Reportage, Photography, Video

Algonquin’s support lab of the future

In Features, Technology on March 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

“Some of you have been around long enough to remember 1996, the famous 1996,” Algonquin College President Robert Gillett recollected at the annual President’s Breakfast at the start of the year. “Where we made a decision at a time when two levels of government made major cut-backs, we had a $20 million deficit… and we decided to invest heavily in information technology…. Today we enter phase two of that plan.”

Director of the Learning Resource Centre Tammy Thorton

The College is transitioning towards a fresher, more technologically savvy school and from the student support lab under renovations in room C102, which opened January 6, the College is banking heavily on students bringing their own technology, such as cell-phones and laptops to use as learning tools.

The first of its kind in Ontario, the fresh and excitingly new $500,000 study area’s successes and failures will largely determine how the college shapes its spending and innovation strategy moving forward.

The lab is expected to accommodate 80 to 90 students and will feature “four distinct learning spaces”. These include an informal couch seating area, a more formal area for group and private study, five group collaboration stations, which are small, semi-private rooms with long tables and computer chair seating that include a big screen television students can hook their computers up to for presentations and “dirt walls”; semi-translucent blockades that can be written on and finally, the more public group work stations.

The centre is also employing library technicians to help students navigate Algonquin’s e-library, which features books, journals databases and a collection of other resources students can use for reference.

“The lab does not have fixed computers,” Director of Learning and Teaching Services Glenn Macdougall said. “Rather, each desk will have wireless and wired connectivity [to the internet].”

This all leads to the big picture: the school’s plan to go fully mobile by 2013. According to officials, this means that all students will need some sort of mobile device that can connect to the internet by that year.

Even though a good per cent of students already have smart phones or other internet capable devices, what if not all students can afford such technology? The plan could alienate potential students and brings questions of academic fairness into play.

“All mobile, I think that’s a bad idea because what if the network goes down?” Small and Medium Enterprise Management student Ibrahim Elmi, 26, said. “There should always be a pen and paper alternative because we’re paying tuition.”

However, manager of the centre, Tammy Thornton is touting the redesign a success and early results appear to be good. Since its opening, the lab is seeing around 1000 students enter each day between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. when users are counted.

The College is also encouraging students to take a survey on their website to provide feedback on the new area.

Passing by the lab, it always appears to be full of people, but then again, so was the old lab, when it only had hardwired PCs with print capabilities. Because of this, it’s hard to say the lab is having an immediately recognizable benefit right now. The new place certainly looks nice: it’s all fresh, green-paint and curvy couches, and it is certainly very cool that you can write on walls and host group presentations on big screen TVs. But in a school where most programs are hands-on, technology and trade oriented, how much benefit can a wireless lab have for the average Algonquin student’s education?

At the very least, it seems to be giving students an outlet. Rules are more relaxed in the newly designed lab; students can bring laptops and chat as well as work together. The e-library acts as a great reference area for those looking to brush up on their learning.

Perhaps the best way to view the new lab is as a marker to a fundamental change of thought when it comes to administering post-secondary education. The learning environment seems to be moving away from the formal teacher-gives-assignments-students-do-assignments ethos and towards individual, self-directed learning. We’re seeing the institutionalisation of the user-directed learning brought to us by the internet.

We’ll have to see how the College’s enrolment and dropout rates change in the future to know for sure how effective in improving education the new lab is.

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