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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
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Open forum invites discussion on classroom design, use

By Sandy Broughton

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 20 - February 12, 1998

Tech faculty members will have a chance to express their opinions and concerns about the university's instructional spaces at an open forum Monday, Feb. 16 from noon to 2 p.m. in the Wallace Hall atrium.
The forum is sponsored by the Classroom Issues Task Force, an interdisciplinary group of faculty members and administrators formed last fall to address issues related to classroom design and use. The 18-member task force, chaired by Dixon Hanna, interim vice provost for outreach, includes representatives from each of Tech's eight colleges, the University Architect's Office, Media Services, the Registrar's Office, and the Provost's Office. It is conducting a study of the university's instructional spaces, collecting information on the physical environments as well as teaching styles, learning modes, pedagogical research, class objectives, the interaction of learner and instructor, and the integration of technology into the curriculum.
Lennie Scott-Webber, a College of Human Resources and Education interior-design faculty member and chair of the task force's vision subcommittee, says that, despite advances in technology, most of Tech's classrooms are still based on the industrial model of the 1920s. "In format and layout, our classrooms have not changed appreciably from the time when teaching was assumed to mean a `sage on the stage,'" Scott-Webber said. "To some extent, the environment is determining how we teach because it limits our ability to try new approaches. We'd like to make the design of classrooms support many different types of pedagogy, so we need to know the suggestions and concerns of faculty members from all disciplines."
Featured presenters at the open forum on classroom issues are Terry Wildman, director of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and Ron Daniel, associate provost for undergraduate education. Wildman is chair and Daniel is a member of the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Learning Communities. They will talk about the relationship of classroom space to the university's academic agenda. "Physical space has subtle and not-so-subtle effects on human behavior and interaction," Wildman said. "Many of our spaces are not conducive to the kinds of discussion and activities that promote vital learning communities. We need to break with the notion that people should sit quietly and listen, and begin to explore the elements of flexible seating, acoustics, and design that encourage interaction."
The Classroom Issues Task Force will also outline two of its current projects at the February 16 open forum. Scott Hurst, university architect and chair of the task force's Inventory and Technology Subcommittee, will talk about a pilot project to inventory instructional space in seven widely differing departments across campus. Information on mechanical systems, equipment, accessibility, and many other variables will be fed into a database that relates physical data to floor plans. "This is much more detailed data than the university is currently keeping. Hopefully, this will help the administration and departments to manage space as an asset, as a resource," Hurst said. "We are trying to be pro-active and get a handle on the issues and particular needs of different departments before we go forward with new building and renovations."
The departments participating in the pilot study are architecture, electrical engineering, management, teaching and learning, entomology, biology, and psychology, and the classroom spaces range from laboratories to studios to lecture halls to general instruction spaces. The pilot is slated for completion by the end of the semester.
Scott-Webber will talk about the vision subcommittee's work on formulating performance standards for instructional spaces and prototype models for different types of classrooms. Some of the models, which will be created using three-dimensional computer-assisted design, could then be previewed in the CAVE facility to give a virtual-reality preview of how the space would look and function.
In developing performance standards, the subcommittee is looking at a variety of issues, including health and safety, technology, special classrooms, and pedagogical research.
Another concern is that instructional space be designed to accommodate a wide range of ages and abilities. "We need to be sensitive to universal design issues and the challenges that students or faculty members with learning disabilities, hearing or visual impairment, or physical disabilities face," Scott-Webber said.
The Classroom Issues Task Force complements the work of, and shares members with, two other groups concerned with instructional space. The Classroom Management Advisory Committee, chaired by Marvin Foushee of the Office of the University Registrar, is a 12-member group that includes faculty members and administrators from interior design, teaching and learning, Physical Plant, communications studies, and Media Services. It is considering teaching spaces as they relate to emerging technology, changing learning environments, and different methods of delivering instruction.
The Team Researching Environments for Teaching and Learning Communities (TRETLC), founded by Scott-Webber in 1995 and supported by collaborative grants from the College of Human Resources and Education, is an interdisciplinary team of interior design and education faculty members who are using an empirical approach to document how interior environment, pedagogy, and learning relate, and to develop instructional spaces that foster the educational enterprise. TRETLC has held several charettes which have brought together faculty members, graduate students, administrators, and undergraduate students from across campus to brainstorm on what the design factors should be for classrooms of the 21st century. TRETLC will be setting up a simulation laboratory in McBryde Hall.