Chalkboard to Whiteboard

The effect of technology on the design of space in higher learning.


4. E-books & Beyond
Books are not dead, but in the age of the Internet and with the easy availability of educational videos, films, blogs, etc., the role of books is greatly diminished. E-books, such as iBooks textbooks from Apple, offer information enriched with interactive diagrams, photos, videos, and 3D graphics. Students can highlight text, search for content, and find definitions in a glossary.

For all the advantages of e-books and the tremendous marketplace disruption they promise (threaten?), there has not been a massive transition to e-textbooks. On the one hand, they may bring down the cost of students' textbooks, and a Kindle or an iPad is certainly lighter to carry.

But on the other, printed books are somewhat easier to underline, notate, and not as tiring to read as a screen. But then again, printed books get dog-eared, worn, and quickly out of date, and it is much easier to search an online book for a word or group of words to find text that is relevant to your work. The arguments go back and forth, but the advance of technology is relentless.

5. Distance Online/E-learning
As early as 1728, there was an ad for distance learning in the Boston Gazette. Delivering information or instruction to students not physically present was popular when information couldn’t travel faster than the speed of a horse. Now that information can travel at the speed of light, distance learning is taking on an entirely new significance.

There are two kinds of distance learning: synchronous and asynchronous. The more traditional is asynchronous in which people separated by distance can take the same courses, but not all at the same time. These are everything from traditional correspondence courses to contemporary podcasts. They offer students the greatest flexibility. Synchronous distance learning involves technologies like web conferencing, video conferencing, Skype, etc., and they require students to be “present” at the same time.

There are a lot of benefits to distance learning, especially for students who are independent and comfortable working alone, and good with computers. Online courses can be perfect for someone juggling a job and a family along with going to school. Though many colleges offer distance-learning options, levels of accreditation vary. Most degree programs require a blend of distance and on-campus courses. But that’s starting to change.

The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), together with AT&T and Udacity (a MOOC provider), now offer a master’s degree in computer science that can be earned entirely through MOOCs. Though the courses will be free to the general public, degree candidates must already have a B.S. in computer science and also pay tuition. The distance-learning tuition is about $7,000 compared to about $10,000 on campus for an in-state resident and $26,000 for out-of-state.

It’s easy to see how things such as cost, convenience, and flexibility are already changing the space considerations on college campuses.

6. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)
Almost everybody has his or her own smartphones, tablets, e-Readers, and laptops these days. And more than 50 percent of students use them to integrate themselves into their university’s information stream. It goes far beyond registering for classes online. Students can view e-books and videos related to course work and communicate with teachers and fellow students about class projects.

Though BYOD is a definite trend, the scope can vary widely from school to school depending upon how much and what type of technology is integrated into the university system. What’s more, universities can’t control which devices students are bringing with them, so they have to adapt their systems to the students.

There are two keys to making these systems work. One is ample WiFi bandwidth. The other is adequate and ubiquitous power supply. Without these, as Dr. Joseph Cevetello, director of learning environments at the University of Southern California has observed, the devices become dead weight. It’s important for universities to get this right, because some studies have shown that for today’s digital natives, integrating personal devices into the teaching process on campus can improve learning by up to 400 percent.

With that in mind, some colleges and universities are implementing furniture that enables students to gather around a central screen used as an external display for their laptops. New technology allows new levels of collaboration.

7. Widespread Video Collaboration
Today’s Digital Natives are perfectly comfortable sharing screens. And technology gives anyone, anywhere the potential to share with anyone else, anywhere else. Underserved students in cities or jungles can now connect to a vast spectrum of learning experiences via YouTube, as well as those provided by schools and educational websites such as Kahn Academy.

This kind of mass education is only one of the peripheral effects of widespread video collaboration. According to Steve Delfino, vice president of corporate marketing and product management at Teknion, it will transform economic society around the world. Just one example is in Ethiopia at Jimma University. To address its lack of resources and teaching staff, the university has installed a video conferencing system in classrooms and offices.
This system enables Jimma University to conduct video lectures, expand distance-learning programs, and connect to other universities and government departments. A real-time media platform allows for multipoint conferencing with other campuses and permits connecting 10 to 12 classrooms at once.

Widespread video collaboration also offers a way to truly engage students in a new kind of educational experience rather than just tweaking what we’ve always done, but digitally.

8. Gamification
Since the advent of Sesame Street nearly 50 years ago, people have sought to embrace the idea of making learning fun. Gamification takes that idea to a dramatic new level.

Applying game thinking and game mechanics to education has been found to build engagement and personalize learning. A core gaming strategy is to provide rewards for accomplishing certain tasks: e.g., points, a progress bar, or certificates of achievement. Gaming also attempts to minimize cognitive fatigue or frustration, respond to an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, and tap into intrinsic motivation, as opposed to the pressures of external competition.

Data of students’ performance can be collected and analyzed. This data can then be used to inform and adapt teaching methods, as well as to assess teacher effectiveness. Several pilot programs in New York City and Santa Monica, Calif., have found that making school feel “less like school and more like real life” helps students experience purposeful learning.

MOOC courses offered by Coursera in the spring of 2013 included not only Human-Computer Interaction and Songwriting, but also Gamification. According to the Coursera website’s description, “Effective games leverage both psychology and technology, in ways that can be applied outside the immersive environments of games themselves. Gamification as a business practice has exploded over the past two years ... in areas such as marketing, human resources, productivity enhancement, sustainability, training, health and wellness, innovation, and customer engagement.”

No doubt gamification will soon migrate to and perhaps “explode” in higher education, and will affect the design demands of space in ways that are hard to predict.

9. Active Learning
Also known as experiential learning, active learning taps into the social nature of Digital Natives. These students thrive on collaboration, group projects, and sharing ideas; sitting in a traditional lecture hall or sequestered deep in the stacks of the library, they quickly lose interest.

Judging by the way it is being embraced both by students and educational institutions alike, active learning is a very important trend. Though it is not entirely new—internships, apprenticeships, and student teaching have existed for years—active learning has been taken to new levels by technology via hands-on projects and real-life simulations. The ultimate indication of its importance is the fact that colleges are willing to invest capital in the form of building design to support it.

10. Big Data
There is a torrent of data: 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are generated a day. The potential power of this is only now being appreciated and leveraged. One opportunity is to use related data to get answers to questions previously considered beyond reach. In the world of higher learning, big data can help capture more complete views of students, their activities, and what influences the choices they make.

Big data will also influence design choices, because it will help colleges and universities better manage their real estate and classroom scheduling. In an age when classroom use is falling—as students spend more time interning, researching, and teaming in informal spaces—it is more important than ever for universities to leverage every square foot of their real estate. Though its future impact regarding education remains unknown, the potential of big data is still in its infancy and is something designers would be well advised to pay attention to.

what’s next?

The embrace of technology is total, and not merely by students—teachers have adopted it as well. Just consider a few facts.

For students:

  • 38% of college students cannot go 10 minutes without technology
  • 65% use digital devices to create presentations
  • 82% use a device to research or write
  • 50% of those who own a digital device regularly read e-textbooks

For teachers:

  • 79% of their students access assignments online
  • 76% of their students submit assignments online
  • 91% of their students think email is the best way to get extra help from their teachers

For designers like us, the challenges and the opportunities technology presents are enormous. We have to question everything we think we know about what college is and how it works. What is the relationship between the students and the teachers? What is the relationship between everyone and their classrooms? How do today’s students really learn? And what are the most efficient, cost-effective ways to help spaces enhance that learning? Is there a new chalkboard waiting to be invented?


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