Moving from Chaos to a Field of Dreams

“If you build it, they will come.” In one part of our campus we have marketers and strategic enrollment specialists working to brand our institutions as the kind of places students will want to come to – and to which their parents are willing to send them. In another part, we have practitioners learning about what students actually want and act. In yet another part we have academics doing research on a wide variety of topics that affect learning.

Whose “field of dreams” is it, anyway? In a recent conference session at “Hard Choices . . . Smart Planning”, Lennie Scott-Webber, dean of the School of Interior Design at Ryerson University in Toronto referred to “maintenance-driven design.” What did she mean? Well, I questioned her after the session and she’s pretty opinionated about the fact of, and the negative consequences from, so many classrooms on so many campuses designed with parameters and specifications that are more driven by maintenance over time than by considerations of the spaces involved as learning spaces. The custodians’ and janitors’ needs drive much classroom design more so than do the needs of students.

So, on Sunday evening I listened to Karen Holbrook, president of The Ohio State University, describing the multimillion dollar High Street project that institution is planning and building with the City of Columbus for a marketing-driven “spiff up” of a length of OSU’s eastern edge. It’s a fantastic development and the designers have listened to students who, for example, very loudly said they didn’t want a mall in disguise. Ohio State is clearly not just hoping, but expecting that when they get this built, the students (and others) will come.

After that, in two of the earlier sessions on Monday morning, I heard – in one case from a presenter, and in another case from a member of the audience – about a couple of serendipitous “learning experiences” where technical or administrative staff created a circumstance that drew students, without intending to do so.

Donald (Wally) Boatright of Coker College in South Carolina told an amusing story about the first wireless experiences on his campus. Just a few years ago a tremendously good president at Coker left after a productive 20 years. That president was not a computer user and had no computer in his own presidential office, although his staff used them, of course. Wally got a call from the president’s assistant, who told him that they were ordering a laptop computer for the new president, who is a computer user, and didn’t know what to do about wiring the president’s office because they didn’t have any idea yet where he would want his desk and other furniture to do. She said to Wally, “Isn’t there something like ‘wireless’ that we could do.

So, Wally went out and got an access point and set it up and realized it was pretty easy to do. Afterwards, he experimented a bit in a couple of places on campus was amazed to find (I know this is a common experience for many.) that even without being told of the existence of the wireless net, students found out about it, shared the knowledge, and flocked to it. In one instance, with the administration unaware, students turned an unused space into a share math study lab. Wally didn’t build it on purpose, but they did come.

Later, I attended Lennie Scott-Webber’s session about classroom design and the tension between learning delivery and knowledge retention. In order to make one point, Lennie broke us up into small groups and we rearranged some furniture.

During that small group time, a fellow audience member from St. Johns told us about one of the spaces he manages, a radio and television lab space. Because some of the faculty members who use the space want more room and less furniture in there, he routinely has some tables and chairs pulled out and stored in a nearby hallway. Students end up taking over that “stored” furniture and turning the hallways into impromptu learning spaces.

What’s the point? If you provide wireless, students will find it and use it. If you provide furniture, students will find it and use it. But who among us is talking to the students, or doing research on the students, to find out what they flock to and how that impacts their learning on campus? Shouldn’t we be learning about those behaviors so that we can design the physical and digital infrastructure to support their learning in ways that bring them in: Building it so they will come?

More and more people are using the results of academic research on human behavior and even neurobiological research that matches color usage maps of brain activity in order to design things. Those things include campuses, buildings, classrooms, and they should also include technology-based learning tools – in a different and greater sense than typical HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) studies.

A lot of what IT people on campus do is the equivalent of what the physical facilities managers do – it involved maintenance. I’m not saying that IT workers are custodians or janitors. That’s not my point and it’s not my thought. But, the technology in classrooms seems to often be driven, by default, more by the needs of IT staff, who have to maintain it, than the needs of students or faculty. We don’t set out to be the people who decide what classrooms are like and what technology is inside them. That would be backwards. But it sort of happens anyway.

Sometimes we build it by accident and they come by accident. It’s good if we share those lessons-learned, and that’s why there are professional associations and organizations like Syllabus. But it would be nice if there were academics going research on that, and if we learned about and then implemented their findings in our own work. It would be nice if the faculty considered classrooms to be teaching tools and worked to help us applied research lessons learned to their design.

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