Where Students Learn

Nov. 1, 2001
As technology evolves, so do the spaces where students place their backpacks.

What is the “killer application” that drives the use of the computer in your classrooms? Conquering distance with telecommunications? Library and reference access in class? Increased audiovisual capability? Projecting complex calculations in real time using scientific notation and programming capability? High-tech homework, testing and grading?

All of these applications are available at no small expense, and using them can be relatively easy. But keeping up with the pace of change in a technology-driven world presents challenges.


By far the most difficult aspect of integrating computers into every day education is successfully planning for them at the administrative level. Technology-dependent schools are hard-pressed to master their own destinies. Even a five-year economic plan is highly speculative.

A school needs to decide who will be paying for the computers. At the Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., every incoming student receives a new computer. Other schools buy the computers, but ask students to share them and use them at a certain time and place.

One small Connecticut state college of 5,000 full-time students buys 1,000 computers every three years to guarantee machines that are up to date. The annual computer budget for such a school easily can reach $1 million. The state of Massachusetts has been leaning strongly toward a requirement that students have their own laptops. The state board of higher education proposed that $123 million be allocated to provide all 175,000 public college students with laptops. Many private schools have had this requirement for years.

Having the latest model of a computer is not necessarily a high priority. At the college level, hand-me-down PCs find their way into libraries. Public schools frequently are given older PCs by local businesses that are trying to find some advantageous use for the machines.

Schools also have to decide how many, and what size and type of classrooms should be built to accommodate educational needs? Should the classes be controlled by an individual department or centrally controlled by the institution? What educational subjects are most likely to benefit from computers? How much flexibility does a classroom need?

At a recent classroom design workshop, Michael Burrill, senior planner in the Office of the University Architect at the University of Cincinnati, offered the following information: At the University of Cincinnati, out of 2,440 classes, 28 percent of the class sections have 10 to 20 students; 56 percent of them have 21 to 49 students; and 16 percent have more than 49 students. “Centrally scheduled classrooms are used 63 percent of the time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m,” says Burrill.

Individual colleges within the university control the other third of the classroom usage time. As a result of his recent study of classroom demand, Burrill determined that the university needed seven new media-equipped classrooms sized between 80 and 130 seats.

The software

A web-based course offers the possibility of complete coordination of lectures, lecture notes, textbook, homework, tests, course recordkeeping and even grading. Many colleges are adopting an ambitious stance about integrating the computer into coursework.

Business schools and their libraries often are at the forefront of college computer-integrated education. At Harvard Business School, Boston, for example, courses are transformed from paper into “bits” at no expense to the course.

The amount of time spent preparing a computer-integrated course is dramatically greater than its paper counterpart. Sometimes a school will use course materials that already have been packaged for the purpose.

Once a course is linked to such prepared packages, the school becomes dependent on the computer and the software, and is at the mercy of the suppliers. The course package must be sensitive to the teaching conditions: Who is being taught? What is being taught? When in the curriculum is it being taught?

The physical environment

A new alliance has been forged between design professionals to help administrators reinvent the classroom. Design teams contain space and furnishing designers, engineers and technology professionals.

An understanding of the interplay between space planning, electronics, audiovisual equipment, acoustics and lighting is necessary. Costs for wiring, furniture and maintenance, and strategies for carpets and computers are intertwined as well.

Classroom furnishings have evolved to try to keep pace with the computer. For instance:

  • Podiums. An array of teaching tools is now available from the podium at the front of the class. The capabilities include fingertip controls of video, audio, animation, CAD, slide shows, and real-time typing and drawing.

  • Projection equipment. A ceiling-mounted digital projector has become common in teaching spaces. The speed at which the quality of projection equipment progresses is greater than that of the computers.

    A “document camera” is meant to replace the overhead projector. The document camera essentially is a video camera mounted on a stand over a copying surface. A book can be projected as a 3-D object using the document camera.

    In spite of the magical capabilities they possess, document cameras have not been nearly as successful as digital projectors in replacing their antiquated counterparts.

    Many teachers still prefer the old-fashioned overhead projector for both clarity of image and convenience. If the projection screen is not stretched taut and updated to match the document camera, fine print can be a challenge to read.

  • The seating and desk. A desk might now accommodate a microphone and a PC or laptop computer. Furniture must be light enough to move, sturdy enough to last, vandalproof and secure.

  • Lighting. The liberal use of daylighting in a classroom often is diminished in favor of effective lighting for computer visibility. Window shades have taken on a much more significant role in daily class usage.

  • Energy consumption. A dramatic increase in energy consumed per student accompanies the computer revolution. The heat generated by using computer adds a second variable heat source (each student also emits heat) to the classroom environment.

  • Acoustics. To offset the heat generated, the air in a classroom must be moved more rapidly. This makes noise and creates acoustical problems. The fans cooling the room's machines can make hearing even more difficult. Microphone and speaker technology is an expensive new ingredient that can be used to enhance communication in the classroom.

  • Visibility. A conflict exists between dimming light in a classroom to see a screen clearly and enhancing the illumination to take notes or see books at desk level. Once the laptop computer takes over, ambient illumination again will decline. The size and proportions of a classroom are now dependent upon student sightline capabilities.

  • Wire management. Wiring design for technology has itself become a subset of electrical engineering. The number and complexity of wires demands attention for both safety and aesthetics. At first, there was a tremendous influx of new telecommunications wiring; now it is being reduced.

The future

The future of computers may depend on batteries. For some, one aspect of the future is already here. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass; the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, N.Y.; Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., and Framingham State College, Framingham, Mass., all have classrooms that use wireless technology. Some junior high schools and high schools are doing the same.

The recipe is simple: use battery-operated laptops with wireless modems instead of PCs and transform any classroom within 1,000 to 1,200 feet of a wireless hub into a computer lab. Purchase two dozen or so laptop computers and the rolling rack to transport them.

The key to the system is having the wireless “hubs” hard-wired into existing technology outlets and the campus or school network. Each laptop then relays signals from a $300 wireless card that fits neatly into each machine.

Each classroom “upgrade” can cost less than $50,000, and any normal classroom within range of the hub can be converted. Each night, a lab assistant recharges all of the batteries.

At MIT, the Media Laboratory is developing new relationships between computers and people. The “killer application” of computers may be quite different in the future.

The lab is studying digital sounds and pictures, the social challenges of new technologies, innovative news dissemination and “Things that Think.”

“Things that Think” explores ways to move intelligence from the desktop to familiar objects around us — making information technology less obtrusive and more responsive to people's wants and needs.

Through miniaturization it may soon be possible to inexpensively include computer capability into the wearing apparel of the students themselves. Theoretically, it would be possible to convert any existing environment instantly into an electronic classroom. The computer may be built into the eyeglasses or clothing of a student instead of the environment that surrounds it.

Education always begins and ends with the students. A generation of college students will soon graduate that has had pervasive use of computers in class and at home. Soon they will be earning their livelihood using one.

These students are among the first cyber-guinea pigs of educational history. We cannot precisely predict their future but we do know from previous experience that it will require invention and imagination.

Rush, AIA, is an architect with The Office of Michael Rosenfeld, Inc., West Acton, Mass.

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