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What's new in computer facilities for teaching and learning?

The design of computer-enhanced classrooms and our approaches to teaching and learning in those environments has certainly come a long way since the time when we basically taught in computer labs with rows of desktop computers. If you’ve ever tried to do that, you know that those students in the middle by the wall are pretty much out of your range. And I can’t tell you how many conversations about teaching in computer classrooms that I’ve had where at some point one of us says, “…and you have no idea what they’re doing on those computers. They’re probably reading email…? Or something even more objectionable.

Fortunately, we have more options for computer-enhanced teaching these days and the OIT-DMC Faculty Fellows met last week with Simin Hickman and Jamil Jabr from the UMN Office of Information Technology to learn more about directions that the University is taking for computer-supported learning environments. These are the highlights of that conversation from my notes:

In a survey conducted by APPA (an association of university facilities officers), the quality of campus facilities was considered important by 67% of potential recruits and their parents when deciding among colleges. Additionally, the facilities in a major were important to 74% of this group and technology was important to 51%. In the deal killer category, 29% rejected a college because a facility was missing, such as facilities in the major (36%) or open spaces for working on laptops or other personal devices with wireless access (29%). To me, these findings underscored the importance of students’ expectations for integrating emerging learning environments into their university experiences, validating the work we’re doing with this fellowship. It was also an additional challenge to teachers and administrators to keep ahead of rapidly developing trends in an already challenging university environment where time and resources are increasingly limited. How to work smart in this environment is really not clear. If we truly embrace this challenge to be on the cutting edge of learning environments, we will ultimately have to make decisions not to do some things that we have traditionally done in the past. I don’t know what those things might be, but what *is* clear to me is that we cannot continue to do more with fewer resources. At some point, we will have to do less with fewer resources and making the decisions about what we will not continue to support will be difficult.

The biggest challenge that I see for us as we think about emerging learning environments in relation to computer facilities and classrooms is this: how can we open up our concept of “classroom? to include spaces where we do traditional classroom activities *plus* encourage continued work outside class time? For example, if we require a particular software package for our class, how can we make it available to students outside class time? This may seem trivial, but I have actually had to scrap plans to teach project management one time and content management another time with the industry software because I teach professional students in the evenings and they need access to the software in the evenings and weekends. I could find ways to use the software in class, but not to make it available to students outside class. So how can we blur the lines between “classroom? and “lab? to facilitate this type of specialized teaching/learning? I’m sure the readers of this blog will have other teaching situations where these types of issues have arisen. Or where the lines of administration and responsibility in the institution have effectively become walls to prevent border-crossing and innovation. Please post your thoughts and experiences.

In the “what’s new? category, students’ experiences in accessing lab and other facilities are becoming more seamless with additional thin client facilities. Students are accessing their individualized desktops by ID card activation, thus reducing the need to carry their files on key drives or other storage devices.

OIT is working to design specialized facilities that would have hardware and software to support students with disabilities. These free-standing facilities would be designed similar to existing video editing suites, where students could access tools as needed.

What I came away with from this meeting was a sense that the folks in OIT share concerns with those of us who teach to create learning environments that meet student needs/expectations, as well as support the kinds of teaching we would like to do in our specialty areas. OIT staff is working with faculty members and colleges to redesign computer labs and classrooms to become more flexible learning spaces. They are also seriously exploring how mobile technologies are and will continue to change our learning environments. I want to be sure to include my applause for their outstanding efforts and for the improvements they have already made that give me much more flexibility to innovate in my teaching.

Challenges as we go forward:
• To communicate OIT/college planning, design, and implementation projects more effectively downstream to individual faculty members. Right now, this is probably being communicated from college to department head/chair levels, but not much further in the organization.
• To provide opportunities for faculty development relating to issues of teaching and learning in these computer-enhanced environments. This will become more important as we more fully integrate mobile technologies into our learning environments.
• To provide reward structures for faculty who innovate in these university efforts to plan and design innovative learning environments. These efforts need to be integrated into the PRT discussions in order to provide proper incentives to spend time in these efforts vs. doing other kinds of research.
• To determine how content is developed for computer-based courses, modules, or whatever they turn out to be. If the assumption is that faculty members will develop that content, the University needs to have a large discussion and come to some agreement with faculty about whether we will adopt the MIT open university model and what intellectual property issues are attendant with that effort.

Related article: Transforming Learning Spaces