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June 1, 2010
Today's technologies open up new horizons in the education environment.

On on your laptop, search the Web for "new technology and learning," and get ready to be impressed. You will experience unlimited examples of new approaches to learning with the greatest tools on earth. But with the rushing in of new technologies, facilities must be more flexible and adaptable to a variety of learning approaches. It is a new era of school facilities design.

Architects, planners and manufacturers are envisioning their versions of the classroom of the future, but will it even be a "classroom?" In reality, the main responsibility of the experts may be to make sure school facilities support the accelerating advancement of technology in education. The reality is that new technologies are installed in traditional classrooms every day; four walls and a door do not limit students’ opportunities to learn through technology’s educational portal to the world.

New designs

As personalized learning plans emerge with technology, new designs make learning possible anywhere at any time. For example:

•Functions of the media center are expanding to circulation areas where students congregate; they are called learning resource centers (LRCs) or virtual LRCs.

•Classrooms adjacent to teaming areas are furnished with electronic high-top tables for laptop access, and couches and chairs nearby for those who learn better on a softer surface.

•Staff planning emphasizes teacher-learner access and exchange, breaking the mold of the traditional instructor-student structure.

New technologies

The change from print to Web-based materials is creating an environment that focuses on student-centered technologies. To achieve this, education institutions should provide:

•A variety of devices for students and teachers to gain access to information: personal computers, slim-client computers, handheld computers, PC tablets, and personal digital assistants.

•Web-based applications in language arts, math, social studies and science that enable students to accelerate and enrich their learning.

•Integrated curriculum-management systems, including mapping, lesson/unit planning and assessment-building to enable individualized instruction and an ongoing process of standards-based instructional improvement.

•Specialized programs in areas such as robotics, graphic arts, special education, theater and computer technology that provide an edge in college and the workplace.

•Educational portals with 24/7 resources for teaching, learning and assessment.

•Integrated professional-development systems and teams that support curriculum, assessment, instructional design, data management and technology integration.

•Technologies and applications, from video materials to analysis tools, that enable students to acquire skills for higher education and work.

Major paradigm shift

High-performance schools and universities focus on personalizing education to meet the needs of each student; technology accelerates the process. Investing in technology and instructional equipment helps an institution achieve its vision. In one district’s technology plan, the three main goals are information literacy, community connections and systems integrity.

The major paradigm shift is this: Give a master teacher educational technology tools, and the possibilities are unlimited—from accelerated learning and improved student achievement, to reduced distractions and highly engaged students. For example, interactive whiteboards and wireless technology support the transformation of teaching and learning at a school district in suburban Minneapolis–St. Paul. More than 80 percent of the district’s teachers are using interactive whiteboards.

A matter of equity

It takes money to advance e-learning in education. The world of education is changing rapidly; a plan to maintain and upgrade technology hardware and software is necessary for yearly progress; staff development must be in place; infrastructure must expand to support the increasing use of internal networks and the Internet. This requires equal opportunity for all; it’s a matter of equity.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology recently issued an urgent call to the public in the draft, "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology." The goal is, by 2020, to raise the proportion of college graduates and close the achievement gap so that all students graduate from high school, ready to succeed in college and careers.

To achieve this, the National Educational Technology Plan (NETP) calls for a 21st-century learning model powered by technology in learning, assessment, teaching, infrastructure and productivity, measuring student achievement that is complete, authentic and meaningful. Technology-based learning and assessment systems will be pivotal in improving learning and generating data for continuous improvement in education. Consequently, the federal plan identifies approaches funded and coordinated nationally.

Globally, children are becoming more exposed to educational technology beginning at the earliest ages. Developing countries are taking the opportunity to infuse technology into math, science, language arts, social studies, music, advanced placement and International Baccalaureate classes, art, sports and special education.

New resources engage learners in word processing, editing, movie-making, spreadsheet development, database development, map creation, math development, writing skill enhancement, keyboarding and other core competencies at a higher level than previously accomplished without technology.

Facilities and technology

Even though traditional classrooms can support "full-throttle" e-learning, new classroom designs dramatically enhance the integration of technology and learning. Room flexibility and adaptability, a variety of small- and large-group spaces, project teaming areas, staff-planning support spaces, conference areas, virtual LRCs, indoor air quality, natural and artificial lighting, color, acoustics, electrical access and technology routing can enhance learning approaches.

The 21st-century classroom that incorporates media integration and experiential/simulation-based learning provides students with opportunities for personalized learning plans as well as a competitive edge.

Read the sidebar "Applying Technology" to learn about specific technology that is enhancing learning.

Erickson, AIA/NCARB/REFP, is president of ATS&R Planners/Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis, a multi-disciplined firm specializing in pre-K to 12 and post-secondary school planning and design. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Applying technology

Educators can point to many examples of technology that enhances learning. One school, housed in a 1960s-era facility, is using an online virtual world to build math skills. Available in English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, the program is used in general classrooms, and Spanish and Chinese immersion classrooms. Children interact with peers in a secure Web environment; they develop online character avatars and complete learning challenges that progress as their skills improve. This enables teachers to assess proficiency levels of students instantly, and to vary instruction for the specific needs of each student. Students are enthusiastic about the program; teachers are excited about the ease of interface for managing individual learning. Using social media and cutting-edge technology enables children to learn in the classroom with the same tools they use for play.

These tools include slim clients, laptops and handheld devices with access to technology at any time. Teachers incorporate technology in their lessons including podcasts, video recordings, student-response systems, Internet resources, online assessments and blogging. Lesson plans are prepared on a computer and displayed on the interactive board via an LCD monitor. Student devices enable wireless remote responses to lessons, and students write responses on the board. Content is stored on a server and used collaboratively by student and teacher. The distributive audio system projects a teacher’s voice clearly throughout a classroom. Networks provide secure 24/7 voice/video/data to all users, including community agencies and private companies. Wireless high-speed voice/video/data are provided with access to central files via PCs, tablet PCs, PDAs, slim clients, cell phones and calculators.

That same district is using iPhones in the classroom. Because many students use phones in their daily routine, the school lifted its ban on cell phones in the classroom so long as the device was integrated into the curriculum. One class actually developed an application for the iPhone. At numerous institutions, schools have developed customized applications for accessing schedules, grades, class notes, student handbook policies and other data.

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