21st Century Learning Lab

From Flickr - Ryan Bretag

I came to my current District in the Fall of 2009, just as they were wrapping up nearly 10 years of construction paid for by a modernization bond.  The schools all look beautiful, and just one piece remains.  The District has $150,000 to spend on each campus for a single classroom.  Originally called Classroom 2020, the construction has been delayed several times for various reasons, and is set to begin this summer.

I am lucky to be a part of the team deciding what this classroom will look like, while simultaneously enrolled in classes through the University of Illinois in the department of Education Psychology,  Curriculum, Technology and Education Reform (CTER) program.  And even luckier still, my professor, Dr. Evangeline Pianfetti was interested in this challenge, and asked us to write about it for our class.  Now I will have the wisdom of my CTER colleagues to take with me to the committee deciding how to outfit the classroom.  What a coup!

When I began thinking about designing a lab classroom, I first thought of Wallenberg Hall at Stanford University.  The building was refurbished to include modern, innovative classrooms that include technology of all types.  As researchers are studying the work that takes place in those classrooms, they are discovering that innovative classroom design can contribute to the learning that takes place – seems simple enough.   Our District Director of Technology has taken several cohorts of teachers to visit the campus as they have helped design the classrooms at their own sites.  Thus, at my campus, we have the benefit of seeing the work played out at another campus in our District, learning what we might tweak to make our space more effective.

One piece of the puzzle that we have been trying to work out is how to allocate time in the new classroom, and this has caused us to think deeply about its purpose.  On the committee, we are adamant that technology should be used to serve a learning purpose rather than being the learning purpose in and of itself.  We don’t want teachers to do the same old lessons in the room – rather, we want them to consider the realm of new ways of learning, and design lessons to meet that need, using the technology.

In the research about Wallenberg hall, I read about a lesson where students in a Spanish class came in to a “movie theater,” purchasing tickets and popcorn on their way in.  They watched the first 15 minutes of a movie in theater-style seating on a large screen in the classroom.  When they were finished, they rearranged the furniture into a circle and had a discussion about the movie, and for homework they finished watching the movie that had been posted to the instructor’s website.  This is an example of using the technology to create an authentic experience that wouldn’t have been nearly as effective in a classroom with a small screen and fixed desks and chairs.  Another example mentioned was a class in ancient religions when the students were studying a poem.  The professor used the three large screens in the room to project an English translation of the poem, a photograph of the site described in the poem, and some artwork created about the site.  A student in that class reported being skeptical about the use of technology, thinking it wasn’t for humanities majors, but then realized that he was learning the curriculum while being immersed in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in a standard classroom.  The researchers report that “[his] experience … recurred frequently in discussions with faculty and students: the first impression is of the technology itself, an effect that is probably accentuated by the white walls and neutral tones of the room furnishings; and over time the technology moves into a supporting role as the classroom activities move into the foreground.”

This poses a professional development opportunity for the classroom, and hence the name change to “Learning Lab.”  The team sees the room as an initial space for early adopters who already see the way technology can change how teaching and learning occurs in a classroom and beyond.  Teachers interested in using the Lab could participate in a school-sponsored apprenticeship or collaboration with teachers who were using it well.  In addition, pieces of the classroom that seem important could be replicated and taken to standard classrooms, gradually improving the entire campus.

What should the classroom on my campus look like?  While I was writing this post, (and actually, all of my posts), I encountered information overload.  On Edutopia alone, after clicking on a new link for “classroom environments,” (from which I found the photo above) I came across numerous blog posts and articles, each with its own set of links and ideas (including one particularly cool charter school where as a project, the kids got to help design their own space.  But I digress.) .

The most succinct list I encountered was by Michael David Leiboff in and article from Campus Technology titled, “Studio Classrooms:  Designing Collaborative Working Spaces.”  In the article, Leiboff outlines 14 characteristics of successful new classroom design, and I think the best advice he gives is at the end – “in order to meet budget constraints when designing these types of spaces, consideration should also be given to delaying initial equipment purchases but ensuring that the base building infrastructure, power, conduit, sight lines, and support structures in the ceilings and the walls are furnished.”  It is tempting to go for the biggest and best fad of the moment with the kind of budget we have, but it is better in the long run to design a space that can easily grow and change with the advent of new technologies down the road.

Get on with it!

Ok in a very particular order – from first to last – here are the components I would choose for a 21st Century Learning Lab.

  1. Infrastructure: The room would have wireless connectivity, cable TV access, and plenty of electrical outlets around the room.  There would also be stations around the room with hard connections for computers.  All of those connections would be linked and controlled by a wall control panel so that anyone could easily toggle among the various sources of input from around the room.  The room would have natural light with the option of blackout curtains for projections, and would be carpeted over a hollow floor that would allow for easy changes to electrical and other wiring.  (A note about lighting – lighting and lighting flexibility are very important but should be simple.  We learned from the other classroom in our District where the lighting had so many settings and the switches were so complex that teachers often left the classroom frustrated.)
  2. Whiteboard Walls:  The walls would be, to the extent possible, covered in white boards.  Along one wall, the whiteboards would slide, revealing hidden locking cabinets to facilitate the shared use of the classroom.  One portion of one wall would be dedicated to cubbie holes for backpacks (to keep them out of the way of projects and moving furniture) and open book shelves to store classroom books, dvds, software and the like.
  3. Flexible, Comfortable Furniture:  The chairs would be movable (on wheels) and comfortable.  The tables would be rectangular and would seat six.  They would be on wheels, and would fold away for easy removal and storage.
  4. Fixed work station:  There would be one fixed work station in the classroom that housed a powerful desktop computer, a printer, a document camera, and the wall control panel mentioned above.
  5. Two mobile work stations:  These would be small work stations on wheels with large monitors fixed to them and easy hook ups for laptops.  They could be rolled around the room, creating more opportunity for small collaborative groups.
  6. Overhead projector and large screen:  The projector would connect through the infrastructure to the control panel and could project from any of the hard wired connections around the room or from the fixed work station.  The screen would be as large as possible, but also retractable so that the whiteboard behind it can be used when it is not.
  7. Two Interactive Projectors: Epson makes and interactive projector that turns basically any surface into an interactive whiteboard for much cheaper.  These two projectors would be focused on another one of the walls, close together to create one seamless screen when both on.  They would be connected to a wired port on that wall. (I did learn that you can create a much cheaper version of an interactive board using a wii remote, but I’m not sure how that would be received by the Director of Technology).
  8. Two flat-screen displays:  These screens would be along the third wall, again connected to the wired port.  They would be mounted so that they could be pulled out and shown from angles that would support different types of group use.
  9. Laptop cart:  One laptop Macbook cart for the room for all students to use.
  10. Mobile devices:  In order to allow the learning to continue outside of the classroom, I would purchase mobile devices – preferable iPod touches or iPads with GPS.  The possibilities for use are endless, and I am particularly interested in applications for geo-tagging (for geography, art, architecture, etc.)  and augmented reality projects (see the example from the MIT teacher training program website.)
  11. Sound booth:  The fourth wall would house the cubbies, bookshelves and, money allowing, a small sound-proof booth with another computer work station for recording audio input for podcasts, movies and other media.
  12. Green Screen and lighting:  Depending on funding, again, I would have a pull down green screen and lighting for video filming.

I just talked with a friend this week who, after having been an administrator for a while, moved back into the classroom because she was excited to apply what she had learned into her own classroom.  When I think of the possibilities that exist in this District to be innovative and creative in teaching, it makes me think that perhaps one day I will do the same.


About Katy Foster

I am an Assistant Principal in Larkspur, CA. I blog to publicly reflect on my own learning in leadership.
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