eCampus of the Month: Redesigning learning spaces for digital-age students

UNC's Learning Spaces 2020 initiative could make computer labs and classrooms more appealing to students.

Our “eCampus of the Month” for July-August is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which is redesigning its learning spaces to encourage 21st-century teaching and learning. Here, Larry Conrad, vice chancellor for information technology and chief technology officer, describes UNC Chapel Hill’s ed-tech vision and its keys to success.

How does your campus use technology to advance student learning?

Like their peers throughout higher education, faculty members at UNC Chapel Hill are experimenting with a wide range of technology-enabled solutions for improving student learning.

Areas of emphasis include courseware products to support large course redesign, the use of mobile computing to make large lectures more interactive, promoting student engagement and collaboration through Web 2.0 applications, and open-source course management systems.

Perhaps in no area is the university taking a more comprehensive approach than its initiative to re-envision learning spaces. The university’s Learning Spaces 2020 initiative emphasizes function over form, with the goal of having learning considerations play a greater role in the way we design, support, and make use of our campus learning spaces.

Emerging technologies play a role in this initiative, but it is the reconfiguration of mature technologies that is making learning space renovation cost-effective and scalable. Out of the gate, Learning Spaces 2020 is focusing on two primary campus learning spaces.

Learning space No. 1: Computer labs

Evidence: Our data show that students are mostly using lab computers to print, and printing stations now can be distributed across campus; mobile computing trends are making desktop labs obsolete; and students tell us that they want more spaces that support small-group collaboration.

Action: We are pursuing plans to replace traditional labs with study/collaborative space; the number of public access computers is being reduced; value is being added to new labs by integrating select library services and student life amenities (e.g., coffee); and a virtual computing lab service is in place that makes it possible for students to access most lab software from any network-ready device.

Key technologies: Interactive whiteboards and plug-and-play displays that support student collaboration; virtual computing platform.

Learning space No. 2: Classrooms, with an emphasis on mid-sized enrollments (25 to 50 students)

Evidence: Educational research shows that students learn and retain more through active learning, yet traditional classroom designs discourage interaction (eye contact, small-group work); moving traditional furniture to accommodate active learning techniques can be time-consuming and disruptive; AV investments that emphasize presentation are perpetuating outdated pedagogies; mid-sized classrooms have the most potential for change.

Action: The university has developed and piloted a unique classroom design that uses desks that swivel 360 degrees to facilitate movement between lecture/discussion/group work and the ability of the instructor to move throughout the room. Pilots for other interactive designs are underway.

Key technologies: Multiple displays to accommodate more complex sight lines in the redesigned rooms; document cameras and collaboration software are being used to facilitate sharing in the classroom; focus on designs that are most effective to replicate.

Has your campus noticed an increase in student performance and/or motivation? If so, how?

Computer labs: Use of the renovated lab that focuses on collaboration space has nearly doubled, despite a reduction in the number of computers in the lab to one-third of the previous number, and the lab is being used as a model for redesigning the remaining labs.

Interactive classroom designs: Instructors are reporting that new designs allow them to rethink seminar experiences in a mid-sized room; students are reporting higher levels of engagement and sense of community.

Although we do not have empirical data to support our beliefs, providing technology in all its forms to a student body that clearly is technology-focused is, in our opinion, a strong motivator—just as not providing technology to students that have grown up with technology is a form of not meeting expectations and a de-motivator. Working to change the physical learning environment of the student to best support their learning and work styles is key to adapting technology to the end user.

How does your campus use technology to streamline administration and aid in decision-making?

A foundational component in our instructional technology architecture is the Carolina Computing Initiative (CCI). At the center of the initiative is the requirement that undergraduates own laptop computers that meet university specifications. More than 30,000 students have taken part in the program over the past 10 years.

In addition to serving undergraduate students, the program has equipped faculty and staff with the same computers and software that the students own, thus ensuring that faculty, staff, and students are all working with equivalent, high-quality technology. The program has offered a number of administrative benefits as well, including the quickest possible warranty repairs for CCI computers, extended warranties on the various computer models offered within the program, and a loaner program for those who need to have their computer repaired. Student support for laptops greatly facilitates our ability to move away from traditional computing lab models.

A critical component in our efforts to make classroom support decisions more data-driven is AMX’s Resource Manage Suite (RMS). RMS allows us to proactively maintain equipment in more than 200 general-purpose classrooms on campus, identifying potential problems before they cause classroom disturbances.

As a result, we have effectively eliminated downtime owing to equipment failure. If any disturbance in functionality does occur, the appropriate support staff are instantly notified by RMS and, if necessary, deployed to resolve the issue. In addition, RMS allows us to create instant web-based reports that help us to identify emerging trends in equipment use. These data also have proven invaluable in terms of informing our classroom equipment purchasing decisions.

Given the tight budget situation facing most universities, anything that we can do to make us more efficient and effective—in all areas—pays dividends in the form of being able to absorb budget reductions without greatly affecting services offered and while maintaining quality for the students, faculty, and staff.

What ed-tech initiative are you most proud of, and why?

Although not a use of technology per se, one of our most recent accomplishments that is proving to be quite valuable is the formation of an IT Governance Structure, which gives a voice to all constituents on campus in some form to aid in technology decision-making. Given the distributed nature of computing on our campus, this is an important thing to do and brings the university together on the most important technology issues.

What have been your biggest ed-tech challenges? How have you overcome these challenges?

One challenging aspect of integrating technology within education environments relates to determining the return on investment. Universities have invested heavily in modernizing student information, financial, and human resources systems over the past 10 to 20 years. In our classrooms, for instance, we have established a consistent and comprehensive AV display footprint over the past 15 to 20 years.

As a result, faculty members can walk into almost any campus classroom and count on support across a wide range of platforms and media types. Unfortunately, few data exist that show how these investments have improved student outcomes. In fact, some studies suggest that investments in our AV display infrastructure have only reinforced a one-way approach to teaching that emphasizes presentation of information at the expense of interaction and collaboration.

By far, the greatest challenge that those of us in academe face is initiating enough of a campus conversation to point us in the right direction. We all struggle to identify consensus among our faculty. We should not be satisfied with the “cover” that a faculty advisory committee provides in our decision-making process.

It is impossible for a handful of faculty members to speak for all of their colleagues. The onus is on us to identify approaches that promote faculty experimentation with interactive learning techniques without penalizing those who are still well-served by a more traditional approach to teaching. Support of our learning spaces involves a number of stakeholders. Successfully introducing pedagogy as a criterion for classroom scheduling decisions, for example, will require new ways of doing business that must be reflected in our policies and outlooks.

Over the last three years, we have committed ourselves to the importance of gathering use and assessment data at both the project and service level. Service use and cost data are critical to our ability to control costs and to smoothly transition between legacy and emerging technology solutions. Having a firm handle on service costs and variables has also facilitated our ability to consider handing over certain services to other campus providers.

Assessment is a required component of all of our instructional improvement projects.

Well-conceived and timely input from students and faculty is critical to determining whether or not a project is worth investing more in or is simply a one-off experiment that is unlikely to gain traction. In a tough budget climate, especially, we have learned that instructional improvement projects with supporting data tend to move to the front of the line.

What’s your best ed-tech advice to colleagues?

Cost savings, standardization, and consistency are even more important during economic downturns, but efficiency should not be the primary factor driving learning space design decisions. Instead, evidence-based pedagogy and student learning preferences should be driving discussions about learning space design.

The challenge for technology advocates is to find a middle ground between the efficiencies realized through standardization and the instructional improvement opportunities afforded by innovation. For example, building the high-tech “classroom of the future” is unlikely to have an institutional impact unless it can be replicated and supported at a reasonable cost, regardless of the instructional benefits. As service providers, we must learn to constructively resist defaulting to a customer service orientation that often equates more/newer with better.

At the end of the day, it is critical that we reflect on what we’re trying to accomplish. Some of the learning support models we have depended on for many years need to be reviewed to ensure that they are still relevant today. Initiatives such as UNC-Chapel Hill’s Learning Spaces 2020 nest carefully evaluated pilot projects in a forward-looking strategic framework. Every innovative pilot, whether or not it’s successful, informs our ultimate path.

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