Making Demands

Educators are shifting their focus from "how much material is covered" to "how much material is retained." This trend, combined with growing awareness of differing learning styles, requires new instructional techniques that demand greater attention to classroom design.

Today's learning environments must accommodate multi-modal presentations and group learning, as well as the traditional system of text-based lectures and testing-all within a single space. As a result, barriers that typically have separated lecture halls, classrooms, seminar rooms and student gathering areas are coming down. The new goal of classroom design is to provide more intimate surroundings suitable for a variety of teaching methods and for smaller groups of students.

This type of classroom incorporates technology and maximizes instructor-to-student and student-to-student contact. Classic lecture halls, with seating for hundreds of students, are being broken down into multiple learning environments for 30 to 80 students. In addition, distance-learning technology enables schools to bring lectures given elsewhere into smaller classrooms.

Flexible classrooms Schools are bringing group and discussion-based learning into various-sized classrooms. Bowdoin College in Maine and Grinnell College in Iowa recently have completed science projects with 80-seat lecture halls that bridge the past and future. Designed at first glance to look like traditional lecture rooms with seating in gradually sloped tiers at tables facing forward, the rooms incorporate a subtle but important variant-two rows of seating are incorporated on each tier. The students can easily spin around their chairs and discuss the class material with students in the adjacent rows.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts has designed 40-seat classrooms with small tables to foster the group feeling. Each of the eight tables is perpendicular to the room front, encouraging students to face each other, as well as the instructor.

Classrooms like these, designed to encourage student participation, must have wide spaces between tables to allow chairs to fit in varying configurations. Aisles must be wide and numerous, allowing the instructor to be close enough to each group to monitor discussions.

Spaces that might have accommodated one student in 20 to 25 square feet now need 30 square feet per student. Group-discussion-style classrooms have an added benefit in that they are ideally suited for use in non-scheduled hours, by students needing formal tutorial help or working in small teams. Educators and architects must work together to provide spaces that realize the possibilities of these new pedagogical techniques.

Accommodating technology Various room shapes and teaching styles notwithstanding, technology is fast becoming the central element in equipping a classroom. A classroom's design will far exceed the technology's useful life, so schools must plan wisely.

Schools should strive to seamlessly integrate technology into the design of modern teaching spaces. Whether in use or not, teaching resources should not be overwhelming or distracting, but rather transparent and at hand. Good lighting, ventilation and flexible access to technology distinguish the successful classroom.

-Lighting. Varying presentation techniques require dramatically different lighting scenarios. The traditional "lecture from the front" requires plentiful lighting. Insufficient lighting reduces the attention span of even the most motivated learners. Evenly distributed 75-foot candle illumination allows students to see the professor and their notes, and the professor to see the students. Strong but glare-free light on the chalkboard also helps students see.

Images from video or computer-resolution (with minimum resolution of 1024 x 768) often are projected from a ceiling-mounted LCD video projector and require vastly different room lighting. Also, images from very bright projectors (which recently have become more commonplace) require dimming the lights to prevent the image from washing out. Natural light from windows should be controlled by room-darkening shades. To ensure that students can see notes and stay alert, sufficient task lighting should be focused directly at their desktops.Chalkboard light switches should be controlled in groups so that the teacher can turn off lights in front of a screen, yet stay on in front of the remaining chalkboards for further notetaking.

To avoid having the lighting choices overwhelm the instructor, several programmable touchscreen audiovisual control systems are available. You can program these devices to control a room's lighting systems. Simple onscreen buttons can control preset lighting scenarios. These systems allow a professor to switch easily between instructional techniques.

-Ventilation. The most common complaint from administrators and students about classrooms is insufficient air circulation. Mechanical engineers recommend that schools provide 15 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outside air per person-the minimum guidelines of ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers). Most existing classrooms fall far short of these recommendations.

Experience has shown that renovations to furnishings, equipment and lighting will not succeed unless the HVAC system provides sufficient ventilated air. When improving air flow, you want to ensure that the air speed does not create sound problems. A sound level of NC 25-30 is a good standard-except in the case of distance-learning broadcasting, which requires extremely quiet air at NC 15-25. Reducing sound below the NC 25 level could require additional expenses for larger ductwork, sound attenuation devices and other mechanical controls.

-Computers in the classroom. Student access to computers in the classroom has profound pedagogical ramifications. Professors commonly lament, "Once the student is on the computer I can't get him or her back." Professors must ask themselves, "What is most important to my style of teaching, seeing the eyes of the students or the image on their screen?"

Hudson Valley Community College in New York was designed with raised access flooring in all classrooms. In the traditional eyes-facing-forward layout, computers are flexible, but they are significant obstructions within the room. By recessing the monitors in the desktop, sightlines are clear and visibility improves, but the instructor has minimal ability to keep up with students' progress on their monitors.

Another solution is a hybrid design: computers line the three walls of the classroom perimeter, while simple tables form a U-shape at the room's center. By installing only one set of chairs on casters, students easily 'flip' between a lecture, (the instructor has their eyes) and computer use, (the instructor can easily review their monitors).

Schools now routinely provide electrical outlets and telephone/data lines where students can plug in their own laptops. At continuous tables, individual outlets can be placed between seat locations, or highly flexible continuous raceway systems can be placed below or on the tables.

For conventional lecture seating, seating mounts can be designed to house power and telephone/data connections. Placing floor-mounted boxes between pairs of seats is another possible solution. Also, oversized tablet arms have become widely available to accommodate laptops.

Planning for technology The cost of equipping a classroom for audiovisual presentations varies dramatically. Outfitting a simple classroom can run from $5,000 to $50,000, while a facility for distance learning can cost $50,000 to $250,000. Obviously, one solution is not right for every institution, and schools must thoroughly research the issue to understand the appropriate technology and cost for each classroom.

Some important questions often are ignored during planning: What level of technical support can the institution provide to classroom technology, and how often or fast will it be available? Will the instructors be regular and frequent users of the room, or will there be many different and infrequent users?

By carefully considering these questions you can establish the level of complexity appropriate for each type of classroom. An instructor in a classroom with unfamiliar technology is unlikely to use it. Also, sophisticated equipment requires skilled technicians for regular support and maintenance. If the support is not available, the systems may fall into disrepair.

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