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Futuristic 'flexible lab' classroom opens at Stanford

STANFORD -- Some are sitting upright, but many of the 26 students in Marjorie Ford's Writing and Critical Thinking class are sprawled almost flat on their backs on their beanbags. Yes, beanbags.

The circle of red, blue, aquamarine and black blobs are a comfortable fit for de rigueur freshman denim. And comfort is a key ingredient in Ford's teaching.

"The flexible classroom just makes you smile when you walk in," Ford said of the futuristic teaching space on the second floor of Meyer Library that opens officially on Jan. 26 with a faculty open house from noon to 3 p.m.

"I've always thought that in a writing class students ought to be writing more, and that's happening in the flex lab. It encourages a sense of community and invites you to work with students, not just lecture at them."

At a time when undergraduate teaching is at the top of faculty and administrative agendas, the staff of the university libraries and Academic Information Resources have answered the call for innovative "teaching space" with a white-walled, brightly lit, technologically buff classroom. Outfitted with color Macintosh PowerBook 540 laptops, a back-lit projection system, a Macintosh equipped for digital video recording and playback with a connection to file servers and SUNet, the new classroom/lab is ready for the serious seminar, theater warm-ups and art classes. It even has an enviable view of the Library Quad.

"We wanted a computer lab that didn't feel like a cave in a basement, and one that didn't force instructors to teach in one way - which was to sort of yell above the noise," said Charles Kerns, head of the Curriculum Development Lab (CDL).

For the past two years Kerns has been talking with faculty members about what they would put on their wish list for the perfect classroom. He found that many professors and lecturers wanted a space that was equipped with computers but one that had none of the noise and poor lighting that have defined too many labs of the past.

"Briefly, the faculty wanted fast network connections and moveable furniture in a room that would lend itself to small-group activities," Kerns said. "And yes, students wanted their beanbags."

Prototype labs were set up in Meyer Library and in the basement of Sweet Hall, and adventuresome faculty went to work. Decker Walker, professor of education, consulted with graduate students to conduct a study and write a report outlining the physical and technical specifications for a new flexible classroom. Professors John Barson, French, and Larry Friedlander, English, tested the technological waters and found them mostly inviting.

"Accidents happen all the time, and end up being used later," Barson said of his experience teaching first- and second-year French in the prototype room. "It's the inventiveness of the students that is amazing to me, not the technology."

Funded by the Culpepper Foundation and monies from the President's Fund, the flex lab is available to all faculty. Proposals must be submitted in writing, and are still being accepted for spring quarter.

Curriculum development professionals from an informal university technology consortium visited the Meyer flex lab on Jan. 15 and pronounced it ahead of its time.

"I think it's a potentially powerful way to help us change the way we think about undergraduate education," Carrie Regenstein, associate director for instructional services of Cornell Information Technologies, said in a telephone interview. "We're all trying to focus on how we can help students learn better today, and we have to remember that the 'teaching space' is the place where some piece of that occurs.

"The fact that lights in the flex lab ceiling face toward the wall so that you can have ambient light while computer projections are running is just one of the improvements. That means you no longer have to turn off the lights, which is always conducive to napping."

Marjorie Ford, who's been teaching at Stanford for 10 years and describes herself as "classically phobic" when it comes to technological innovation, says she's now been "won over" by the facilities provided in the flex lab.

In the computer lab in Meyer, her students were virtually locked to their computers, sitting in rows, facing monitors. But the new setting has encouraged her to experiment with the technology that is available, to the extent that her students not only take notes and do in-class writing assignments on their laptops, but also are helping to write an instructor's manual for Writing and Critical Thinking in the '90s. They've also learned to dabble in graphics using Adobe Photoshop.

In a recent writing assignment, Ford asked her students to evaluate their experience in the flex lab in terms of how they thought the more relaxed setting had affected their writing skills.

"My best ideas come to me as somebody else speaks, not necessarily once they finish," Alfredo Soto wrote. "I try to let the speaker's words lead my brainstorming by listening to keywords or phrases. I have used this technique throughout the quarter as a way of coming up with topics for my essays."

Maria Medina also thought that both her writing and listening skills had improved.

"I learned to really listen to other people's points of views," she wrote. "I learned that maybe someday my writing can be used to bring about change."

For more information about developing a proposal to use the flexible classroom, contact Charles.Kerns@leland, or call 723-6654. A copy of the graduate students' report on prototype classroom labs is available at



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