Collaboration Creates a State-of-the-Art Medical School Learning Center

An online search brought together the resources of a leading designer and supplier of ergonomic computer furniture with a team from a prestigious Ivy League medical school. The institution’s team had done extensive research on the Learning Collaborative Studio (LCS) model, and recognized that their chosen furniture supplier had a distinguished history of designing conference tables with computers and laptops integrated into them. In collaboration with the supplier’s design and engineering team, radical modifications were made to standard products and a new product was developed specifically for the institution. This provided the centerpiece for the project — a holistically designed integration of courseware, hardware, furniture, and learning space.

Furnishing Flexible Learning Spaces
The project scope consisted of four classrooms occupying two floors in the medical school’s new teaching and learning facility. The centerpiece classroom, dubbed the Applied Learning Center (ALC), features eight triangular learning studio pods. Each pod includes six permanently installed laptops secured in place, which enable the laptops to be stowed and locked out of sight when not in use, yet still be connected and charging. Each table surface is mounted on an 18-in. steel column that houses all power and network connections, accessible through an 8-in. by 20-in. removable access panel. At the center of each pod is a power-data pop-up module that serves up to four students with power and data connections for their personal laptops. Altogether, the ALC can comfortably accommodate up to 72 students.

Each ALC laptop is seamlessly connected to the network and A/V system, which enables data sharing and unique interactions among students and the instructor. For example, in a histology course, the images are displayed at the podium and on all laptops. Students can work together in small groups sharing laptops, or they can view the courseware on eight 60-in. plasma screens suspended from the ceiling directly above the eight learning pods. Using electronic controllers, instructors and students can interact with an individual, a small group, or even the entire class. This allows participants to visually share onscreen solutions to a task, and enables the instructor to communicate with a single subgroup or engage all students as desired.

The Search for Innovation
As the University embarked on the design phase of the medical school’s new teaching and learning center, planners knew they were looking at a golden opportunity for innovation. The original design called for a more traditional layout of desks and chairs arranged in a linear fashion and facing the podium. However, feedback from instructors indicated that students, when left to their own devices, would often cluster together with their laptops to form smaller ad hoc collaboration teams. Planners searched for a configuration that would be more conducive to the student-to-student, teacher-to-student, teacher-to-small-group, and teacher-to-entire group interaction that forms the core of collaborative education. The new furnishings solution would have to give students a more effective platform for leveraging technology where laptops could be networked together using shared courseware.

The medical school’s CIO concluded that the solution lay in a clustered configuration of work centers featuring laptops in a fixed setting. This approach would give the IT and A/V departments maximum control over the hardware and software to be used, with overhead plasma screens adding an additional dimension for visual sharing. The geometry of the furniture would allow for multiple line-of-sight interactions between all participants, and facilitate the IT hookups in a discrete and efficient manner.

First-Class Service and Green Thinking
ALC planners were impressed with their chosen vendor’s Web-based interactive quoting and project management tool, which allowed the client, the architect, the construction manager, and contractor to collaboratively engage online with the vendor’s design and engineering teams during every step. The project time line was extremely compressed so the school could open the facility in time for the 2009 fall quarter. Faced with an immovable deadline of only seven weeks from the time of purchase to installation, the teams divided the project into two simultaneously executed phases: installation of the sub-top assembly and wiring columns first, followed by the finished millwork. Prior to delivery of all furniture components, the vendor’s team worked closely with all trades involved in the project, including electrical contractors, to ensure that the infrastructure was in place. All components were delivered to the site by July 15, and the installation was officially completed only two days later.

In addition to the furniture in the ALC, the supplier also provided round tables for the other three classrooms comprising the school’s collaborative learning center — bringing the project total to 227 seats. Eventually, as funding allows, these classrooms will be upgraded to feature the same laptop-equipped pods as the ALC. In the meantime, the designers proposed mounting the round table tops on the same bases and cylinders as the ALC furniture. When the classrooms are upgraded, the medical school will be able to re-purpose the round table tops into other areas and simply add the higher-grade triangular tops with laptop safes. Not only does this approach add significantly to the learning center’s “green” credentials, but it provides a cost-effective means for the school to put in place the technology foundation and wiring needed for the eventual upgrade.

When officially dedicated with a “white jacket” reception for students and faculty, the medical school’s prestigious new teaching and learning facility will represent one of the largest-ever collegiate projects in collaborative learning in the United States.

John Kessell is vice president of Marketing and Jeff Korber is president of CBT/ (