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Making the Most of Technology in the Classroom

Teaching styles, equipment challenges and optimal technology support furniture for educational environments

By Kenn Busch

Teaching styles, equipment challenges and optimal technology support furniture for educational environments

If there's a single word that can size up today's educational environments, it would have to be "dynamic."

Students, like the rest of us, are at once wired-in and wireless; mobile and connected. From a purely semantic perspective, these terms might seem contradictory—perfect antonyms. But in the modern world we understand them to be perfectly synonymous.

The liberation of information has not yet freed us from the tyranny of information hardware. Until we reach the level of user interfaces dreamed of in movies like Avatar—where holographic images hover around our heads, to be waved and swatted at like late-summer bees—information will have to be accessed via hardware: keyboards, monitors, mobile devices and speakers. Whether it's a self-contained unit like a laptop or a tablet computer, or components tethered to CPUs and AV devices, our access to information technology requires physical devices.

Physical devices take up physical space, have physical needs like power and internet connections, and are of physical value. Thus, they present unique challenges in traditional classrooms and school buildings, and for teachers who must juggle different sizes and types of classes, not to mention security and maintenance.

There is no "one-size-fits-all" solution. Available technology must be adapted and reorganized for the needs of various teaching styles and student groups as conveniently and quickly as possible. When not in use, computers and related AV interfaces need to be stored for security, recharging and to minimize unnecessary clutter in the rooms.

Balancing access with the organization and security of technology requires specialized furniture. Individual pieces must be chosen to accommodate the unique ways various teaching styles use the latest technology and to integrate it smoothly into today's modern learning environment. And keep in mind that learning environments are wherever students gather and collaborate, including lounge areas, study halls and school libraries. Specialized, technology-friendly furniture is available in these settings as well.

technology adapts to different teaching stylesTeaching styles vary by educator, class size, students' age and subject. Anthony Grasha, professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati, breaks the four basic teaching styles into four key clusters in his book, Teaching with Style:

  1. The expert/formal authority cluster tends toward teacher-centered classrooms in which information is presented and students receive knowledge
  2. The personal model/expert/formal authority cluster is a teacher-centered approach that emphasizes modeling and demonstration. This approach encourages students to observe processes as well as content
  3. The facilitator/personal model/expert cluster is a student-centered model for the classroom. Teachers design activities, social interactions or problem-solving situations that allow students to practice the processes for applying course content
  4. The delegator/facilitator/expert cluster places much of the learning burden on the students. Teachers provide complex tasks that require student initiative, and often group work, to complete

Technology may be used differently among these four styles, but in many cases teachers and students must make use of the same inventory of computers and AV equipment. How easily that technology is deployed and utilized to meet these different needs will determine the impact it has—positive or negative—on the learning experience.

Studies show that technology integration in the curriculum improves students' learning processes and outcomes, and that teachers who recognize computers as problem-solving tools actually change the way they teach. Because of the nature of how kids learn, the more access students have to these powerful tools, the more engaged they are.

According to the magazine Edutopia, another reason for technology integration is the necessity of providing today's students with 21st century skills. These skills include:

  • Personal and social responsibility
  • Planning, critical thinking, reasoning and creativity
  • Strong communication skills, both for interpersonal and presentation needs
  • Cross-cultural understanding
  • Visualizing and decision making
  • Knowing how and when to use technology, and choosing the most appropriate tool for the task

There is a growing body of evidence that technology integration positively affects student achievement and academic performance. The Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology (CARET) found that, when used in collaborative learning methods and with leadership that is aimed at improving the school through technology planning, technology impacts achievement in content area learning, promotes higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, and prepares students for the workforce.

According to education expert Maryam DiMauro, a columnist on the website, further benefits of using technology in the classroom include:

  • Students gain word processing skills when learning to write on the computer
  • Working on computers fosters collaboration between students and between student and teacher
  • Leaders often emerge who really enjoy computers and can help others
  • Computer time promotes problem-solving skills
  • Computer time increases responsibility and independence
  • Computers encourage their natural love of discovery, as well as learning by trial and error

common challenges in incorporating technologyWhile the advantages of technology are self-evident, educators are faced with the responsibility of operating and caring for the equipment. At the same time, they must determine the best way to integrate the technology into the classroom. Some of the most common issues include:

  • Mobility. Many schools can't afford a projector and laptops in every room, so the equipment must be shared and oftentimes moved from room to room, or even building to building. Since there isn't a lot of time between classes during the school day, those moving the equipment—sometimes an educator, but usually a facilities or AV manager—must bring it to its next location. If the technology arrives or is set up late, it can be disruptive and interfere with the lesson.
  • Storage. Evenings, weekends, summer and holiday breaks: these are all times when the technology products are least likely to be in use. That poses another challenge: having an efficient, safe, secure place to store electronics and accessories—wires, cables, batteries, etc.—when not in use.
  • Safety. Keeping the equipment free from damage can be an issue, especially during transport. Flat panels, document cameras, tablets, netbooks and laptops are fragile and, if damaged, can lead to a loss of productive class time as well as expensive repair costs. Educators may experience a disconnect in the overall teaching/learning process if they are without the tools they normally use. More important is the safety of the people using the technology, especially children. Some of the equipment is heavy and made with breakable materials like glass, which can cause injury.
  • Security. Particularly because of a down economy, technology theft is on the rise. Schools, especially at the high school and higher education levels, must take extra precautions to ensure the valuable equipment they use everyday is securely locked up and protected from theft.
  • Ease of use and access. Not only is it vital for the technology to be easy to use, but it must also be easy to access and reconfigure in support of different teaching styles. If the technology isn't set up properly, or if it's difficult to reach or use the accessories, the time spent learning will be impacted, causing everyone unnecessary frustration.

Ultimately, making optimal use of technology in the classroom calls for a combination of flexible positioning, ease of access and security. Carefully choosing the right combination of technology support furniture will maximize its positive impact while protecting the significant investment it represents.

technology support for modern learning environments

mobility device carts for laptops, tablets and netbooksComputers are an integral part of today's modern learning environment. So how can designers and facilities managers make them an integral part of the class without turning every room into a permanent computer lab? One solution is to purchase mobile labs of laptop, netbook or tablet computers, sometimes called COWS, or "computers on wheels."

Laptops, tablets and netbooks currently offer the ultimate combination of portability and affordability. And because they are so conveniently portable, they're also quite popular to steal. The best way to keep mobile devices organized and secure is to store them in a sturdy, steel, specially designed rolling cart, which can house, charge and even sync up to 40 devices.

Carts with integrated, UL-certified intelligent power management systems that monitor devices and reduce the power as they near their full charge—thus maximizing battery life and longevity—are a great alternative to permanent labs. Carts with this power management feature cycle power through the computers during charging to keep them cooler, which also reduces wear and tear on batteries. Hot power adapters are kept away from computers in their own bay and quality carts are fully ventilated to circulate more air. Power adapters themselves are organized in the rear of the cart and plugged into labeled power jacks to make them easy to access, use and inventory.

av cartsAV carts have a long and rich history. They began as rolling platforms for film-strip projectors and WWII-era record players, grew to include color TVs and VHS machines, and were usually pushed from room to room. They were always built like tanks, so many are still in service.

Today, AV carts include everything from simple freestanding rolling stands for flat panel displays to full-on technology carts that incorporate space for laptops, TVs, projectors, document cameras and more. Mid-size to large flat-panel screens can be securely mounted to vertical poles mounted to either a rolling base or cabinet with universal arm brackets.

They are typically made from highly durable steel materials and include safety certifications and keyed locks to secure the equipment inside when not in use. Many are UL-certified, which means they have passed multiple weight and load tests ensuring the product is safe for children and adults. They tend to have multiple shelving units and even include standard 19-inch rackmounts inside to house all necessary electronics, cords and accessories.

Most AV carts are on casters, which is especially ideal in schools where the technology must be shared, and some feature enclosed cabinets for the AV equipment.

student tables and desksClassroom tables and desks with optional power and data ports, cable management and casters are universally flexible. They can be used individually for small group sessions or can be ganged together for presentations or other group activities; some are designed to be folded and interlocked for easy and convenient storage. Hooks for backpacks, shelves and cubbies for books, laptops or other accessories not in use, and CPU holders are options for further customizing classroom tables.

Mobile tables can be moved to match the size and style of the room, the teaching style and class size; tables without casters are a great choice for fixed configurations. And height-adjustable tables and desks allow classrooms to be switched between child or adult sessions, saving the school the expense of having to outfit two different types of curricula.

projection screensProjection screens are an installed item in most classrooms, and should be specified large enough and positioned high enough for comfortable viewing from the furthest reaches of the classroom, lecture hall or auditorium. This is particularly important for PowerPoint and other text-based presentations. In flat (non-tiered) classrooms, the bottom of the projection screen must be four feet or more above floor level for comfortable viewing from the rear, over the heads of the seated students in the front rows. You should also be aware of possible overhead obstructions like hanging fluorescent light fixtures.

To provide adequate projection screen area for comfortable viewing of text, graphics and PowerPoint presentations for the entire classroom seating area, use these simple ratios:

  • Minimum distance to front row = 2 x image height
  • Maximum distance to back row = 6 x image height

Permanently installed electric screens are raised and lowered with a wireless remote control or a wall switch, and use a standard wall outlet for power. For more flexibility or tighter spaces, portable floor-standing and tabletop screens may be a better choice.

lecterns and mobile teachers' desksFrom simple podiums to complex units that provide space for laptops, tablets, document cameras and video projection, lecterns are a necessity in classrooms and lecture halls. Casters allow lecterns to be positioned to focus attention on the educator, or to avoid obstructing visuals or projected presentations.

If the room has enhanced AV capabilities, having as much control as possible from the podium or teacher's desk will keep classes flowing and minimize distractions.

carrelsCarrels come in a variety of styles, including student access stations, study carrels and technology carrels, and most have the ability to add power. They offer a greater degree of privacy than tables or desks for independent study and testing, and are found more commonly in libraries and study areas than classrooms.

Carrels are available in several configurations: single-student stand-alone, back-to-back for two students and half-circle designs that seat three students.

utility trucks and standsUtility trucks can be used to move media and other small accessories like power cords, cables, headphones, as well as learning aids and models. Most trucks are slim and sleek so they don't take up a lot of space, and because they are on wheels they can be easily stashed away in small corners or stored in closets.

outside the classroomIncreasingly, schools are incorporating collaborative learning areas where students can study on their own or gather in more informal groups. By incorporating power and data accessibility into cafe tables, for instance, students can work and research without interruption during meals and study halls. Even soft seating in lounge areas can provide integrated power access to keep computers and tablets from running out of juice.

additional learning environment considerationsFactors such as room size and style, acoustics and lighting can have a profound effect on the teaching/learning environment. Fortunately, the furniture in the space can easily adapt to these needs.

  • Size and style of the space. The optimal teaching environment allows everyone access and participation while promoting the potential of each learner. Classroom size and style can greatly vary even in a single facility. Today's technology furniture is primarily modular, making it easy to place in the most ideal location in the room. Tables and desks can often be folded and moved out of the way when not in use or reconfigured to match the learning activities of the day. Furniture in collaborative learning spaces outside the classroom should be equally flexible and manageable, and offer integrated power access for all users.
  • Acoustics. The ability to hear what is being taught is essential for learning to occur. While open space rooms allow for excellent flexibility, consideration must be given to acoustic design. Since noise can be generated by the movement of furniture on the floor, most technology furniture is typically on sound-absorbing wheels. Pads on the feet of tables and chairs placed on hard flooring also help absorb movement-based noise. Soft furnishings, such as fabric-covered partitions and rails, or soft seating products like sofas, chairs and benches can be added to help dampen noise, as sound waves bounce off hard surfaces like walls and windows. Furniture has the most positive impact on acoustics when it is spread around a room, rather than concentrated in just one area.
  • Lighting. Studies show that good lighting promotes better learning. In fact, high-quality lighting improves students' moods, behavior and concentration, according to "Designing the Future," from the AIA Center for Building Performance. Most classrooms incorporate windows or glass doors—some even have skylights—which means consideration must be given to shading to moderate the amount of heat generated, as well as to ease strain during AV presentations. Since natural lighting can fade or discolor surfaces, most furniture products used in classrooms have durable finishes that help shield against the elements.

making classrooms agileIn the revolutionary text, The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching and Learning, the authors pose this question:

"'What can we do with 400-square-feet beyond just setting desks and chairs up in a row?' It is remarkable what you can do if you're given the right kinds of furniture—how agile you can make the space, how media-rich you can make it, how you can engage different modes of learning." One contributor to this collaborative project states, "We use a guideline for all our school furniture: Educators and students have to be able to adjust or reconfigure it themselves, without calling in a facility manager, and they have to be able to do so within three minutes."

Additional Resources

"Classroom organization must now accommodate periods of direction, guidance, research, sharing and summary," say the book's authors. "The furnishings must support these dynamics and enhance the opportunity for different types of learners to engage a topic from a perspective that has meaning to them."

Virginia Tech has also published some excellent guidelines for productive incorporation of classroom technology:

  • Encourage interaction. Create a collaborative learning environment with the instructor as a mentor. Provide easy access around the room. The lectern for the presentation computer needs to be placed at the right or left front of the room, allowing the presenter to face the audience.
  • Emphasize flexibility. Serve multiple users with many teaching styles. Designs should include many options while excluding very few. Cabinets or closets are needed for storage. Cover the front of the room with boards and screens. The design must permit using the board and projecting images at the same time, as well as simultaneous display of multiple images for comparing and contrasting. Classroom configurations should be easy to change as presentation technologies evolve and screen proportions widen.
  • Pedagogy should drive the design. Focus on a user-friendly approach with attention to simple controls and signage. Presenters should be able to operate equipment at eye level, without undignified crawling around on the floor or fumbling with poorly labeled controls in the dark. In addition, dual window coverings, multiple screens, functional light switching and climate controls give instructors control over the classroom environment.
  • Keep it simple. Make classroom technology as friendly and non-intimidating as possible. Technology should inspire presenters who rely on improvisation, spontaneity and audience participation, not inhibit them. The addition of computers should not make simpler AV devices like overhead projectors, slide projectors and televisions more difficult to use. A simple lectern with plug-and-show capability permits the instructor or presenter to display laptop computer output on a large screen. Complex installations tend to be awkward, expensive to change and require almost continuous upgrading.

Properly implemented technology is a powerful driver for teaching, learning and interacting, essential in furthering the ideals listed above. Careful selection of tools and support furniture ensures that educators and students will be able to make the most of technology.