Room With a View

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Outfitting group study spaces requires careful deliberation, to create anenvironment most conducive to learning.

THE DESIRE TO CREATE an effective group study space leads naturally to the questions: What do we need, and how much is it going to cost? Depending on the type of learning activity intended for the space and the appropriate level of technology, the answers about cost can range from“Not much!” to “Goodness gracious!”

Group study spaces are really group learning spaces; they are an alternative environment to the classroom and aren’t meant merely for student use. The educational activities that take place in them can often be peer-to-peer, teacher-led, teacher-moderated, teacher-monitored, or any combination thereof. To drive the outcome of a group study space project, it is important to determine what is appropriate and necessary by answering questions about the needs of the users:

  • Will users of the space be making formal presentations to each other?
  • Is the space going to be used for viewing media (videotape, DVD, streaming video, Webcasts, etc.)?
  • To what degree will users be using technology to collaborate?
  • What resources will users need to be connected to while in the space?
Smart Classroom

SPACE MATTERS: The studyarea
should be cozy, but notstifling or too small.

Starting With the Basics

A group study space needs to be conducive to small-group learning. The room itself needs to have a cozy feel, without feeling oppressively small. Additionally, acoustics play a large role in learning, in and out of the classroom, and group study spaces are no exception. Informal exchanges among the group can result in a great deal of learning, and so are every bit as important for users to hear clearly as is a lecture delivered in a classroom. Therefore, it follows that the basic room design should keep classroom acoustical best practices in mind:

  • Reasonable isolation from outside noise sources.
  • Care taken to reduce rumble and excessive sound from air-handling systems, elevators, bathrooms, electrical transformers, and other sources of distracting noise.
  • No square layouts.
  • Use of sound-absorbing materials to limit reverberation within the room.

A simple, inexpensive collaboration tool that no group study space should be without is a non-digital whiteboard. Clear, posted policies regarding erasure of content in between uses of the space are advisable so each set of users can feel free to take full advantage of the available space. Whiteboards should be completely cleaned each day. Another basic yet fundamental component of a favorable group study space is windows. Windows reduce feelings of constraint that can result from being in a small room. They also can provide a means of monitoring to help teachers ensure that group activities remain on track.

It’s also key not to overlook the necessity of effective seating arrangements. Seating should be ergonomic but without encouraging napping. Chairs and tables should be moveable (if possible) to allow groups to arrange themselves in different ways for projects as appropriate. Wheelchair access should also be a consideration. When tables are laid out, the focus generally is on achieving maximum occupancy; allowing for the necessary space to maneuver a wheelchair is sometimes overlooked.

A fundamental component of a favorable group studyspace is windows. Windows reduce feelings ofconstraint that result from being in a small room.

Additionally, a basic level of technology includes providing readily accessible electrical outlets, as convenient to the users as possible. This should include electrifying the tables, if the tables are relatively fixed. There should be an accessible electrical receptacle for each student. Wireless networking, ubiquitous in many learning environments, should be given special consideration for group learning spaces. Depending on the type of learning activity, the amount of bandwidth necessary for each user, and the number of wireless users in the immediate coverage area, it may be suitable to provide one or more dedicated wireless access points for each group study space. At least one wired network outlet is also advisable.

If additional teacher supervision for peer-learning activities is not easily accommodated, a Web camera mounted in the corner of the room is an option. The camera should preferably be aimed toward the door, to monitor comings and goings, as well as to see whether visitors are causing distractions from the learning activities.

Adding a Layer of Technology

With the basics of wired and wireless network access and sufficient electrical power established, the teaching and learning objectives to be accomplished in the space should drive the technological build-out.

In facilities where laptops are not readily available to students, one or more dedicated Macs/PCs can be provided for group study spaces. A laptop checkout system can also be implemented. However, this can lead to students wanting to use the computers for individual study. Posted policies regarding room use are advisable, placing priority on groups rather than individuals. Where multiple learners are using a single computer, a shared display device can help everyone participate and contribute to the greatest extent. For small rooms, a 30-to-40-inch wall-mounted LCD monitor is often sufficient. The cost of 30-inch LCD monitors has dropped precipitously in recent months, making them affordable for most applications.

For larger rooms, a data/video projector provides a large-enough image for all to view. When planning for these display devices, it’s essential that cabling be carefully thought out. Cables and interfaces should be deliberately placed and protected so users can connect to the display device with a minimum of difficulty and technical prowess. Tamper-proofing goes a long way toward reducing tech-support problems.

Also to be considered are electronic whiteboards, which can be used effectively in group study spaces where users are trained in how to use them, and where necessary software drivers have been preloaded on the computers being used in the space. A less-expensive collaborative tool that encourages all users to get involved in digital imaging is the wireless writing tablet. Typically using Bluetooth, and costing less than $200, a tablet can be passed from user to user, allowing each to draw or annotate over the displayed computer image.

Final Considerations

For group study spaces designed with media viewing in mind, several special considerations should be made:

Content. What formats of content need to be supported (VHS, SVHS, MiniDV, DVD, international formats, ITV, satellite, CAT-V, streaming video, etc.)?

Volume. Audio volume limits must be set high enough for the users but not loud enough to disrupt learners in adjacent spaces.

Accountability. Windows and/or a Webcam should provide a view of the screen or monitor, so teachers can keep an eye on the content students are viewing.

All of these technology issues will inevitably increase the amount of tech support that is necessary—computer maintenance and replacement, software updates, projector lamps and filters, network issues, and user training/error. All will take time to support—something to consider when planning the staffing to maintain group study spaces.

Will Craig is a multimedia systems consultant with Elert & Associates, a multidisciplinary technology consulting firm working with K-12 and higher education clients nationwide.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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