Uses of Labs and Learning Spaces

min read
  • Traditional computing labs need to transform into flexible, technology-enhanced learning spaces.
  • Initial research into space use and future needs can guide design and resource decisions.
  • Involving all the stakeholders invests them in the outcome and optimizes design choices.
  • Small changes can have big effects in redesign of existing spaces.

Traditionally, computer labs have been configured to support teaching and learning by providing rows of computers in a lecture-style classroom set-up. Lab computers and software allowed students to complete course assignments or learn new programs. The uses of technology for teaching have evolved, however, and so must the design and configuration of computer labs — they must transform into flexible, technology-enhanced spaces for maximum effectiveness.

How can an IT department transform traditional computer labs given the resource limits of a university setting? Before engaging a redesign team, conduct some groundwork and initial research to help guide design and resource decisions.

When we considered modifying the lab spaces at Cornell, we initially engaged in several research projects that then informed our decisions. A key aspect of our research was to conduct several focus groups across a diverse cross-section of lab users and other campus stakeholders. Observations of lab use and staff feedback provided a long-term view of how the lab spaces are actually used and helped us identify needs for future designs.

Project Goals and Findings

The goal of the research was to generate well-defined, actionable ideas, as well to bring in campus stakeholders to generate the ideas. The research project aimed to determine:

  • how the Cornell computer labs were being used, and
  • the labs' needs for the future.

First we designed and conducted a "lab futures" focus group to understand the purposes and functions computer labs should fulfill in the years ahead. What will they look like? What will people use them for? The focus group methodology was designed to generate many ideas for the lab of the future and engage invested individuals from a broad cross-section of the campus community. We wanted the ideas that ultimately formed the basis for "lab futures" to come from campus partners and users of campus labs.1

The second aspect of our research was to gather data about how the labs were being used. Methods included on online student survey, interviews with lab staff, and observations and photographs of lab activities.2

One of our findings about how students and faculty use lab spaces showed that a lab's campus location matters — proximity has an impact on how a space is used. For example, a computer lab that is near a quiet study space such as the library may reflect the characteristics of that space and might also serve as a quiet study space. A lab space near an area where students congregate, on the other hand, may become a collaborative space despite its configuration. All of the computer labs had a traditional classroom configuration, yet the uses of the different locations varied tremendously.

Each lab location also has a different character based on how the space is used. Faculty and students are creative in accommodating their needs, and they sometimes use a space in unintended ways. Our research findings indicate that the character and user culture of each lab space interact with proximity to create an atmosphere that fosters collaboration or reflective study.

Evolving the Space — Planning the Next-Generation Computer Lab

The requirements of computer labs used for teaching seem to be converging into multi-use, technology-enhanced teaching spaces with characteristics of both classrooms and labs. Traditionally, the uses of computer labs and classrooms were separate and distinct. Classrooms were designed for lectures or small seminars, and computer labs were designed to support technology for student assignments or for students to learn about the technology. As classrooms have evolved into technology-enabled spaces, the distinctions are blurring. The use of technology enables spaces to be flexible and no longer solely defined as a lab or a classroom.

Because our research findings indicated multiple and varied uses of a single space, we also reviewed research findings from another project that implemented a "smart classroom" in a small space previously used as a computer lab. The changes to the space were minor, with the focus on what technologies could best be used to enhance teaching and learning. Results showed positive teaching outcomes when implementing smart-classroom technologies: "All concur that a cascade of positive effects is observable and that the quality of teaching and learning have improved as a result of the innovation."3 This project demonstrated the importance of identifying the critical elements for teaching and implementing them in a cost-effective way. The findings influenced our decisions about modifying Cornell lab spaces by using similar ideas.

Smart classrooms have sometimes been criticized as wasteful "misallocations" of resources. Strauss4 finds fault with educators who amass piles of expensive multimedia equipment and declare a space to be a smart classroom. So any plan to transform a lab space must consider the entire space in which learning occurs and not stop at the door of the classroom or lab. Besides, implementing mobile technology can be a better investment — it considers the broader scope of where and how learning will happen. This recommendation to stay flexible also matches our focus group findings of what users want in a lab space — they want it redesigned into a more flexible learning space.

The Physical Space Before and After the Innovation

The room chosen for the smart classroom conversion had many disadvantages, as described in the following audio file. Its transformation dramatically increased its effectiveness.

Listen to background information(MP3) or read the transcript below.

So — how do we transform a computer lab into a technology-enhanced learning space? It is too simplistic to say that a nice-looking space will solve teaching problems. Rather, we must consider all aspects of how a space is used. We also need to look holistically at how all stakeholders use the space.

New or redesigned spaces need a relevant location — one with proximity to other learning activities — or the new space might be underutilized. Worse, the ill-considered location of a lab space could create a barrier to learning.

We reviewed the current uses of our lab spaces, looking for opportunities to implement the research projects' findings and recommendations. A key goal of the research was to develop actionable recommendations, so we first began with several projects involving small changes in order to implement the recommendations that could shift the spaces into more flexible configurations. Sometimes doing small things can achieve large results, and focusing on one thing can have a large impact. For example, one of our newer teaching labs, located in the Mann Library, had a traditional layout. We purchased new tables with a flexible design. This small change had a large impact on how the space could be used, even though the costs of both types of tables were comparable, meaning the required resources did not change. So don't discount small changes if limited resources are available.

Another project that began as a result of the research findings involved redesigning a lab space that was centrally located but underutilized for teaching. In designing the new space (referred to as the ATC, the Academic Technology Center), the design team applied current practices about collaborative spaces, developing a design with flexible configurations to facilitate collaboration and active learning approaches. The goal was to move from a limited-use lab space into a more flexible teaching and learning space. In this learning space, new design meets the reality of a lab space.

Audio-Video Describing Transformation of the Lab Space. Initial Design by Roberta Millitello.

The ATC redesign project is an active experiment about the design and use of collaborative spaces. As we study how the space is used in the coming year, the findings will inform future design of other lab conversions.

Efficient Approaches to Transforming a Space

The design goal of the new ATC learning space was to create a flexible space with multiple uses that would optimize our limited resources, including space options. Because our users wanted flexible spaces, the project moved the space away from a lab configuration into a learning space that incorporates some aspects of a lab but also can be used in other ways.

Having a holistic view of the space also helps optimize resources. In the ATC and smart-classroom redesign examples, the resources invested in redesigning the spaces were modest. Designers considered the limitations of both space and budget in recommending appropriate technology enhancements. Bringing in professional classroom technology specialists and space designers provided valuable guidance in spending resources on the technology that was directly relevant to teaching and student collaboration activities.

Even when working with limited resources, it is important to think about the aesthetics of the space. Elements such as lighting, use of color, flooring, and furniture matter to teachers and learners. A space design should create a space that is inviting and comfortable as well as professional and high-tech. Before redesign, for example, the ATC space was bleak and had really poor lighting. Changes in the wall colors and furniture made the space look very different. Luckily, the lighting fixtures fit into the new design, thus expensive lighting changes were not necessary. Using a design that brightens a space through the use of colors makes more expensive transformations unnecessary.

Summing Up

In thinking about transforming lab spaces into learning spaces, project teams need a balance of understanding how the space is used. Use is defined by proximity and the cultural uses of the space.

Resources must be balanced with the overall goals of how the space can be transformed — even small changes can have a large impact. There are always tradeoffs in making decisions about transforming lab spaces.

Over the long term, we need to continually review lab and space needs for teaching. We also need to understand that redesign is not a one-time, static project. Rather, it is an ongoing process that should keep strategic goals in mind while looking ahead to what the space needs to be in 5–10 years.

  1. Teresa Craighead, Lab Futures Focus Group Report, V2, Focus Group Report, Cornell Information Technologies, Cornell University, April 2, 2008,
  2. Clare van den Blink and Kim Nicholson, Uses of the Labs: A Research Report, Cornell Information Technologies, Cornell University, March 2008.
  3. Kim Nicholson, Learning Spaces: An Innovative Smart Classroom, Cornell Information Technologies, Cornell University, May 24, 2008.
  4. Howard Strauss, "New Learning Spaces: Smart Learners, Not Smart Classrooms," Campus Technology, September 2002,
Additional Resources
  • Diana G. Oblinger, Ed., Learning Spaces (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2006)
  • Barbara T. Friedman and Clare C. van den Blink, "The Future of Instructional Computing Labs," Cornell University. EDUCAUSE Annual Conference 2008 Resources
  • EDUCAUSE 2008 Annual Conference Podcast: "In Conversation — Learning Spaces," []
Transcript: The Physical Space Before and After the Innovation

The smart classroom before the technology enhancements was less than optimal for learning and teaching. The room is used to teach language and teaching skills. It was unpainted in some places and crowded with mismatched furniture. Partitions divided the space into two areas, one of which was an office occupied by staff members who held office hours. This environment adversely affected the availability of the classroom portion. A small computer lab was also contained in the space for a time. The primary teaching equipment was limited to a traditional blackboard and one overhead projector. Anyone wishing to display video had to wheel in a cumbersome cart that held a VCR/DVD player and a television set with a small 13-inch screen. The cart was usually returned to the hallway, since there was no place to store it. Anyone wishing to project content such as PowerPoint slides had to bring their own projector, laptop, speakers, power pack, and cables, and spend valuable class preparation time setting up and testing all the hardware. Finally, the audio quality was questionable, which, given the language proficiency focus of the program, was a concern. The lack of storage facilities required instructors to disassemble all equipment, only to have to bring it back into the room for the next class. In addition, the absence of a wireless network made accessing the Internet prohibitive. As a result, the space was not being fully utilized by anyone.

The smart classroom design must be able to foster excellence in pedagogy and also would need to provide engaging and interactive forums for the program's daily discussions of issues related to cross-cultural communication and academic life.

Technologies in the space include a Smart Board that is set up as an overlay that is attached over a flat-panel plasma screen. The touch-sensitive screen allows users to interact with projected images, browse the web, or interact with whatever is displayed on the screen. TAs are currently using this capability to write on websites that they pull up in class. Areas of a web page (such as can be circled, crossed out, underlined, etc. Notes can be added at any time.

Additional system capabilities also include the ability to record screen content along with audio or video files directly to a computer. MP3 files can be created quickly and are easily uploaded to a course website. Students visiting the website can select and download files to their iPods or similar devices. This provides students with the ability to listen to and practice course materials while they are walking on campus or "on the go."

Findings from the classroom evaluation report indicate that instructors and learners concur that the quality of learning and teaching improved significantly as a result of the new technology. Instructors are able to use the technology easily, and students report an increase in their own participation. Further, there was a "cascade" of positive outcomes, some unanticipated. Instructors reported that having resources, particularly Internet multimedia, readily available enabled them to use more resources more often in their teaching. Examples include the ability to add variety to lessons, promote efficiency in the classroom, and accommodate different learning styles.

Like any instructional computer lab, maintenance of the smart classroom poses a few challenges, such as troubleshooting problems with the equipment and providing how-to equipment documentation and assistance to users of the space.

The research findings have identified several new ways to utilize the learning space and can offer recommendations to educational partners considering similar innovations. (See the full report by Kim Nicholson, Learning Spaces: An Innovative Smart Classroom, Cornell Information Technologies, Cornell University, May 24, 2008.)

Clare C. van den Blink ([email protected]) is Assistant Director, Academic Technology Services & User Support, CIT, Cornell University.