Technology for Active Learning Facilities

Emerging educational technologies can play a role in the shift to active learning in higher education.
Experts define active learning as engaging students through role-playing, creating case histories, and collaborating on audio-visual presentations, raising questions and searching out the answers as they go. The professor or instructor helps not just by teaching, but also by facilitating the students’ search for knowledge.

While the idea of active learning has been around since the 1980s, technology has recently begun to make the concept more immediate. Today’s approach to active learning includes enriching educational facilities with technologies that make it possible to stay connected with school and Internet resources through wired and wireless email, texting, video conferencing, and other communications technologies.

In this way, individuals and groups working on projects can tap digital resources to answer questions that might previously have brought work to a halt sometime Saturday afternoon — until a professor or teaching assistant showed up in his or her office on Monday.

“The old model of passive learning — 
the instructor lectures for an hour while students listen — doesn’t resonate with today’s students,” says Michael Leiboff, a principal in the New York offices of The Sextant Group, which is based in Pittsburgh. “Classrooms equipped with technology can change this.”

It doesn’t stop with the classroom, though. Learning continues beyond the classroom, notes Leiboff. Today, designers are equipping informal spaces throughout classroom buildings and across campuses with hot spots, Internet jacks, and power outlets that enable students to use tablets, laptops, and smartphones to text and email questions to colleagues and faculty as well as to access Internet sites in search of answers and information.

“We’ll put nooks and sitting spaces along corridors and off to the side of the steps going up a stairway,” Leiboff says. “We’ll fill these areas with plugs for recharging and WiFi and hard-wired Internet connections.”

Seating might take the form of cushioned furniture or walls designed with ledges.

Leiboff also likes larger informal areas that he calls “pods.” These will house a small table, three or four chairs, and perhaps a desktop and printer. “Even though laptops — and now tablets — are ubiquitous, students sometimes don’t want to carry their equipment,” Leiboff says.

Leiboff also likes what he calls a “huddle room,” a rectangular room with a rectangular table that seats two on each long side and one at the head of the table. At the other end, a large monitor sits on the wall. Students can plug in and share the screen. “Some of these rooms have video conferencing,” Leiboff says.
Integrating Educational Technologies
The two-year old School of Science & Engineering building at the University 
of West Florida in Pensacola offers some idea of how technology can promote active learning.

The University pursues education initiatives in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The new building uses technology to facilitate those initiatives. “Throughout the building, [there are] informal learning spaces with hot spots, Internet ports, and power outlets for personal computers and tablets,” says Becky McDuffie, a laboratory and educational planner with Atlanta-based Lord, Aeck & Sargent, which collaborated on the facility design with local architect Caldwell Associates. “The educational philosophy calls for hands-on learning and fewer lecture hall lectures.”

The building itself is a teaching tool, continues McDuffie. For instance, STEM students, today, build robots that lead visitors on building tours. The robots follow patterns of color built into the floors. When the tour is over, students connect them to rechargers powered by solar panels.

Other building technologies include daylight harvesting and an evacuated tube solar hot water system.
The building also includes a 985-sq.-ft. space dubbed “the holodeck,” which provides interactive 3D virtual experiences. The holodeck contains simulation technologies used in military, government, medicine, psychology, entertainment, and other industries. The holodeck can simulate the cosmos for physics students, molecular dynamics for nano-engineering students, and other immersive experiences for STEM students.

Flat screens dot the common areas of the facility for use by students and for general messaging.
The new Integrated Sciences Building at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, seen above, uses flat screens mounted on the walls, too. “The screens show schedules as well as images of student projects and faculty research,” says Jacob Werner, AIA, LEED architect with the Boston-based architectural firm of Payette.

The screens inform science students of schedules while promoting the sciences to students passing through the building’s atrium, which serves as a pathway from residence halls east of the building to classroom buildings and other campus facilities west of the building.

On the way through the atrium, passersby encounter classrooms, conference rooms, a computer resource center, and a 300-seat auditorium used for science as well as liberal arts lectures. Equipped with projection technology and a touchscreen presentation console, the auditorium offers a nod to the past with a chalk blackboard.

The upper floors of the multistory atrium provide informal study spaces called “tree houses.”
Hot spots, Internet ports, and power outlets provide power and connectivity throughout the facility.
“Classrooms provide video cameras inside the fume hoods so everyone can watch the experiments on the big screens,” says Werner. “The instructor’s bench has a document camera that can project document images onto a screen and also enable instructors to post PDFs for students to download.”

Behind the Scenes 
Building Controls
“This building is a Ferrari,” Werner says. “Like most science buildings today, 
it features low-flow hoods that move 
20 percent fewer cubic sq. ft. of air.”

The building contains 180 fume hoods, most of which can be safely shut down after hours. The HVAC system uses energy-wheel technology to recover heated and cooled air from the exhaust. The technology filters out water molecules to ensure that potentially harmful chemicals that may have dissolved in the humidity being exhausted do not make it back into the system. Real-time monitors continually check the air handlers for contaminants.

The classroom wing of the building has its own air handling system.

Daylight dimming controls and occupancy sensors help tamp down electricity use.

The next step in integrating technology will link educational technologies to building control technologies, explains Joe Andrulis, vice president, global marketing with Richardson, TX-based AMX. “Technology is enhancing core learning with projection systems, audio enhancement, distance learning, and media management that can route videos, images, and documents through buildings,” he says. “Some of these technologies are part of the educational space; others are part of the school infrastructure and help manage building systems, security, and personal productivity.”

Andrulis goes on to say that different kinds of technologies occasionally intersect and create opportunities to improve outcomes with a new control technology called unified communications control.

“For example, you might tie building control systems to administrative scheduling systems,” he says. “This would enable you to cluster rooms scheduled for use in the same wing of a building. Utilities in the wing in use will support each other. Utilities in wings not in use can power down. It’s a way to avoid over-investing in HVAC and lighting.”

Integrated technology presents many such opportunities. The security system that reports when an electronic lock on a door has gone offline can do the same thing for classroom projectors, networked computers, fume hoods, you name it. Such networking can alert security to potential thefts and maintenance to potential repair requirements.

In the end, today’s technology promotes active learning as well as active building management. 

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