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Collaborative Spaces | Feature

Transforming Campus Learning Spaces

Penn State Harrisburge collaboration loungeCollaboration Lounge at Penn State Harrisburg

Alumni visiting the Penn State Harrisburg campus could be forgiven for doing a quick double take, wondering if they are in the right place. The campus learning spaces are likely unrecognizable to those who took classes a decade ago in drab, uniform classrooms on the former Air Force base located eight miles east of Harrisburg in Middletown, PA.

Today, the Harrisburg campus features a mix of classroom sizes, bright colors, modern furniture, collaborative study spaces, and the latest audiovisual equipment, including interactive whiteboards and short-throw projectors. How did the transformation take place?

In 2008, Penn State Harrisburg Campus Technology Officer John Hoh received a daunting challenge from his chancellor: transform the campus's outdated classroom spaces in short order.

Hoh knew that a change was long overdue. "I inherited a situation that was less than optimal," he said. For one thing, the drab setting no longer fit with the student population. "The culture and makeup of our campus had gone through a radical change in less than a decade," he said. The enrollment, now around 4,200, had increased by 1,000 since 2004, and during that time the student population had changed from mostly part-time graduate students to mostly full-time undergraduate students. The average student age dropped from 26 to 20.

"That led to an incorrect balance of classroom capacities. We had 28 small rooms, all the same size, and only two medium-sized lecture rooms," Hoh explained. "That was the first reason we had to change." He also saw the need to create new collaborative learning spaces for the undergraduate students, including practice presentation spaces and digital media production spaces.

Speaking at the Mid-Atlantic EDUCAUSE meeting in Baltimore in January, Hoh described the approach he took to collaborating with others on campus to develop a sense of experimentation--to learn from their own mistakes as they tried new ways to create classrooms that "wow" the students. "It occurred to me that our learning environments are a reflection on what we think of our students and faculty," he recalled. "The question is, should they accept functionality or demand excellence from you?"

Hoh also saw the chancellor's challenge as a way for IT to remain relevant in an era of outsourcing. "We have outsourced a lot of things, but they can't get rid of the management of classrooms. I wanted to do it in an excellent manner and move our learning spaces from ho-hum to cool."

As the leader of a sweeping change in a short time frame, Hoh realized that getting buy-in could be difficult. Personal relationships and trust built on delivering what you say makes that journey much easier, he said.

Hoh described how he reached out to faculty teams and other groups such as the art department to enlist their help creating attractive spaces, which would house the latest in audiovisual technology. Part of the change involved the realization that the new student makeup and the ubiquity of mobile devices meant that the new learning spaces would need to include labs, collaborative furniture arrangements, kiosks, and event spaces.

Here are a few other lessons Hoh learned during Harrisburg's facelift:

  1. Implement first, apologize later. Hoh labeled his methodology as "Get 'er done." In other words, he chose to plow ahead to implement ideas and apologize for any disruptions later. He took advantage of a solid financial stream from a student technology fee to invest in new furniture and equipment. (For instance, he worked to get rid of older AV equipment racks with dozens of cords flowing out of the back.) He collaborated as much as possible, but also remembers stepping on toes. He recalls going to older classrooms with the physical plant director and saying, "This room stinks!" The physical plant person saw a room with 36 chairs, all with four legs on. "It looked fine to him and yes, it was functional," Hoh said. But the instructor was stuck behind the podium and couldn't walk around. The tables and chairs were old and didn't match. "I was embarrassed by this room, and it was not what the chancellor wanted, I explained to him."

    Hoh knew the change had to be a collaboration between ITS (Information Technology Services) and physical plant staff, and he had to try to convince them change was necessary. "Sometimes the physical plant guys were upset with the process, and only after we were done and I apologized to them did we have our 'kumbaya' moment," he said. Staff and faculty agreed that the classrooms looked better, which led to greater trust in the project. "The faculty started having some trust in us, but that can only happen after you've shown them something."

  2. Learn from your mistakes. The first few attempts to remake rooms weren't all successful, Hoh recalls. They tried a flexible and mobile podium in small seminar classrooms. The students loved it, but the faculty hated it. It failed in the classroom, he said, but is now successful in collaborative learning spaces and labs for students

    Sometimes ITS had to allow faculty groups to make mistakes, he said. The School of Business wanted to deploy flip tables for student laptops, but they found that when it was flipped up, there was no space for students to write. "I could have tried to talk them out of it, but instead I let them try it. We built one classroom like that, and we will never build another one like it again," Hoh said. "It will be pulled out in a few years and we'll do something else."

    Another mistake was not getting consistency from audiovisual vendors on placement of controls. "We had different control panels in different places," he said. "We realized it is important to be consistent on where buttons are. We learned to design different levels of classroom and then standardize.

    While ITS built momentum from its success stories, it also realized that "failure is part of the game," Hoh stressed. "Get used to it."

  3. Get the right people involved. Hoh listed groups that he realized he had to have in the loop on design decisions. They include audiovisual vendors and furniture vendors who are good with color. (He recommended having relationships with two of each, to play off each other in terms of bidding.) Also important are the physical plant managers and staff, the registrar, the librarians, assorted appropriate committees and upper management. Additionally he brought in students to observe and question changes, as well as what he called "faculty beacons," who can see beyond their own wants and needs. This ad hoc gathering Hoh pulled together has evolved into a more formal team called the Classroom Advisory Group that reports directly to the chancellor's office on plans and suggestions for improvement.

  4. Don't seek consensus. After working with faculty groups to seek compromise on design issues, he determined that consensus on classroom design is not possible. "Or if it does happen, the result will probably be disliked by all," he said. Visit with people, engage them, question them, and then trust your gut instinct, he says. Hoh's basic principals are that classroom furniture must be mobile, versatile and offer simple, seamless transitions for multimodal teaching and learning styles. Instructors need furniture that supports teaching while standing, perching on the desk and seated in conversation with students. His approach: Have a vision, build, promote, modify, repeat.

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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