Dealing With the Digital Natives

We live in a generation of digital natives. Our students have grown up with technology and implicitly understand how to use it. They absorb information, and perhaps process it, in a way different than the students of the last century. Oddly, the physical configurations of classrooms are much the same as those of the 1960s, as well as the method of teaching in these classrooms.

Fundamental changes must occur within our schools if we wish to prepare American students to compete in the world economy. The necessary changes will require the integration of classroom technology, changes to classroom configurations and funding for retraining teachers and IT staff to provide an exemplary 21st-century educational experience.

Slow Technological Adaptation
For more than half a century, classroom design and teaching pedagogies have been frozen in time with 30 students in small desks facing the “all knowing” teacher. This model, with simply a black/whiteboard and perhaps a map or easel at the front of the room, has been the accepted standard in education. Students in this scenario worked alone on their assignments, required much teacher intervention and discussion between students was frowned upon.

There have recently been substantial efforts to introduce technology into the classroom and an exploration of how best students and teachers can utilize new tools. Today, a “smart classroom” is one that has some sort of video projection system or smart board connected to the teacher’s computer. There may also be other student-use computers in the rear of the room. Even with this “smart classroom technology,” one wonders, is it any better than chalk and blackboards? Are we simply using new technology to replace movie and overhead projectors? We see that the teaching methods often remain unchanged and the engagement between teacher and student is much the same as it was during the 1970s.

So, what is the future of classroom technology? And how can pedagogies change to embrace new tools? Bob Pearlman, a leader of national education reform efforts states that “innovators in the United States and abroad have adopted a new pedagogy — project-based learning (PBL), coupled with performance assessment — as the best way to engage and challenge students and provide them with the learning experiences that lead to 21st-century knowledge and skills.” Educators and architects alike grapple with the question of how to change not only the physical attributes of the classroom to meet this goal, but how to change the way teachers teach and the way students learn.

Project-Based Learning
We see many school districts moving towards project-based learning (PBL) and incorporating multiple technologies to support this new pedagogy. We believe that common classroom technology must include multiple and interactive display or projection systems, student computers, digital input and output devices, and be able to integrate developing technologies such as personal digital devices (tablets, iPods and smart phones) and social media.

The PBL groups are four to six students with direct access to computers and other information technologies. A philosophy of PBL is that students work at their own pace in a cooperative environment with other students and utilize the teacher as a resource rather than a lecturer. These students work on self-directed projects and embrace a number of tasks that address individual issues related to their larger project. There are a variety of technology-based tools to assist with these tasks, and technology provides several ways for them to interact with each other, their teacher and their school resource center.

These students need the ability to reconfigure their spaces to accommodate the variety of projects they may encounter and the variety of tasks they must complete. This type of classroom arrangement requires a slightly larger classroom than those of the past. Most standard classrooms over the last half-century have ranged between 750 and 900 square feet for 25 students. Classrooms that will meet the needs of PBL will range from 900 to 1,200 square feet to allow for flexibility of layout, area for workgroup breakout and the required larger movable desks and separate chairs. These rooms must also support a variety of technological portals, including Smart Boards, desktop and laptop computers, movable display devices and Smart Boards, and associated peripherals such as printers, scanners, digitizers and three-dimensional printers. Power, data, lighting and furniture must all work in harmony and be flexible enough to provide configurations conducive to learning.

Architectural Coordination 
There are architectural challenges that must be addressed to support changes in the curriculum. One of the first concerns is the acoustical separation between student groupings. There are a number of ways to accomplish this that include the use of acoustically absorbent materials such as carpeting and acoustical ceiling and wall panels. Another technique to control sound is the utilization of small, wheeled partitions that can be easily reconfigured to block or reflect sound. They may also provide writing or projection surfaces to support information exchange and documentation between the students.

Lighting is another challenge in this new setting. In a typical classroom period, a group of students may go from watching a video, to working on their computers, to exploring the concepts through a lab or experiment. With this in mind, lighting design must be flexible with multiple levels of switching within the room and provided by light sources suitable for the task at hand. And, let’s not forget natural light. Many studies have shown that classrooms with natural lighting have 20 percent higher student test scores than those with no natural light. Controlling that natural light for the best affect is important to providing proper color rendition and elimination of glare.

Other infrastructure needs are equally important, such as suitable access to power and data, flexible display mounting systems and furniture that easily supports a variety of configurations and integrates storage and technology. Coordinating all of these “educational support infrastructures” is vitally important to ensure easy adoptability of new technology.

One example of the need for flexibility and infrastructure is a newly emerging technology that provides switching and coordination of multiple display devices. This allows the teacher to move around the classroom, coordinate the display of information on multiple devices to provide emphasis during the lesson and even highlight student work for best practices or presentation. This exciting evolution of “the” computer to a multi-screened system requires a room with the space, power, data, lighting and flexibility to take full advantage of these new capabilities. It also perhaps requires training for teachers to embrace a new way of teaching.

21st-Century Learning Spaces
The design of classrooms is only one component of successful technology implementation for 21st-century learning. Twenty-first-century learners need a variety of spaces with different types of technology beyond the traditional classroom space. Other spaces that enhance PBL include small “breakout” spaces, technology learning centers and instructional media centers.

Breakout spaces are actually small group work areas that are separate, but visible to the classroom. These spaces can be enclosed rooms or alcoves off of the corridor adjacent to the classroom. These are spaces where student groups can gather outside of the classroom to complete projects and have lively discussion while still in visual contact with the instructor. These are also normally technology-rich environments to allow for flexibility of use.

Another type of space common within a 21st-century school is a technology learning center, which in the past was known as a computer lab. These spaces can have varying designs, but one of the more successful designs relies on a tiered classroom with the students facing forward for lecture and rotating 180 degrees for computer training. By utilizing this model instructors are insured that whether they are lecturing or utilizing the technology the students are paying attention during the lecture and are utilizing the technology for class use and not surfing the web.

One other area of the school that has a documented impact on learning outcomes is the instructional media lab (the school library) where students go for research and technology skills development mixed within a relaxed atmosphere. A major responsibility of the 21st-century librarian is to educate students in how to properly utilize information technology to most easily find qualified answers to their queries. Many instructional media centers will have a variety of technology-based areas to support a range of uses, from small alcoves to individual enclosed study spaces, to small group spaces. The media center should also be the hub for repair and replacement of technology devices.

Organization-Wide Support

School designers can plan educational spaces to accommodate changing technologies: The functional issues are not difficult to address. But the key to unlocking the potential of technology enhanced teaching lies in the hands of the educators.

Educators will need to embrace a new style of teaching and work with their curriculum directors and technology departments to define new plans that embrace technology in a way to most benefit the student. They need to deliver content in a different way, challenge their students to work cooperatively and shift from the single authoritative source of classroom knowledge to more of a facilitator that engages many sources in their students’ quest for advancement. Staff will need intensive training to update teaching styles to best utilize these technologically enhanced environments. This can’t be a choice. It requires a mandate from “the top” if this type of learning is to function properly.

First Things, First
The technologically advanced 21st-century school needs to be created from a shared vision of the administrators and educators, students and parents. Goals must be defined first, and the curriculum created to support those goals. School-wide (and district-wide) support of such change needs to occur before any investment in technology and design occur. Once endorsed, school designers can provide a fully integrated educational environment. Once completed, the 21st century classroom must be staffed with engaged teachers, supported by appropriate levels of staff (including an IT department) and continuing education, and with student success monitored to ensure the proper implementation of this exciting new era in education. 

Scott A. Kramer, AIA, NCARB, partner at Plunkett Raysich Architects, LLP, has over 25 years of experience in the programming, planning and design of educational facilities, and designed over 2,000,000 square feet of educational facilities. He can be contacted at [email protected].