Revamping the Computer Lab

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education highlighted a trend in which many US colleges and universities are either phasing out the traditional computer lab or revamping that space to provide more effective opportunities for collaborative learning and group study. The trend is a response to pervasive research on the impact of collaborative learning spaces on student success, and to the pedagogical shift toward more group-based learning.

There are an abundance of models for state-of-the-art, forward-looking, revamped lab spaces. However, now more than ever most colleges and universities are needing to repurpose space while operating under tight budget constraints. We asked Andrew Milne, CEO of Tidebreak, Inc. and a leading expert on learning space design, for tips on finding relatively small but impactful investments toward transforming the traditional computer lab into a collaborative learning space.

Making a Big Impact on a Small Budget

"As you look to upgrade machines," Milne suggests, "rather than buying the same amount of CPUs, think about having fewer workstations, and then using the saved money to purchase large, movable displays." Milne recommends providing group stations where students can connect their laptops and engage in collaborative exercises.

Whiteboard is also a relatively inexpensive investment. Use whiteboard paint or walltalk on an entire wall, all the way down to the floor and up to a reasonable height. "This not only creates more surface area but also creates a different tone, a different invitation to use the space. You will even see students sitting cross-legged in groups on the floor, working with the whiteboard." Use as much of the wall as you can, to allow space for collaborative learning and discussion - and to make the best use of otherwise wasted space. If the budget is available for it, Milne suggests adding a whiteboard capture tool, such as a camera that photographs the whiteboard and stores the image to a web-based location where students can download it later.

"Make even the walls useful."
Andrew Milne, Tidebreak Inc.

In fact, the goal should be to maximize the utility and flexibility of every part of that space. Some small changes that can have a big impact often go overlooked. For example, be intentional in furniture selection. "Don't reuse computer lab furniture without assessing whether it is appropriate," Milne advises. Opting for comfortable, flexible seating and flat panel monitors on wheels can enable students to design their own learning space to suit the need - whether for individual or group study.

"Even if you stack up all the furniture at the end of the day, you will find it rearranged when you come back. Students need to be able to adjust the space to fit their immediate purpose."
Andrew Milne, Tidebreak Inc.

With limited space to work with, you will have some challenging decisions to make. If you choose to include individual workstations and group stations in one space (rather than separating them), the use of different colors to designate different areas and the use of white noise or soft music to manage the acoustics can help to make a mixed environment feasible.

Rethinking Space Utilization

However, while repurposing lab space as collaborative learning space might benefit learning, it will reduce the number of seats. Rather than rows of chairs seated at individual monitors, some of the space is now opened up for group work. Square footage that supported a 60-person traditional lab might now only support 40. At a time when space is a critical resource - especially at institutions with growing enrollments - this is a challenging decision to make.

Yet, while the shift can be daunting, a focus on devoting space to collaborative learning might unveil new opportunities to use other spaces on campus more effectively.

"Now that wireless is pervasive, learning spaces can be anywhere on campus, anywhere students are wanting to gather. As you lower usage of one space in the process of making that space more effective for learning, think of enabling other locations on campus."
Andrew Milne, Tidebreak Inc.

Look for areas where students assemble before class, such as an atrium or lobby area. "Put a flat panel display or a wall whiteboard there. Students walking past and seeing their peers working there will begin getting the idea and using it."

Other spaces you may not have thought about as potential sites for collaborative learning might include:

  • Student lounges in the residence halls
  • Food service areas (often a dining hall will include flat panel displays that are currently used only for television or signage - these could be repurposed for learning)
  • Hallways (look for crannies and nooks)
  • Classrooms that are vacant in the evening

Students will often look for empty rooms in order to find a private study space. "As you move toward more flexible furnishings," Milne suggests, "why not allow the classroom to become a study space or learning studio after hours?"

Look for places where students already gather to study. Then brainstorm ways to maximize the effectiveness of that space.

Getting the Students' Perspectives

The best thing you can do, Milne suggests, "is think about this from the student's perspective." He quotes a university leader who told him that it took 20 years as an educator to realize things that were obvious to him as a student. "Observe what students are already finding useful. Engage students in the planning process." Surveys and focus groups are one way to do this, but Milne suggests undertaking a photojournaling exercise. Ask students to identify their favorite classroom and favorite places to gather for study. Have the students snap pictures of those spaces and provide a written rationale explaining why they find that space effective or appealing.

"Through photojournaling, take 'slices' of campus life from across a diverse group of students. This can inform design in a much more detailed way than survey results can, and avoids the risk of groupthink that can arise in focus groups."
Andrew Milne, Tidebreak Inc.

When the time for a focus group comes, organize a student design review board instead. "Have students critique and play with the design. Let them roll up their sleeves. And of course, provide pizza."