Comfortable, Pleasant, and Maintained for Learning

I feel very privileged to be heading to Boston next week to attend the NLII 2004 Fall Focus Session on Learning Space Design for the 21st Century. The purpose of the NLII fall focus session is "to explore learning space design principles as a way to enhance and transform teaching and learning with technology and make it possible for faculty and students to engage in active learning."

I say that I feel privileged, because I am neither a classroom designer nor a classroom technologies practitioner. Yet I have a strong interest (See Modern Classroom Design Happens With You or Without You. What's Your Preference?), from February of this year.) and am certain that I will find the session to be stimulating. Plus, several true experts who are members of my employer-association, the Society for College and University Planning, will also be there to carry the "expert" load.

What will the assembled 79 experts (Registration was cut off long ago at 80.) decide can be improved in the next generation of learning spaces? My hope is that the focus will be on user comfort, as opposed to ease of maintenance.

EDUCAUSE, NLII, and of course Syllabus conferences and workshops are among my very favorite places to be. (Right up there with the fairways of a disc golf course. What can I say, I am definitely a geek.) At any of those conferences, you meet some of the nicest, most interesting people-all of whom are doing, or trying to do, things that will put information technologies to better use on behalf of higher learning. If you, like me, enjoy attending such conferences, you might want to take a look back at a column I wrote for IT Trends back in July of 2003, Top Reasons Why IT Staff Should Attend Conferences. Back, now, to the subject at hand.

Why did I say that user comfort is opposed to ease of maintenance? I think that if you take an honest and subjective look at classrooms in use on your campus-not one-of-a-kind experimental classrooms, but ordinary ones-you will see that there are many, many design compromises that are made simply in order to satisfy the needs over time for maintenance as simple as cleaning the rooms.

One of my very most successful terms as an undergraduate was when I truly overloaded myself and took, and passed with straight A grades, 32 hours of classes in one term. I was highly motivated and back in school after three trips to Vietnam in the late '60s and early '70s. I thought at the time that was all there was to it, I just cared a lot and worked hard. But one of the "homework" assignments for this forthcoming session in Boston included this question:

Identify two examples of campus instructional space involving technology (e.g. classroom, laboratory), one that represents what you would consider a "success" and the other a "failure." Feel free to include photographs in your description…

In thinking about this question, my mind kept going back to that one term in the early '70s at Kent State University. Because I had returned after military service I was in a hurry to finish up and improve my previously poor grades. I was in love with anthropology, any kind of anthropology, so six of those eight classes were anthropology courses, and five of them were in the same building, in fact in the same room.

The entire building was decrepit and the room reflected that condition, with peeling paint and dirty windows. But since I spent much of every day in the same space, I found an overstuffed chair in a little-used lounger area and dragged it into the classroom. It became "my place" for several hours every day. I became very comfortable in that classroom, in that chair, and with my 20/20 hindsight from nearly 35 years later, I'd have to say that being comfortable and feeling at home in the space contributed greatly to those 32 credit hours of 4.0 grades.

Guess what? I ran into trouble with "maintenance." This classroom had no technology more advanced than electric lights and an overhead projector in it, so at least I didn't run afoul of IT maintenance, but the custodian just hated having that chair in that room and out of place. That was partly due to a sense of order and partly because having that particular chair in the way required changes in the daily cleaning routine. Eventually, we agreed that I would put it in the classroom for my first class of each day and then be very certain to move it back into its proper place at the end of my last class-and I finished a great semester.

In her recent book, In Sync: Environmental Behavior Research and the Design of Learning Spaces, Lennie Scott-Webber, professor and chair of the School of Interior Design at Ryerson University, writes that "Well-designed workplaces utilize solutions that integrate employees' functional needs with comfortable and pleasant surroundings."

In most current on-campus learning spaces, design-to-maintenance has dominated over both functionality and comfort. There is likely to be a stronger drive to design-to-maintenance for the heavily technology-enhanced learning spaces of our future campuses, since maintenance of all of that technology adds complexity to the more mundane maintenance needs of traditional classrooms. If I have anything to add to the discussion in Boston next week, it will be to repeatedly bring up the need for learning spaces to be comfortable and pleasant.

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