In 2008, When Charles W. Graham was recruited from Texas A&M University to serve as dean of the College of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma (OU), the intent was to elevate the program’s prestige by embracing innovative practice. That meant greater collaboration among students and between students and faculty, aided by high-tech learning spaces.

“It didn’t take too long to realize we didn’t want to go back to a 20th-century method of teaching,” Graham says. “We’ve just tried to acknowledge that kids are tech-savvy and we don’t want to discourage that. We think a contemporary learning environment is about creative making. You develop ideas in your mind and by drawing, and using technology, that brings it alive.”

When Graham came to OU, the College of Architecture’s home, Gould Hall, was already undergoing renovation, and the college had temporarily moved to a swing space two miles away. He and the faculty decided to break in a new paradigm of high-tech studio spaces early, while still in the swing space. The school worked with Steelcase, a leading furniture manufacturer, to develop two collaborative classrooms that embrace interactive technology. Steelcase recommended that the school adopt its LearnLab environment, which is designed to support multiple learning styles and break down the hierarchy between professor and student. The intent is for students to transition easily between lectures, group work, and individual presentations.

OU is the first school of architecture to install a Steelcase LearnLab (other higher-education institutions, such as Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Grand Valley State University, had adopted the model for teaching in other disciplines), so administrators wanted to make sure it was adaptable. “We took what they had ... and really thought, ‘How can we take their concept but retrofit it for design students?’ They’re a lot more hands-on and need more time in the classroom,” says assistant professor Christina Hoehn, who took a lead role in the project. “Their studios are usually four or five hours each.”

Installed in December 2009, the OU School of Architecture Learn Lab—one of two new instructional spaces with the new layout and technology—has no front or back; tables and chairs are arranged for students to gather around in a group. Two projector screens are set up within the space (roughly 1,100 square feet), so students have strong sight lines from any seat. There is also an eno interactive whiteboard, which can be marked up and erased indefinitely with a regular dry-erase marker or a Bluetooth-enabled stylus. Multimedia presentations can be projected onto it, and notes can be saved and e-mailed.

“The eno board[s] caught our attention,” Hoehn says. “They have a ceramic carbonate casing over the top that allows them to be impervious. Because these are design students, they’ll have scissors, markers, X-acto knives. They glue things and burn things and laser-cut things. We knew if we moved this technology into their rooms and spaces, it had to stand up to them.”

The ceiling is outfitted with a camera to view student projects or documents placed under it (models, handouts, books, photos). The projector screens can show the same, or different, content. Any of 17 laptops can be switched to display on the communal screens. There are also 10 portable whiteboards, which can be moved from a table surface to wall-hanging positions, and can be copied to the class website via a CopyCam, which attaches to a regular whiteboard and saves notes and sketches for later use. More than any one piece of furniture or technological item, the idea is that all of it can be easily reconfigured, although, Graham says, sometimes cables and cords slow that process.

The other new OU facility is a smaller glass-walled enclosure in the middle of a standard design studio. This “SuperStudio” is meant for critiques, with two large plasma-screen TVs attached to an interactive media table, which can share information from up to six student laptops at a time.

Elise Valoe, senior researcher for Steelcase Education Solutions Group, believes that the LearnLab concept enables quick assessment of student work. “Instructors can easily have students work out ideas or problems in teams, then display their content for a quick mentor review,” she says.

Some of the Oklahoma faculty has been forced to play a bit of technological catch-up. “I think the biggest issue we’ve had is people training on it,” Hoehn says. “To push people to get the necessary training this year has been difficult. These are seasoned architects, and they don’t want to be embarrassed by the students.”

Hoehn recalls differing student and instructor reactions to an iPod dock, for example. “Students can walk in with their smart phones and set them in a dock in the room and play their music or show their videos and pictures. It’s funny how they figured out instantly how to turn that on, whereas some of the professors were like, ‘What is that?’ It’s just a paradigm shift.”

Hoehn says that having the prototype labs has given the school time to study professor and student behaviors “and make sure we were going down a productive path.” When Gould Hall is ready for them to move back in after graduation in May, “We will be taking the new technology and furniture with us … [and] adding more for the other new spaces.”