A New Approach to Collaborative Learning


Much has been written about the utility of computer labs in an educational environment. While no one argues the importance of computer literacy, more discussion is required on how to prepare students to be skilled and literate users of the technologies they will find in the new workplace.

According to the International Facility Managers Association (IFMA), the need to redesign office space to accommodate team environments is the most common alternative work strategy. Spaces that cannot accommodate new technologies and multiple uses run the risk of rapid obsolescence.

This commentary suggests a change from the "Dilbertesque" cubicle and water-cooler chitchat to a more flexible, open workplace supporting the team environment, whether it be for collaborative training sessions through lecture and hands-on breakout, or group problem solving.

It is clear that educational institutions intent on preparing students to function in the post-graduate world should set an objective to structure facilities and curricula mirroring the realities of this world. It is a world where employee empowerment and the teamwork approach to analysis, innovation and problem solving are making the "fixed office" an endangered species. It is a world where people gather, plug in, boot up and collaborate. Today, the desktop is in the laptop and the meeting room can be anywhere.

Creating the new workplace presents challenges to university administrators and corporate planners. It requires re-engineering the way we access information and interact with each other.

Fortunately, solutions are becoming available to help achieve this objective. The solutions resolve what until now have been two seemingly incompatible issues - connectivity and flexibility.


The Cable Management Roadblock

The connectivity issue has plagued both institution and industry. Tom Buchsbaum of Dell Computer Corp. alluded to it in the February 1999 issue of T.H.E. Journal by noting "schools must make sure their network and support infrastructure can handle the influx of technology. Routers, hubs, servers and wiring may need upgrading..."

Easily said, but until now it has been difficult to achieve, both on the university campus and corporate campus. The problem is expressed as a cable management roadblock that thwarts users' abilities to maximize connectivity on an ad-hoc basis. Fixed network wiring impedes task mobility and the ability of work teams to gather on short notice, plug in and interact not only with each other but also with campus-wide and external Internet resources.

One common solution - using raised access flooring or the space above ceiling tiles as a repository for what rapidly becomes a wire maze - is no longer viable. Not only d'es it become unmanageable, but moves, adds and changes, when attempted, become very costly. R. Jane Livingston of ADC Telecommunications' Broadband Connectivity Group says that over the lifetime of a structured cabling system, the greatest ongoing cost is associated with moves, adds and changes. Indeed, one estimate suggests that the cost to add a single cable drop can be $200 or more. This can be discouraging to institutions where programs to upgrade are hamstrung by budget constraints.

The Connect Center Concept: A "Smart Room"

Technology advances even in the most mundane areas of cable management. This advance is manifested by the coming together of diverse but readily available components including furniture, floor construction, electrical wiring, teledata cabling and computer components to form a Smart Room. This new approach allows unprecedented flexibility in creating multifunctional rooms as a networked, technology-friendly special-purpose environment on the campus.

A Smart Room is built on an ultra-low-profile modular floor system such as the Intercell underfloor cable management system manufactured by InterfaceAR. The flooring understructure resembles an egg crate that serves multiple roles including managing cable routing and supporting the half-meter-square steel floor plates that are overlaid with carpet tile. This flooring system is then pre-wired for network service.

Workstations and other peripherals including electronic whiteboards and presenter stations, such as those manufactured by SMART Technologies Inc., can be connected directly to the ports and outlets in the floor boxes. Options include data docks that bring power and connectivity to the desktop level, pop-up islands in conference tables and permanently or temporarily mounted desktop ports.

In a Smart Room, the concealed floor boxes, when used in conjunction with patch panels in an associated freestanding communications closet, act as a consolidation point for network connections. This supports "plug and play" data connectivity at the patch panel, and at the Smart Room peripherals where the intelligence resides.

Adding network access and operating equipment to the communications closet allows capabilities for a stand-alone LAN. As an alternative, the closet equipment can be connected to the university network to support sharing of, and access to, those resources. Incorporating specialty applications software to either scenario enables a multitude of unique collaboration opportunities in a classroom that is an image of the new workplace.

This logical approach to wire management allows students or faculty equipped with a minimum of training to manage the system, and to quickly transform the traditional computer lab or school cafeteria into a multi-functional room supporting any number of application scenarios typically found in a fast-paced business environment. Among these are:

  • The "traditional" classroom, a network-enabled training and instruction environment
  • A modified classroom for special projects or training
  • A U-Shaped seminar room for meetings and presentations
  • A lecture and breakout room
  • A brainstorming and project space
  • A conference room allowing hands-on participation by attendees
  • An open office with project space
  • A cyber lounge or lobby in the student union
  • A cyber cafeteria or café where students can meet to work and eat


A Connect Center Smart Room facility can dramatically enhance a university's ability to prepare students for the realities of the new workplace. Utility is limited only by the imagination as a room is transformed from a cafeteria to team problem solving in as little as 15 minutes. This same flexibility can be viewed by administration as a means to generate revenue by leasing out the Smart Room as training or brainstorming centers for local businesses, or as demonstration rooms for sponsors of technology fairs.

Connect Center, Inc.
(770) 606-9663
Cartersville, GA

Cartersville, GA
(800) 336-0225

SMART Technologies Inc.
Calgary, AB Canada
(888) 42-SMART

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.