Designing the Computer Classroom
The computer classroom is a key component of higher education. Teaching and collaborative work in the age of instructional technology relies on an effective computer classroom. Where once a computer classroom was a rare entity strictly for computer science and engineering students and faculty, it is now an established and prevalent teaching tool for all disciplines. The design and maintenance of such a facility could affect the way numerous students learn in the era of academic computing.
Despite its prevalence, academics and technologists have had to face numerous difficulties in designing, creating, and maintaining an effective computer classroom. There are numerous issues beginning with the design and layout of computer furniture to hiring and training student support staff to user authentication. These issues have long plagued support staff who have been provided few if any guidelines, standards, and procedures of setting up computer classrooms. Without a history and link to other universities, computer classroom managers often find themselves reinventing the wheel.
This document is intended to provide "wheels" to computer classroom designers and managers throughout higher education. We will identify the challenges and the successes of managing the University of California Davis centralized computer classrooms. Numerous standards were established as a result of years of hard work and information gathering.
Generating a Shared Vision
While it can be widely accepted that a computer classroom is needed, ideas and concepts about such a classroom are varied. The first step is to bring together the room’s eventual clients, primarily faculty and other instructors, with the designers and support staff. Depending on the number of people participating and the perceived need of a computer classroom, this process may take between three weeks to one to two years. A single vision is essential in building a successful computer classroom.
A primary focus when generating the vision should be the pedagogical needs of instructors. The "classroom" concept should not be abandoned because of the presence of computers. Group work, sight lines to the instructor, and the general learning environment should be included in this discussion.
The next step in the process is to bring in all key stakeholders to create a formal agreement. In our experience, the clients (faculty) are not the source of funding for the creation of a computer classroom. Administrators such as deans, department chairs, or IT directors will need to assess the vision and provide final approval. Notes from the meetings to set the vision and the final vision should be included in the formal agreement. Lab Management typically has this formal agreement in the form of a memorandum of understanding.
Room for the room
While most agreements and shared vision may include the specific location, it may not always be the case. Space at most universities is often scarce and strategic space is rarer still. Lab Management has often resulted to bargaining and bartering for space. Identify a strategic location. Some characteristics could include the following:
- Room size
- Room geometry
- Proximity to existing computer classroom
- Proximity to traditional classrooms
- Building’s existing electrical and HVAC system
- Room location in a building (ie basement)
Lab Management has had numerous experiences with "bad" rooms. Several computer classrooms were located in a basement and heavy rains caused flooding or damage to the walls. Installment of computer classrooms required major electrical and heating and ventilating (HVAC) renovation to the entire building increasing costs.
The best solutions found by Lab Management is to work with other campus groups. The ideal groups to work with are those who are directly responsible for several rooms throughout the campus. The UC Davis Office of the Registrar has assisted in several projects to create computer classrooms. They often provide two small adjacent rooms that Lab Management then converts into one larger room accommodating 30 or more computer stations.
Following the identification of a site, new estimates are needed. An assessment of the site should allow a planner to provide revised estimates on resources and time. On going costs might be needed during this stage. Additional conversations should be made with instructors to determine if the room is indeed suitable and if there are additional developments in their needs.
Building the Detailed Project Plan
With an identified site, a formal agreement, and an estimate, it is important to build a formal project plan. For most people, this is where the rubber meets the road. Details are determined for the major sections: design, room renovation, furniture selection and installation, equipment selection and installation, software installation, support staff hiring and training. We will address each section. A generalized project plan is available on Appendix A.
Several options need to be developed to identify the general design of the room. The layout of the room, the location and size of the student desks, the location of the instructor all need to be considered. Several designs are identified in Appendix B. These designs include concepts discussed during the vision phase. Instructors provide input into the type of layout works best for their teaching style.
There are several basic styles. A horseshoe shape or double horseshoe shape is the preferred style for instructors who mix instruction with collaborative work and discussions. A traditional front-focused, "follow the leader" type of arrangement is preferred by instructors who lecture or want students to follow along using the computer.
The final design can be determined before or after the selection of a site. Designs influence the selection of furniture and the locations for electrical, networking, and security cables. Room geometry may limit design options. If there is a strong case for a design, a new site maybe selected to accommodate the design.
Most rooms were not designed for computers. Some rooms may need work to bring them up to basic standards. In general, the older the building and the room, the more needs to be done to adopt it to the computer classroom environment. We have mentioned some aspects already. But the here are some questions to ask as you build the project plan.
Will the doors allow for handicap access?
Are fire alarm sensors and/or fire alarms located in or near the room?
Are there existing room alarm systems that can accommodate for fiber optic theft alarm systems? Are there doors or windows in the room that need to be secured or alarmed?
Is asbestos present in the floor tiles and require removal? Is there a need to install or replace floor tiles? Is carpeting required?
Will they need to be painted? Will they need to be removed (the case where two small rooms are combined as one)? Will doors need to be removed or added? Will windows need to be removed or added? Will sound baffles need to be installed to reduce noise?
Can the electrical circuits in the room support the additional load? Where are the existing electrical outlets? How will the electrical cabling be rewired to line up with the furniture and overall design?
Is lighting sufficient for the room? Will it allow for dimming when projecting?
Is there a connection in the room leading to the campus internet connection? How is it wired into the room and will additional wiring be required? Is there a need for a phone in the room?
- Heating, Air Conditioning, and Ventilation (HVAC)
Can the existing system accommodate for the increase in heat dissipated by the computer equipment? Is the system temperature control in the room? Is the system based on temperature in the room or on the building’s temperature? Is the system excessively noisy for the class environment?
Lab Management has allocated both time and resources in nearly all items listed above in every project. The work required negotiating and scheduling work with several campus departments. Some items listed above can take hundreds of work hours. Asbestos abatement and the demolition of walls can often take months, especially during the school year when work is restricted to evening and weekend hours.
The furnishings need to accommodate the design, the computers they will hold, and the learning environment. The size and shape of the computers and their lockdowns often determine the table design. Desks have to allow for both books and computers at the same time. Chairs have to be adjustable to allow for ergonomics, are easy to clean, withstand the constant daily use, and its colors match the general room colors scheme. Desks also have to hide or secure numerous cables. Instructor’s desks are typically larger and house additional controls for room lighting and A/V equipment.
Lab Management has found that vendors may accommodate the requirements for chairs but not for tables. The campus’ carpentry shop was hired to custom build desks specifically for the computer classroom. In some cases where room geometry was odd, furniture was made to fit the contour of the room. The solution was both effective and less expensive than a vendor solution.
Adjustments are also needed to accommodate electrical and networking. Lab Management has found that installing electrical conduits on the desks assisted in both minimizing cables and keeping tables aligned. A solid metal power strip is attached onto the table rows that deliver power to the equipment. In the past, we have often strung together a series of power strips which can lead to numerous safety and reliability problems.
Selecting and Installing the Equipment
Based on the initial vision and existing standards, this can be a fairly simple process. Lab Management has a standard for computer equipment, reviewed annually. The standard identifies memory size, hard drive size, speed, monitor size, and general configuration (sound card, desktop vs. tower, etc.). UC Davis also has standards for classroom A/V equipment. The A/V group typically selects the equipment to be installed in the classroom. Determining if the platform is Mac or PC is typically done when identifying the vision for the classroom. An overwhelming demand for one platform does affect the selection of the equipment. The vendor for the equipment is selected based less on initial pricing and more on reliability and support. We expect computer and printer equipment to be in service three to four years and require a three year warranty on all equipment.
Time to install and test network equipment and cabling is done during this phase. Depending on available funding, this can be done by a central networking unit, Communications Resources in the case of UC Davis, or by the staff building the room. Lab Management uses a combination of staff and student staff to install and test networking.
The server selection might be limited by the platform. Lab Management uses HP Workstations running HP-UX as the file and print servers. This allows a single machine to provide both Mac and PC services through the use of CAP (Columbia AppleTalk Package) and SAMBA (See Appendix C). Due to the number of users and the functions needed for the UC Davis computer classrooms, a Windows NT solution was not feasible.
Installing software can be done tediously or easily. A standard suite of software for the classroom can be installed a computer at a time or an entire room at a time. Lab Management has nearly perfected this process through the use of automated restoration tools. One "master image" is created from installing on one computer. The image is then pushed out to the other computers in the facility. See Appendix C for a list of the automation software used in this process.
A system is also setup to allow for automated restoration. Lab Management has several systems turn on automatically during closed times and restore the standard suit of software. Upgrades and specific class software is installed in a similar manner.
Support Staff Hiring and Training
As with most units responsible for computer classrooms, Lab Management employs students to provide front line support. When a new computer classroom is built away from any existing computer classroom, a new support staff is hired. Job postings and ads are used to get a pool of applicants. Interviews are conducted and focus more on customer service than on technology savvy.
Training is conducted in both a formal process and informal process. Lab Management conducts a week long "boot camp" for new and veteran staff during the summer. The training focuses on basic skills such as customer service, trouble-shooting, use of web tools to support the operations of the computer classroom, and on general familiarization with the technology resources on campus. A student supervisor, one is hired for each student group of no more than 13 students, provides one-on-one training on software or any other needs as identified by the student staff. This one-on-one training is done once a week for one hour for each student.
Ongoing Support and Other Issues
Because of increasing concerns over the appropriate use of computers, authentication has been a major concern. Lab Management has employed a system that requires students to logon to use the computer. The system is similar in design on both the Mac and PC platforms. The logon connects the student to the appropriate server for the room and allows them to use applications on both the server and the hard drive and to print documents. As a result of the authentication process, Lab Management is able to track how much a particular student prints and how often and how long he/she uses a particular software package.
Collecting Data (Metrics)
One of the most compelling arguments to obtain resources to expand or maintain existing computing services is derived from usage data. Information on number of individuals using the computer classroom, the percent utilization of the room, and the number of pages printed per given room can be summarized. This summary can then be presented to decision makers to argue for ongoing support of computer classrooms. Lab Management tracks a variety of information that has proven useful in obtaining additional resources such as new rooms and additional funding.
Equipment Life Cycle
The life of computer, printer, furniture, and the room itself needs to be considered for ongoing support. Computers, in these days of rapid obsolescence, have the shortest life span. Lab Management identifies that the heavy utilization of the machines combined with the obsolescence of the technology limits its use to no more than four years. The printers have proven more resilient and have lasted as long as five to six years. Room remodeling, perhaps the most time consuming if not the most expensive, has been done frequently by Lab Management. In many cases, rooms required painting and other structural work not done in decades. Annual funds should be reserved to accommodate for these cycles.
Creating a computer classroom presents numerous social, organizational, as well as technical challenges. Key stakeholders need to meet to agree on a common vision. Consideration must be made to balance technology with the teaching styles of instructors. Technology and the room were adopted to best serve the teaching and learning environment. The Appendices at the end of the document provide additional information for the computer classroom designer.
It is clear from Lab Management’s experience that clear standards and guidelines do not exist. Other computer classroom designers may have considerably different approaches in this matter. We hope that this document begins a discussion on general concepts and designs that lead to a standard process of building a computer classroom.