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English Department Reimagines Computer Labs as Active Learning Spaces

By: Cienna Madrid   Published 1:32 pm / February 27, 2017

There is a format to most computer labs: a podium, projector and white board at the front of the room, facing rows of long desks lined with 25 or so desktop computers. While this layout is entirely functional, last year the technology committee in the Department of English wondered if there wasn’t room to experiment with how students and professors engage with each other and the spaces in which they learn.

Students using the learning lab

Liberal Arts Building, Room 206, English Department, Eric Torres Photos

From that simple idea sparked a classroom revolution: instead of simply updating computer labs with all new desktops – especially given that many instructors noticed that students were bringing their own devices to class – the department invested some of its budget in transforming one of its three computer labs – Language Arts Building, Room 206 – into an active-learning center for students, equipped with communal tables arranged in clusters, screens affixed to walls around the room and Solstice technology that allows students to connect to the same wifi platform, stream content and collaborate on assignments. The new learning lab launched in August.

“We purposefully designed the room so that there’s no focal point, which encourages active workshop learning together,” explained Carly Finseth, an assistant professor of technical communication. The room also is equipped with mobile whiteboards, small couches and eight laptops instead of the standard 25. But perhaps the most remarkable addition has been the collaboration that Solstice has encouraged in the classroom.

“We wanted a technology that was device agnostic, that more than one student could connect to at the same time and could allow for split screens,” explained Shauna Anderson, a technology communications lecturer. “Through our research, we discovered that other colleges and universities have employed this type of integrated learning model, or upside-down type of pedagogy, but mostly in STEM classrooms where the professor is viewed as a coach rather than a focal point. This is the first instance we could find – in Idaho at least – of it being used in English classes.”

How have students responded to the space?

“When they first came in, they were blown away,” Anderson said. “They didn’t know where to sit because there’s no ‘front’ of the room. Just the environment, the newness of it, gets students excited and engaged. It fosters this feeling of teamwork instead of a lecture environment.”

“I think it pushed instructors’ comfort levels a little bit,” Finseth added. “Instead of ‘where do I go, where’s my podium?’ it made people rethink their teaching style and forced them to reshape their teaching styles in some cases.”

A student looks at her computer

Liberal Arts Building, Room 206, English Department, Eric Torres photos

When classes aren’t utilizing the room, lab hours are scheduled so that students are free to use the space themselves to work on projects. This semester open lab hours are from 9 a.m.-noon Mondays and from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Thursdays. Hours and more information about the space are posted at

The space also was intentionally designed to meet the unique needs of students in a way that traditional computer labs do not – for instance, one table raises and lowers to better accommodate wheelchairs, while moveable furniture pieces were praised by one pregnant student for their versatility.

“Anecdotally, the feedback we’ve received has been pretty positive,” Finseth said. “But we’re gearing up to have an Institutional Review Board study done, as well as focus groups and surveys, to see if we can’t improve on the space. We have five different disciplines in English, from technical communications to linguistics, and we all use the technology differently, so we want to be sure all of our professors and students can use it equally.”

If the space proves successful, the department hopes to unveil another interactive learning space in the future.