The Center for Interactive Learning: An Incubator for Hatching Technology

"It is imperative that Sinclair design a new facility that provides for experimentation with new technologies, includes space conducive to interactive formats, allows for varied learning options and provides a place for a systematic approach to the learning process." That was the conclusion of a 1996 task force charged with the responsibility of planning a facility that would help bring Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio, into the modern paradigm of teaching and learning.

"As we move into an information and technology society and economy, the job skills required for employees have increased," observes Dr. Ned Sifferlen, president of Sinclair. "We needed ways to create learning environments that would use technology to improve student performance."

What architects at Dayton-based Lorenz + Williams Associates designed in response was the Center for Interactive Learning (CIL), a state-of-the-art facility that helps professors integrate technology and instruction and, at the same time, provide students with unique technology-enhanced learning experiences.

An Idea Given Form

Completed in the spring of 1998 at a cost of $16 million, the CIL building encompasses 75,000 sq. ft. on four different levels and includes 500 miles of wire. More than simply a large computer lab, the CIL is intended to be an incubator where faculty can develop new methods for teaching using technology and students can take advantage of the innovations they develop.

Accordingly, the building is the domain of no one academic department. A stroll through the building reveals classes engaged in studying psychology or computer-aided drafting, or interacting with "Pat the Virtual Patient" in a high-tech suite that prepares students for careers in health care.

Such a walk-through is literally revealing. Exposed infrastructure and wiring reflect the philosophy that the learning process is to be open and visible. The walls of the classrooms and breakout seminar rooms use a combination of clear and sand-blasted glass in a gridwork design that encourages passersby to catch a glimpse of what’s going on, while preventing the building’s bustle from becoming too distracting. "There’s a functional reason for it," observes Jeff Anderson, project manager for Lorenz + Williams. "Something’s happening in there, and it’s not behind closed doors."

Nor is eyesight the only way to peek into the classrooms. The entire building is wired so that a student working in the Open Lab area, for example, could tune into a lecture taking place in the Forum multimedia theater or a simulation taking place on another floor. The classrooms, the breakout rooms, the offices - even the student lounges and basement cafe - are equipped with data ports that permit laptop computer use anywhere and link the building’s various functions and indeed the rest of the campus.

What determines whether a class is housed in the CIL? Projects must be doable here and nowhere else on campus. Faculty who wish to use the facility must submit proposals detailing how they will be using its unique technological resources as part of the learning process. Professional development areas and auxiliary staff are there to help them implement their dreams. Then, it is hoped, the lessons learned about instructional technology will filter back to the rest of the campus as new ideas and new courses take their places each year in the CIL.

"The faculty are not being asked to ‘tweak’ the traditional classroom environment," notes Sifferlen. "They are faced with a learning revolution. They need to become knowledge navigators." He anticipates that the lessons learned at CIL will lead to renovation of existing campus facilities to incorporate the sorts of technology piloted by the technology pioneers.

CIL Features

Among the most distinctive features of the CIL building are the Cyber Tree and virtual skylight. Using the metaphor of a learning tree, the Cyber Tree is a complex of exhibits and workstations that extends vertically through all four levels of the facility.

Stretching through the building’s large atrium from the lowest level to the roof, the Cyber Tree structure branches out at each level to a variety of interactive kiosks, workstations and video walls. "It’s designed to catch people as they’re walking through," Anderson explains. "It’s really a big advertisement that engages people in what the Center is all about."

Capping the building is the virtual skylight, a barrel-vaulted ceiling where cloud and sky patterns are projected in an ever-changing display. "We started with a real skylight," Anderson says. "But it became apparent that direct sunlight would wash out the monitors at the computer stations on the Cyber Tree. The virtual skylight gives the feeling of connection with the outside, without the glare."

Other less visible innovations include the many partnerships that have contributed to the building and its functions. First, and always still under development, are partnerships with major local employers such as General Motors and Dayton Power and Light. As Sifferlen notes, today’s less-abstract learners need "authentic learning experiences closely aligned to the workplace." CIL is seen as integral in retraining employees to shift from one job to another.

Other partnerships have influenced the building itself. For example, Anderson says that Sinclair is partnering with the nearby University of Dayton for an ongoing study of how lighting affects learning. And furniture manufacturer Steelcase has been a partner in designing and providing flexible, movable furnishings that accommodate both individual and group learning.

The CIL’s amenities also include the following.

Interactive Classroom. Designed for distance learning, the Interactive Classroom features video cameras, microphones and presentation equipment. Staff are available to help professors use this technology.

Video Production Studio. In the same area as the distance learning facility, the Video Production Studio offers a full range of services, including a control room, green room, audio suite and off-line editing suites.

Partnership Area. Furnished with handy equipment lockers containing rolling technology carts, this area provides space for CIL partners who work with the college’s professors to make their educational ideas a reality. The 12 semi-private work areas come equipped with computers and phones.

Cyber Cafe. The lower level contains a cafe where students can meet, relax or study - the tables have data ports for laptop computers. Every floor of the building also includes a student lounge - an area with comfortable furniture, a stunning view of the campus and, of course, more data ports for easy access to the rest of the building and the campus.

Skywalk. An important functional element of the building, the skywalk provides a pathway through the second floor of the Center. Since Sinclair is primarily a commuter college, the skywalk links the student parking garage with the rest of campus by funneling students through the display areas. There they can admire the Cyber Tree and video wall, or pause at interactive stations that introduce the Center and the college’s vision of learning and work/career related topics.

Classrooms. Called "Interactive Learning Centers," the classrooms are designed with flexibility in mind. Wiring and cabling, lighting, networked computers, ceiling mounted projectors and furniture are all movable and/or adjustable to adapt to the particular learning needs of the teachers and students using the space at the time.

Breakout Rooms. Small rooms equipped with a large monitor and VCR, networked computer and a whiteboard, these "Info Links" serve as collaborative spaces for student and faculty teams.

Open Lab. Available to anyone on campus, this area contains networked workstations with Internet access.

The Forum. Part lecture hall, part lab, part presentation studio, this 90-person multimedia theater easily links to any other room in the building to expand its instructional potential. The curved wall serves as a large presentation screen, which will eventually encompass all 360°. Three three-gun projectors, surround sound and theater lighting add to the environment. Speakers can rely on large screen monitors as teleprompters and to monitor what students are seeing projected on the wall. Also included are laptop connections at each seat and a voice lift system for amplification from any part of the room. A balcony-like control space allows a technical aide to help coordinate the lighting, sound and data systems.

Third Floor. Labs and briefing rooms comprise this center for professional development, with plenty of space for faculty and staff training. A state-of-the-art simulation lab highlights new technology and learning methods. Breakout "Info Link" rooms are also available.

Janet Coburn is managing editor of College Planning & Management magazine.

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