Ed Tech Trends | Interview

Remaking the College Campus

An e-learning veteran envisions a college campus of the future where physical space, technology, and collaboration blend.

Imagine a college library where books are not the focal point. Instead of sitting behind a desk checking out volumes, librarians have become technology experts who are dispatched to help students and faculty who are in the building. The "No Food or Drinks" signs have been removed, allowing students to move freely throughout the building with coffee cups in hand.

Taking a page from Barnes & Noble's business planning book, the college library is transformed into a place where students pore over laptop computers, PDAs, and iPads alone or in groups. The atmosphere simply oozes collaboration and provokes others to join the party to study, learn, and network with one another.

If this sounds like a far-off pipe dream, consider what's going on in Glasgow, where the Saltire Centre is the centerpiece of learning and student services at Glasgow Caledonian University. Regarded as "one of the most ambitious and innovative learning environments in the UK," the 1,800-seat building comprises multiple levels, each of which caters to different types of learning and interaction.

Open since January 2006, The Saltire Centre includes a 600-seat learning café, 400 computers, and 250 laptops that students and faculty can borrow and use wherever. WiFi is available throughout the building, where students can work independently in carrels, study in small groups in the learning café, or converge for some fresh air on the building's rooftop terrace.

According to Pro Vice-Chancellor Les Watson, the building took three years to plan and cost about 23 million Euros (about $30 million in United States currency) to build. The building is designed as an open, flexible space that allows for easy reconfiguration, said Watson, and flexibility that is lacking in traditional college libraries.

The fact that foreign institutions like Glasgow Caledonian University are ahead of the curve when it comes to designing space around student technology use begs the question, are United States universities on the same track? Curtis J. Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, said he thinks so.

"College campuses are being strategically planned to create more of that 'Barnes and Noble-type' atmosphere, where cafés really get students socializing around technology," said Bonk, who visited the Saltire Center to see for himself what all the hoopla was about. While there, he said he was particularly impressed by how the environment changed from floor-to-floor.

"The first level was a café, where students could socialize and study, and the next floor was created for a more team-based type of collaboration," explained Bonk. "The third level was for individual reflection and study, while the fourth centered around student counseling and advice. It was pretty neat to see how each floor stood for a different interaction."

According to Bonk, several American universities are taking steps in the same direction. At a recent e-learning conference of directors and administrators from schools like George Mason University, Virginia Tech, and the University of Central Florida, for example, he said, the idea of "planning space around student interaction and technology" came up several times.

So far, most of that space planning involves classrooms. The University of Minnesota is already making moves to develop more collaborative learning and socializing spaces on campus through its Active Learning Classrooms (ALC) initiative. The school currently has two pilot project classrooms in use for its electrical engineering, computer science, and biological science courses. The classrooms were planned as integrated, flexible, active learning spaces where nine students can sit at a single round table designed to maximize interaction among themselves.

"The laptops, low-profile flooring, and cable management tools in the ALCs offer better ways for instructors to interact with students," said Bonk, "and provide those students additional coaching and collaborative learning."

When evaluating the ALC program, the University of Minnesota found that the classrooms were well received by instructors, most of whom indicated they thought the overall relationship they had with their students had deepened and that the classroom design "changed the relationship students have with each other, which was a benefit for collaborative projects."

Whether this type of "redesign the campus around technology" fever catches on at other universities will depend on budgeting and also on the ability of leaders to see the value in creating spaces that embrace technology, socialization, and collaboration.

"New buildings must be constructed in a way that factors in how learning is fostered in an environment where myriad technologies are integrated," said Bonk. "Getting there means universities will have to rethink how they spend money on construction, technology, and student support."

Expect that transformation to take place slowly as universities and colleges realize that building bricks-and-mortar to house traditional, lecture-type classes is no longer enough to support the tech-savvy student.

"We're seeing the need for less seat time, thanks to online and blended learning," said Bonk, "both of which require a different approach to design and space usage than colleges are used to."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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