Open Menu Close Menu

Learning Spaces

Creating an Innovation Space to Solve Real-World Problems

James Madison University's JMU X-Labs goes beyond making, encouraging students to tackle transdisciplinary challenges through collaboration, creativity and technology.

hand holding lightbulb

In higher education, we're preparing students for the real world. This means giving them hands-on experience finding solutions to problems that they might encounter when they are in the workforce. At James Madison University in Virginia we took this approach when we created our version of an innovation space: JMU X-Labs.

If you want to have a program that truly prepares students — that is, one that teaches collaboration and critical thinking skills, draws students from all disciplines and supports innovative real-world projects — you have to start by making sure you have the right equipment and the right technology to handle the types of projects students will be working on. There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to this. JMU X-Labs offers a great lesson on the importance of creating multiple iterations — and learning from each one — in order to ensure the lab is successful.

JMU X-Labs is part makerspace and part classroom, thus branded an innovation space. We use it as a home for transdisciplinary courses in which students of different majors collaborate with faculty and professionals to use technology to solve real-world problems for an organization, community or business. The courses include everything from designing drones and self-driving cars to developing and delivering meaningful AR/VR/360° applications and experiences to client partners. But the lab didn't come together perfectly in the first iteration. Or the second. Or the third. It took a lot of trial and error to find the perfect combination of technology and equipment to make this lab truly serve its purpose.

So how do you select the right technology? Trial and error. Our organizing team spent two years testing different types of equipment and technology to figure out what would work best for both our instructors and our students. We wanted the technology to be "invisible," meaning it is easy and intuitive to use to facilitate learning without being the focal point itself, or a distraction. Ultimately, here is some of the technology we selected, and why:

For our AV display, we selected the Epson BrightLink Pro 1470Ui interactive laser display. This was the only display that we found — and we tested several — that had the resolution, brightness and interactivity we needed. We set up three BrightLink Pros to project onto the wall in the front of the room. A fourth BrightLink Pro projects images onto a wall on the left side of the room. Students and faculty use the displays in different ways depending on the needs of their project. Typically the instructor uses the one on the left as an extended desktop to share his or her screen with the students. The other screens are each assigned to a team of students. The teams use the BrightLinks, ClickShare or Mersive software to project their content directly onto the wall and can interact with that content. For example, students can walk right up to the wall and draw on a diagram or write notes on an image using just their finger. The wall can also be used as a video wall by connecting the four projectors to create one large, seamless image. It's great for VR projects because a student can project what they're seeing in the VR headset onto the wall, and the large image makes it easy for classmates to experience what the student wearing the headset is seeing.

For videoconferencing we use the BrightLink Pro and the ThinkHub system, which improved our flexibility for videoconferencing because it handles Zoom, Teams and WebEx. We also have cameras at the front and back of the lab to capture video of the instructor and students, and that video is shared in real time with classrooms on other campuses. We have brought in outside organizations such as the Smithsonian Institute to partner with students on the projects, so they needed a way to be able to do that remotely rather than in person. This is a great solution. We also used Beam telepresence robots before they were acquired by a new company. We are still using one robot and are hoping the company can return functionality to the rest so we can use all six again. With Beam robots, the person who is remote can actually take control of the robot and drive it around to talk to students. This individual link has proven extremely effective at bridging the engagement gap that happens in many distance learning situations.

Transitioning for hybrid learning: We use ThinkHub with our BrightLink Pro display to transform a wall — a plain drywall surface — into a giant, interactive touch wall. Our technology became a huge draw for other departments when the pandemic hit. Our room was already enabled for distance learning and we were able to use it to support other disciplines when campus shut down. One unique example of this was with our performing arts department. They used the equipment in the lab to create virtual backgrounds and storyboards that they would project onto the video wall. Then they would perform in front of the wall, interacting with the content (drawing lines or interacting with the characters), and broadcast their performances via Zoom to their classmates. It was a great way for the students to learn more about how to use the technology to support their art, and provided a great solution during distance learning. James Madison University went back to 30 percent capacity in the spring and we expect to be back at full capacity in the fall. We'll continue to have the performing arts students use our space next year because it's been such a positive experience and has added a really great new dimension to their work. I believe the combination of Epson, ThinkHub and BlueScape, a collaboration platform that we use, will transform the hybrid learning experience of the future.

Here are some ideas to consider for anyone deciding what types of technologies to use in their makerspace:

  • Take advantage of loaner programs. Many companies will let you test a product for a month to see how it works. This offers an economical way to figure out which technologies will work — and which ones won't. Make sure that the product you select comes with great customer service, tech support and warranties.
  • Make sure to think through what you want to accomplish. We toured some classrooms that had expensive, slick technology — for example, technology that would actually project a hologram of a speaker in the classroom where the students are. However, this wasn't what we needed at JMU X-Labs. Make sure not to get so wrapped up in exciting-looking options that you lose sight of what your students actually need. Your technology should support the learning experience you want: Start by defining that learning experience.
  • Take your faculty's skills into consideration. If you select technology that might be over their heads, make sure you provide training and technical support on-site until they get used to it. If faculty is extremely adept at new technology, consider pushing the envelope a little with more advanced features and let them experiment.
  • Consider whether it will work for distance learning. Although students couldn't do some of the physical activities during the pandemic, our technology allowed us to provide alternative experiences to support collaboration and new innovative ideas for distance learning during COVID.

Technology should be transparent, capable and flexible. When students of multiple disciplines get together to try to solve a problem, they need to be able to work together and use the technology as an aid to help them, rather than something that gets in the way. It needs to be intuitive; it needs to do what they need it to do; and it needs to do it well. Finding the right mix of technology to make a makerspace like JMU X-Labs meet faculty and student needs took years. But it was worth it. Make sure to take the time to consider what is needed when designing and creating your makerspace. The results will speak for themselves.

comments powered by Disqus