Personalized Learning Space in a Global Context
What the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education Learned in Cambridge
By Randall Fielding, AIA

"We are in the twilight of a society based on data. As information and intelligence become the domain of computers, society will place more value on the one human ability that cannot be automated: emotion."  
     Rolf Jensen, Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies

Most of us get a sinking feeling in our gut when we envision a world of learning dominated by geographically isolated individuals communicating through the Internet. Where are the nuances of face-to-face communication, the joy of connecting personally with others? The recent conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sponsored by the AIA Committee on Architecture for Education, addressed the issue of personalized learning environments in a global context head on.

Many of the conference activities were hosted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where a range of themes were explored, including Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL), the inter-connected spaces at the Aerospace research laboratory, and the distance learning lab. The connecting thread was the emphasis on personalization of the learning context. Even the distance learning lab, hosting synchronous classes in Cambridge and Singapore, 12 times zones apart, can attribute its success to technology that personalizes the learning experience.

7 AM in Singapore, 8 PM Cambridge

At first, I was distracted during the distance lab demonstration by the motorized camera that followed the speaker wherever he went. Like an animatronic creature from Stars Wars, the little camera assembly seemed to be alive. I kept wondering how it knew where the speaker was headed for before I did. A tracking device, of course! The speaker wears a tiny, microchip-implanted device around his neck, and the camera follows his every movement. Sounds more hi tech than personal, but the result is that the image of the speaker on screen, either in Cambridge, or in Singapore 12 times zones away, appears to connect with the audience visually. You quickly realize how important eye contact is when you spend time in an old style distance learning lab, where the speaker appears to be looking over your head, to your left or right, but never in your direction.
Eye contact is equally important for the speaker. It's disconcerting for a presenter to receive a question from another continent, and see a video pan of a room, with no sense of which student or part of the room the question is originating from. MIT solves the problem with a question button, located on the console in front of each learning lab participant, on both continents. Push the black button to alert the speaker that you have a question, and a camera rotates to focus on you, while the microphone picks up your voice. The speaker is immediately cued to the individual questioner, regardless of the location, and can read individual facial expressions. 
Voice quality has been improved dramatically as well. Whereas in previous distance lab environments, there was a disconcerting time lag between visual images and voice, as well as a mechanistic echo, the new lab addresses the problem through software. Sound data is digitized and compressed, allowing for super-fast transmission, even around the world. After transmission, the voice data is de-compressed and the echo is removed, resulting in a natural sound.

The furniture plays a role in personalizing the space as well. While prior designs for distance labs utilized fixed seating, the new version is furnished with movable seats, allowing for rearrangement into breakout sessions after presentations. Consoles containing the microphones and question buttons are fixed, however, the end portion of the console counters fold down, allowing more space for small group meetings.

Introduction & Distance Lab (section 1 of 3) | Next > | June 2002