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Virtual Tattoos in Learning Spaces

--"Yeah, that's my virtual tattoo up there on the wall. Cool, huh?"

I've never been one for memorizing things. I need to see entire patterns and understand how things fit together and interact before they enter my long-term memory. I'm as good, or better, than anyone else at quick, party-game memorization of lists. But 20 minutes later it's all gone from my head. At a professional meeting, like the recent NLII Focus Workshop on the Design Principles of Learning Space, I collect cards or make notes and spend time in my hotel room that night frantically recollecting as much as I can about each person I met. If I reach a sufficient threshold of knowledge about where the person is from, what they had to say, and maybe something about their personal life--then they're in my long-term memory. If not, they're gone. Sorry, I really did like you!

When I was teaching--mostly anthropology courses at several universities in the mid-1970s--I would at my own expense take Polaroid photographs of each student and keep a sheet of those shots in front of me during class. Some of the many stimulating ideas that cropped up at that NLII workshop have me thinking about identity and identification in a learning space of the future.

I'm not going to steal the NLII's thunder and report complete list of basic principles of learning space design, but a few of the proposed principles brought up by some of the very talented people in attendance have been percolating in my mind, bouncing up against each other, and giving me ideas. Specifically:

· The space should have an identity that among other things positions it in the larger constellation of spaces, learning and otherwise, throughout campus and beyond;
· The space should be comfortable;
· The technology in the space should be as transparent as possible; and
· The learning space should accommodate what the students bring with them.

The space should have an identity.

When we visited a language lab at MIT, the smaller breakout rooms (labs, I guess) had been given some identity by the placement on desks, shelves, and walls of objects of ethnic art, photographs, maps, and the like. That kind of thing helps a learner identify immediately with the space. Conversations about this at the workshop often turned to observations about elementary schools where teachers occupy the same classroom all day long and how much more of an identity those classrooms develop over time.

We can't expect that kind of thing to happen in higher education, though, where we often have difficulty finding space for faculty to have an office, much less enabling each instructor to own their own classroom. It's much harder to create that sense of identity, of course, in larger shared teaching spaces. Objects left on shelves or walls in such spaces might disappear. Faculty who cared about such things might fight over the available display space. Some suggestions, though, were to perhaps have faculty locker space where such objects could be stored locally and brought out as desired. Or, display cabinets for each class taught, so that students taking Philosophy in Room 411 could get a feel for the fact that at some other point in the week other students are taking Algebra II in the same space.

We also remarked at how often one has no sense in a classroom of where that classroom even is. It just seems counterintuitive that one can be sitting in a large lecture hall at the University of Michigan, for example, and nowhere in the room is there even a label that says that you are in Angell Hall, on the campus of the University of Michigan, in the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The space should be comfortable. The technology should be transparent.

I'll combine these two here. When I go into many modern, flexible classrooms, it so often feels like I am on stage. (I'm used to being on stage, so that d'esn't bother me, but I wonder about how some students might feel.) There are bare walls, a bare floor, small furniture that is clearly more designed to reduce cost, increase flexibility, and reduce maintenance--rather than for my comfort. And the technology is everywhere: rack lighting, like stage lighting, overhead; technology-filled faculty control stations, video cameras hanging from walls and the ceiling and aimed all around.

The audiovisual experts at the workshop, including SCUP member Mark Valenti of The Sextant Group, assured us that the information technologies and the audiovisual technologies are converging, and that one of the new key design elements for both is to build them into the space seamlessly, so that they are there but they do not themselves become key visual elements of the physical space. That's good.

The space should accommodate what students bring with them.

There's some basic common sense to this principle. For example, you simply need more space per student in a classroom at the University of Minnesota--where in January students are going to come in wearing coats, hats, and gloves (maybe snowsh'es), in addition to huge backpacks--than you do on the campus of the University of South Florida.

But students bring other things with them, too. In addition to their expectations regarding the technology that your school will make available to them in the classroom, they bring their own technology: cell phones, PDAs, laptops, iPods, key fob storage devices, and a whole lot more. Much of that stuff, no matter how we old fogies hate to acknowledge it, plays an important role in their learning routines. If we give them no wireless, no power to plug things in to, no desktop space to lay them out on--then we are not accommodating what they bring with them!

How about some technology aimed at accommodating all of the above? This is fantasy, but it's fun. Do not get turned off, for the moment, by the privacy implications--there are ways around that. Imagine that:

· Each piece of furniture in the room has its own unique RFID tag; · Each student is carrying their own unique RFID tag which allows them to be identified by some kind of virtual tattoo, logo, or favorite quotation of the moment--their choice. (Much like the current craze for creative "away" messages in IM systems.); and · Invisible technology in the room collects that information and allows it to be sorted and collated in real time, and displayed as desired.

A student could, on his or her PDA or laptop, see the layout of the room that locates every piece of furniture and identifies its occupant in whatever creative way that occupant has chosen for the day. The student can see himself in that room--what a sense of identity! That display could even be thrown up on some otherwise unused wall or ceiling space. The instructor can see the same thing, but she can also see each student's real identity and click through it at any time to as much other information about the student--grades, other classes, etc.--as the university feels appropriate given privacy issues. All such displays identify the room which everyone is in, what building it is in, what campus it is on, and can be clicked through to maps and other useful information.

You hide the equipment that's doing it, so it's transparent. You create identity--both for the space and the students. And you accommodate some of the less tangible things they bring with them (their virtual tattoos or thoughts for the day) while giving the technology they bring with them additional purpose. (And, you also help the poor instructor get the students' names right--every time!

"If you build it, I will come."

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