A Better Place to Learn

Traditional learning environments are no longer adequately equipped to fully prepare our students for their places in the world today and tomorrow. A “one size fits all” methodology or pedagogical approach, featuring factory-based classrooms settings with rows and rows of desks, falls short of comprehensively preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s industry and social leaders. A student’s physical environment should provide the freedom and flexibility to produce task-based creative solutions. Incorporating high-tech technologies — ranging from desktop computers, to iPads, to smart phones — within student learning environments has become an essential component of 21st-century education.

Educational facility designs are can enrich school spaces by integrating technologies that cater to today’s tech-savvy learners. KAI Texas has designed technology-oriented spaces within schools throughout Texas, including Dallas Independent School District (ISD), Irving ISD, Fort Worth ISD, Hazelwood School District and San Antonio ISD. By designing learning environments that support structured and non-structured instruction, students and staff can use buildings in creative ways that enhance and improve the education process.

Weaving Technological Solutions Into Flexible Education Spaces
Today’s flexible educational facility designs are geared toward the continual integration of technology. Modern educational technologies no longer ride on an AV cart that is shuttled from room to room, nor are they merely comprised of a “dumb” projector and drop-down screen. Children today — especially the younger generations — have never known a time without cell phones or ever-present computers. There was a time when teachers requested the occasional use of a computer lab — a room dedicated to multiple computers where students could go learn for about an hour of computer instruction. Now, technology-centered instruction is becoming the new daily norm in classrooms across the nation for students of all ages and backgrounds.

I was recently working with a principal on a renovation for her school and she recaptured the computer lab for a new academic program because the computers were being dispersed and integrated in the daily curricula of each classroom. Imagine in science class discussing Hurricane Sandy and being able to pull up a current radar image from NOAA, reinforcing lessons in the classroom and introducing geography and history in one combined lesson all because the technology is at the fingertips of the educator and students. This type of technological use within flexible education spaces enhances learning possibilities by encouraging dynamic discussions and broadening the flow of information readily available to educators and students.

Now imagine that as the students leave the room with their interests in a classroom lesson piqued, they can continue to scour the web for stories using their smart phones or computer tablets. Also, if they missed a point during classroom instruction they can download a copy of the notes captured on a Smart board distributed on the school’s secure cloud-based server. All of this is possible and transpires on a regular basis within schools that seek to enhance the education process by incorporating viable technology solutions within flexible school spaces, shifting educational experiences from structured classroom learning to multifaceted opportunities of learning throughout daily activities.

Students learn all day from interaction with peers and educators alike. The dining room with adjacent students’ commons is just as critical as the classroom or science lab. Study alcoves, outdoor settings, workrooms, rehearsal venues and widened corridors all provide opportunities to engage in discussions from the previous class or prep for an upcoming class. The technology backbone needs to be sufficient to support wired and wireless connectivity to the Internet for students and teachers alike. A few years ago, there was discussion of a digital divide in which students were so much more advanced and comfortable with technology than their teachers. That digital divide is closing now because today’s school administrators are focusing on designing multipurpose school facility spaces that can easily support technology-enhanced instruction.

San Antonio Independent School District’s Sam Houston New Tech High School-Within-a-School
Schools districts nationally have recognized that while not all kids are going to college, all kids can learn and get the necessary skills and education to help prepare them for successful careers in any endeavor they elect to pursue — whether it be a high-paying manufacturing sector worker, a bio-researcher, green jobs creator or a high school educator. The one thing all of these potential career paths have in common is a base knowledge of academic and social skills that our school systems provide. However, the key to relevancy is the recognition that silos of academic disciplines should be augmented with collaborative group-based programs. Some districts, like San Antonio ISD’s Sam Houston High School, are creating New Tech learning school-within-a-school programs or are developing new schools around this curriculum.

Sam Houston High School, located on the east side of San Antonio, is undergoing a $16.9-million renovation scheduled for completion in 2014. A major component of the renovation features a New Tech High School-within-a-school program that will provide collaborative learning environments throughout the campus, integrate sustainable technology and offer educational spaces that support the new and expanded programs into building renovations.

Since first being implemented in Napa, Calif., in 1996, New Tech High School-within-a-school programs feature teams of students that collaborate in technology-rich environments designed to incorporate research, communication and community problem-solving skills within all learning exercises. Geared toward enhancing vital social skills, such as problem-solving and collaboration techniques, improving oral and written communication skills, and stimulating creativity and critical thinking, 21st century technology spaces within New Tech learning communities make project-based learning experiences relevant to today’s students. Self-directed learning enables students to direct their individual educational experiences, and readily available access to collaborative learning technologies brings together and connects educators, students, school administrators and parents.

Tailoring Technology to Facility Planning Helps Bridge the Digital Divide in Learning
As new schools are planned and designed, the inclusion of the technical backbone is critical to serving the changing needs of new equipment and learning processes. Wireless overlay with hardwired data ports are becoming crucial elements of high-tech facility designs. Smart boards, a unique camera-and-whiteboard combination, capture and enhance an instructor’s ability to take a snapshot of a quick equation for distribution to all students — even those who are absent from class. For instance, the fiber trunk enabling broadband and high-data transfer simultaneously allows individuals to access pictures from the Mars Rover, while others study current events and have immediate access to election coverage. This type of technology even supports impromptu instructional gatherings, like when a group of students studying in a school building alcove have the option to prepare for a French mid-term final by watching a live video stream from a French teacher in Paris, France. Smart technological solutions like these can be easily integrated into current and future school facilities. Districts cannot allow older school buildings to miss the technology revolution. A concerted effort should be made to retrofit current education spaces with the necessary infrastructure that provides students and teachers with the same high-tech capabilities as their peers in newer facilities.

As part of the continued renewal and maintenance of existing facilities, some districts have instituted a technology upgrade program. We have been involved with numerous districts regionally where they have asked our team to provide new data infrastructure and Smart boards in the classrooms. Some districts have also asked us to repurpose spaces for planned and extemporaneous academic uses. As districts fund these initiatives and administrators encourage flexible learning environments, technology can be introduced seamlessly into the existing fabric of any building. Connectivity is ingrained and expected for all occasions, and schools must respond and provide learners with access to the connected world.

More districts are allowing the use of cell phones on campuses and in classrooms because most modern cell phones possess the same computing power as some desktops. You can read a novel, write a lesson plan, surf the web, review and calculate a complex calculus problem all with a device that can fit in the palm of your hand. At a recent CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International) conference, three groups of students were given 15 minutes and use of various technologies to develop a solution, formulate a method of communicating the solution and then present the information to the people assembled for the session. Each group of students developed different methods of researching the task via social media and web search engines, such as Google and Bing. They then used a mixed-media approach to create YouTube, PowerPoint and Corkboard Me presentations while also integrating a creative mix of electronic media. While the student groups were given structured tasks to fulfill, they actively sought out a variety of technology applications to help them achieve diverse results and accomplish a shared vision.

The most amazing aspect of connecting learners to their world via technology is that high-tech education options excite young people about learning. Modern students cannot fathom an unconnected world, so districts and educators are embracing technology and project-based learning or the melding of the two. School officials should establish an application (apps) wish list, a supportive curriculum and maintain open minds. In new facilities, the infrastructure required to support current and future technology trends is negligible to the value returned for student access. The costs associated with upgrading existing school facilities with high-tech capabilities are well worth the investment. Since nearly all jobs now require some comfort and familiarity with technology, it is imperative that kids are educated in a manner that optimizes their chances of procuring successful jobs in a highly competitive job market.

Schools from early childhood to high school should deliver environments that allow educators and students to utilize more of the school campus for directed and self-directed instruction. Multifaceted learning opportunities are essential and must be kept at the forefront of school building design and renovation endeavors. Research has shown that the art and science of learning is complex, and that students learn best by actively engaging in learning through sight, sound and hands-on application. As more students come to embrace integrated learning technologies within classrooms, they dynamically take responsibility of their education and actively achieve their dreams and goals. 

Darren L. James, AIA
, is president and COO of KAI Texas, LC, headquartered in Dallas, with offices throughout Texas