If there was also a way to accommodate larger groups that would be good.

There is no need for drawers, lockers or other student storage. Ideally the desk tops should be flat and unencumbered, apart from the computer. Similarly under the desks should be open.


All students should be able to see one spot where a presenter can stand and a large wall mounted screen at the same time. The instructor needs a computer workstation and deskspace. Rooms at UQ Library neatly provide this by putting a rounded end on one of the student benches, slightly elevated, with an equipment cupboard underneath. Perhaps there could be one of these on the end of each bench, with one being the primary presentation point and the other a backup, or for an assistant.

There should be enough room at the front of the room for the presenter to walk and operate a manual, or electronic interactive, white board. There should also be enough room for a half dozen students to stand for a group presentation. There should be provision for an old fashioned optical overhead projector. Some, or all, walls might have floor to ceiling cupboards built in which house the cabling, screens and other equipment, as well as providing storage space and allowing easy access to the cabling and equipment.


The jelly bean or spiral designs seem to offer the right size desk in an efficient way. These curved desks also look suitably "hi-tech" for a computer facility; they even feature on a space station in a low budget children's sci-fi Disney movie. ;-)

Individual desks are not required, as they are likely to be fixed in place by cabling and so not easily moved. However, the design process could put a number of these curved desks together to make sure there was enough space for each student and then trace around the outside and have a bench made that shape. The desks have an 1200 x 900 mm envelope and might be made by recycling the existing desks.

From calculations, and trial and error, with the jellybean desk shapes, a curve between 600 mm to sit in and 900 mm to sit around, seems suitable. The curves need only be about 300 mm deep. A comprise might be a uniform 750 mm diameter curve, 300 mm deep.

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