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Wire Wise

From classrooms to auditoriums, residence halls to lecture halls, technology is changing the shape of educational institutions. Today's students will need to be computer literate as 21st-century adults; and schools, from K-12 to colleges, are integrating curriculum and design to fit into a more interconnected world.

According to Barbara Stein, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association's (NEA) Center for Education Technology, young people without adequate computer literacy, including fluency in Internet and World Wide Web navigation skills, will be unlikely to function as competent employees in the work force.

"The old way of learning just wasn't flexible," says Stein. "Teachers used to be the only authority in the classroom, and a roomful of students was forced to learn at the same pace. Computers offer children the opportunity to explore on their own or in small teams, with teachers functioning more as facilitators. Students can learn at their own pace and establish their own individual style of learning, which is very effective."

New way of learning A recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Special Technology, titled "The Role of Online Communications in Schools: A National Study," compared the work of 500 students in fourth-grade and sixth-grade classes in seven urban school districts, and found that students with online access score significantly higher in information management, communication and presentation of ideas than students without access. The study notes that online use is growing rapidly in our nation's schools as school officials, civic leaders, parents and policymakers realize the crucial nature of technological teaching tools. Currently, at least 35 percent of K-12 public schools have access to the Internet, and another 14 percent have access to other networks such as CompuServe, America Online and Prodigy.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 calls for schools and libraries to receive discounted access-known as the E-rate-to the Internet and to a wide range of telecommunications services and internal connections. More than 30,000 schools and libraries have submitted applications for E-rate discounts, totaling $2.02 billion.

Design makes the difference It is a competitive market for learning institutions, as private schools, colleges and universities compete to increase enrollment. Many K-12 districts are finding qualified teachers in even shorter supply and competition with charter schools increasing. The challenge facing administrators is not just the initial recruitment of students, but retainment, as well. Schools must now offer state-of-the-art facilities and tools to market the value of their learning environment.

Because design plays such an integral part in attracting students at all levels of education, companies that make "wire-wise" components, as well as architects and facility planners who have made school design their area of expertise, are faced with particular challenges.

According to Karen Wheat, principal of Wheat Design, and a school designer since 1971, many issues must be addressed when creating a modern school facility, such as:

-Modular school furniture. Flexibility is key for general-purpose classrooms. Components should come apart and fit together in multiple configurations promoting teaming and collaborative learning. Furniture that can be used by both left- and right-handed students, as well as entered from both sides (e.g., tables or double-entry desks) is a plus. More and more, schools are serving as centers of the community. What serves as a classroom by day might also be a place for night classes for adults, meeting places for associations and computer resources for the community.

-Wire management. Safety, security and ease of connectivity are key when working with cables and wires. Connection points must be spillproof; cable runs should be tamper-proof, yet the ability to plug-in to the power and network should be very easy and accessible. Pop-up outlets on tabletops and vertically mounted ports on auditorium seating provide safe, easy data and network connectivity.

-Ergonomics. Furniture that adheres to proper ergonomic principles is important, as is a range of sizes for chairs, desks and tables, and adjustable-height units, where appropriate. Remember that learning is useless without memory retention. Ergonomically correct furniture promotes comfort, which in turn improves attention span, thereby increasing retention.

-Durability/Price. Durability and cost both should be considered when making a buying decision. More and more, life-cycle costs are being reviewed as the real cost of a product. Many institutions have purchased furniture at lowest-bid prices only to find out that the products could not hold up in the long run, were not designed for that application, or had no warranty. It is not unusual for schools to expect 15 to 20 years of service from their furniture.

-Aesthetics. With schools striving to impress both students and their parents, finding good-looking furniture is important. This goes for on-campus housing as well as classrooms. The days are gone when residence-hall rooms looked like monastic cells. Furniture now can give students the ability to personalize and reconfigure their rooms easily, adjusting height and rearranging components. These flexible components can accommodate computers in comfortable and visually pleasing ways.

Accommodating access Technology is now the real environment-shaper of school design. Students today can have round-the-clock access to instantaneous information. They can stay in touch, stay connected and research any topic they wish at their own pace.

However, as mainstream as computer technology may seem, it is out of reach to students without power/data access. Convenient and safe plug-in ability; safe and tidy wire-management systems; flexible and comfortable tables, desks and seating, as well as durable and versatile components; can make all the difference to computer-literate students. Educational facilities that do not recognize the importance of such key design issues will be left behind as students and parents are attracted to more technology-savvy schools.

Those schools that do recognize the crucial nature of creating modern environments for students, a global learning environment awaits-one that can help mold children into independent thinkers who can take on a thoroughly wired world.

Many students prefer to type lecture notes directly into their laptops, rather than scrawling in notebooks and attempting to decipher their writing later. With such uses of technology becoming a major trend in colleges, furniture manufacturers and school designers have been challenged to provide students with a way to access data and power easily and safely.

One solution is furniture that incorporates or can accommodate power and data distribution systems for laptop computer users. Such systems are crucial to keeping power handy and wires out of the way, and are available on a variety of furniture, including classroom tables and desks, study carrels, residence-hall furniture and auditorium seating.

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