Saturday, October 16, 2010

Designing a Learning Centre for Engineering and Computer Science

CSIT Building, Level 1, North WingThe computer labs on the ground floor of the Computer Science and Information Technology Building (CSIT) at the Australian National University are due to be re-equipped. Rather than just replace the old computers with new ones, this is to propose turning the entire ground floor (about 1,000 square metres) into an integrated learning centre.

The new Lilley Centre at Brisbane Grammar School provides a model with lecture theatre, smaller teaching spaces, learning commons, library and offices. This based on ALTC funded research and there is scope for further research in this area using the CECS Learning Centre as an experimental advanced teaching laboratory for evidence based pedagogy.

Current Building Design

The award winning CSIT Building was purpose designed for computer science in the mid 1990s, with input by computer scientist Dr. David Hawking.

The building was ahead of its time being designed for high performance computer data cabling and work environments have been provided for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, as well as project work.

The ground floor area originally had a seminar room (the famous N101), two smaller project rooms N118, N102), a computer museum in the foyer (N120), two tutorial rooms (N108, N109), five smaller prac rooms (N110 to N114), and two larger prac rooms (N115, N116).

Later N110 and N111 were re-purposed as postgraduate rooms. Half the dividing wall between the larger prac rooms (N115, N116) was removed to make a larger computer equipped teaching space.

The remaining prac rooms (N112 to N116) are equipped with parallel benches running down the room fitted with desktop computers. There are projection screens at the front of the rooms.

There is a student foyer near the main entrance, this has a notice board shared printers.

Issues With the Spaces

The computer equipment in the prac rooms is due for replacement. However, this provides the opportunity to rethink the use of the space and address other problems.

The area is open during normal unviersity office hours and is accessible by use of access card 24 hours a day. After hours access raises issues with the saftey of students and the clenliness of the facility.

Changes in Teaching Practice

The facility was designed with a bifurcation of teaching practice on the main axis. There are tutorial rooms on the southern side of the main corridor and prac rooms (computer labs) on the northern side. The tutorial rooms were designed for medium sized groups using conventional face to face teaching techniques lead by a tutor (without computers). The prac rooms were designed for individuals or small groups of students to work, with or without supervision, but without formal presentations.

The prac rooms have now evolved to allow for group instruction, with a presenter at the front of the room, as well as continuing to be used for small group and individual work.

Individual and small group work has different requirements to large group work and there is there for a compromise in the room design. This is seen most obviously in the combined room n115/N116, which has a half wall down the centre of the room. This wall allows the room to be used for two small separate groups, but when used as one large room half the class can't see the other.

Changes In Technology

The ANU Department of Computer Science is a leader in the development of open source software and operating systems. As a consequence the Linux operating system is installed on standard ANU computer hardware (DCS people helped develop Linux) in place of the usual Microsoft operating system elsewhere on the campus.

ANU uses a mix of Apple Mac and Microsoft Windows operating systems. There is now the option to "dual boot" these systems from the same hardware (along with Linux). There are also new options with students using their own laptops, net books and tablet computers.

However, there is a rapid change in this technology at present. Any large scale investment could be rendered obsolete within months.

The use of "cloud" computing and web based interfaces is rendering the issues of the desktop hardware and operating system used to be largely irrelevant. It is suggested that low power, small footprint models of the ANU's standard desktop computer hardware be used, retaining the use of the Linux operating system. Using a standard web browser, this is compatible with the ANU's online learning environment.

Computer Assisted Learning

In the last two years ANU has made a major investment in e-learning with the development of the "Wattle" system using the Moodle learning management system and related software. CECS is a leader in the use of this technology for blended learning with the Engineering Hubs and Spokes Project and for e-learning with the award winning Green Technology Strategies course.

As a result it is likely that CECS will require fewer large lecture theatres seating hundreds of students and more small computer equipped flexible teaching rooms seating 24 to 48 students. Also space will be required for students to work alone or in small groups with computer access.

This creates both an opportunity and a problem for CECS. The Colledge will not need to use external lecture theatres as much (these spaces being unsuitable for modern teaching practices) but will require new spaces for teaching. Other colleges, such as commerce and law have constructed new buildings with "Harvard" style rooms for group teaching. However, there is not the space, nor is there likely to be the funding for the construction of these in the CSIT building.

Suggested Approach: Design a Learning Centre

Fitting the conflicting requirements into a small space in the CSIT building is a complex task. However, some recent developments in teaching space design can be adapted. Advances in computer technology can also make the task easier.

The suggested approach is to:

1. Retain Seminar Room: The existing N101 seminar room should be retained essentially unchanged. One modification suggested is to remove the current raised platform at the front of the room, to provide a flat floor for the entire space. The current electronic lectern should be replaced with one equipped with the standard ANU computer and other facilities, including Digital Lecture Delivery.

2. Rehouse Computer Museum: The current computer museum is not an effective display, or good use of space and does not present a good first impression of DCS for visitors. The exhibits could instead be housed in glass cabinets placed against the glass wall of this room (and throughout the ground floor) and the rest of the room utilised for office space or by students. visitors would then look at the exhibits in the display to see computing history and then be able to look through the glass back wall of the display cabinet to see students engaged in computing of the future.

3. Provide different density and use spaces: 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.

The current prac rooms have a very low seating density, resulting in great flexibility but limited capacity. It suggested that instead rooms with higher seating density and different layouts be provided. This will reduce the flexibility of the individual spaces, but provide increased flexibility overall. It should also allow the space to accommodate twice as many students overall.

Some areas would be equipped as informal "cafes" with tables and benches equipped with power points for student laptops. Some spaces would be equipped with wall mounted screens for small group work by students. These could be modelled on the UNSW Eora Exchange (by lahznimmo architects) and the Southbank Institute of Technology Library. Rooms with high density seating, each with a computer workstation would be provided. These could be modelled on the Ezones of UQ.

Some approaches to the design of such a space are indicated by Richard Kurk's design for the University of Queensland's new GPN4 (General Purpose North Four) building.

It suggested that the current approach of using fixed equipment in the CSIT Building be retained and the movable approach as provided by QUT's Learning Environments Support not be adopted.

4. Control After Hours Access: To provide for the safety of the students and security of facilities, after hours access should be controlled. The approach of the University of Canberra its remodelling of the library into a Learning Commons provides a useful example. In this case a small area is provided with separate air-conditioning and access control for 24 hour use, while the main building is shut down. As well as reducing energy use, this provides the students with a greater sense of security.

The spaces around the CSIT building main entry could be retained for after hours access, with more distant rooms closed off at night. During times of high demand (such as when assignments are due) more of the building could be progressively unlocked by the cars access system, through an automated system (or by remote security staff control).

For further items see:
  1. Classroom Design
  2. Flexible learning centre
  3. Learning commons

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