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    Chapter 2: A Design Philosophy for a Multimodal Composition Classroom

    Knight recounts the story behind the construction of a multimedia production classroom at St. John’s University and argues that an explicit design philosophy was crucial in the successful realization of this space. Following the classroom from its initial proposal stage through to completion, this chapter details how the new classroom and accompanying design philosophy developed.

    Through this retelling, Knight explores how a design philosophy can be a crucial component of space design. Although focused on one specific case study, the chapter offers advice others can use regarding the development and implementation of a design philosophy.

    What Is a Design Philosophy?

    What is its purpose? Why did we need one to build a classroom? How might a design philosophy help others? These are the questions this chapter explores, as it tells the story behind the building of a multimedia production classroom, my department’s second classroom renovation to date. Following the space from its initial proposal stage (Fall 2012) through to completion (Fall 2013), this chapter details how our new classroom and our accompanying design philosophy developed. Action verbs serve to guide the reader through the text, much as they guided my department through a yearlong process of production.


    Faculty in my Communication Studies department approach communications through the study of digital media and through a commitment to digital innovation and collaboration (with our colleagues, our students, and our community). Our curriculum emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning. All students in our department “learn by doing,” as they produce digital artifacts that combine multiple modalities through sound, image, and user interaction. When I was asked by my university to design a classroom for the new Communication Studies program in Spring 2009 (before I officially arrived), I knew I wanted to design an environment that would facilitate the teaching and learning of multimedia composing. I borrowed from the designs of my dissertation director, Dànielle DeVoss, as she was (and still is) researching university infrastructure and class design (which led to the initial floor plan shown in figure 2.1).

    Figure 2.1. Original Proposed Classroom Floorplan
    Figure 2.1. Original Proposed Classroom Floorplan

    After dozens of meetings with IT, facilities, and outside architects over an eighteen-month period, the classroom came online in January 2011. This initial classroom, Merion 150, is a flexible space, designed so that pedagogy—not architecture—drives student participation and interaction. The room features eight wall-mounted HDTVs with notebook VGA connections, breakaway tables and chairs, and notebook and tablet computers for student use. In March 2013 we added Xbox video game consoles to each HDTV.

    This flexible and easily modified space supports

    1. Individual student work,
    2. Collaborative group work,
    3. Small-group discussion, and
    4. Large-group seminars and presentations (see figures 2.2 and 2.3).

    From Spring 2011 to Spring 2013, Merion 150 supported all of the Communication Studies course offerings. In addition, the space was regularly used for meetings and workshops. By Fall 2012, my fast-growing department needed a second classroom. Our objective was to obtain another physical classroom space that would help us best teach digital media studies in theory and practice. As we (the teaching faculty) entered into daily conversations concerning the new space, we found our understanding of the teaching and learning of digital composition deepened. In advocating for a space that aligned with what we valued pedagogically, we came to develop a design philosophy—that is, our ideas about the purpose of a built environment and what it should accomplish.

    Figure 2.2. Students with laptops
    Figure 2.2. Students with laptops
    Figure 2.3. Students with shared displays
    Figure 2.3. Students with shared displays

    Yet the particular classroom we designed in academic year 2012–2013 and the design philosophy we crafted are not the main focus here. While the story involves specifics from our unique case, including schematics and a cast of characters, I do not wish to necessarily advocate for a specific kind of classroom or philosophy. Classroom designs and philosophies are situational and best crafted with care on a case-by-case basis. The ultimate purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate the rhetorical agency of a design philosophy. Developing a philosophy was essential for my department to

    1. Build the most effective teaching and learning space possible,
    2. Communicate our ideas to a variety of stakeholders,
    3. Negotiate our classroom vision from a strong bargaining position, and
    4. Effectively solve problems and work within constraints in the process of completing the project.


    A design philosophy is, in essence, a statement of guiding principles that inform and shape real-world deliverables. Whether implicitly or explicitly, successful designers often subscribe to certain theories, attitudes, values, and beliefs that drive their design process and translate ideas into real-world goods. It was helpful to look at the creative process of other designers as we worked to envision our new classroom space. Some notable design philosophies include the work of Ray and Charles Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, Apple, and 37 Signals.

    Ray and Charles Eames

    Important twentieth-century designers of architecture and modern furniture, Ray and Charles Eames also pioneered innovative technologies and processes. The Eames design philosophy (see figure 2.4) identified the intersecting needs of client, society, and designer. The company focused its energies on developing products that met the needs of all three.

    Figure 2.4. Statement of the Eames Design Process by Charles Eames for

                            the Louvre Show, “What is Design” (1969); retrieved from the

                            Library of Congress.
    Figure 2.4. Statement of the Eames Design Process by Charles Eames for the Louvre Show, “What is Design” (1969); retrieved from the Library of Congress.

    Frank Lloyd Wright

    Renowned modern architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1945) designed buildings that were in harmony with the surrounding environment, according to a philosophy he called organic architecture: “Form and function thus become one in design and execution if the nature of materials and method and purpose are all in unison” (298; see figure 2.5).

    Figure 2.5. Fallingwater
    Figure 2.5. Fallingwater


    The Apple design philosophy was in place before Apple Computer had made its first product, and it now informs all of the company’s consumer electronics, computer software, and personal computers. Central to Apple’s design philosophy is the axiom “Simple is good.” According to Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of industrial design at Apple, in order for a product be simple, “You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential” (Issacson 2011, 343).

    37 Signals

    The web application company 37 Signals (http://37signals.com/) is known as much for its software design process as for innovative products like Basecamp and Ruby on Rails. In 2006, 37 Signals published a manifesto that expressed the company’s “major ideas and philosophies that drive the Getting Real process.” These include tenets such as interface first, epicenter design, and context over consistency. Getting Real demonstrates how the design philosophy itself guides the company in its day-to-day processes as it develops web applications.

    Design philosophies are tools to navigate the process of production, whether one is constructing a building, furniture, a computer, or web app. Although they may be little more than a statement of ideas, they are proactive statements that guide a process of production to effect a change.


    The Communications Studies program is a recent addition to Saint Joseph’s University, first becoming a minor in 2009, a major in 2011, and achieving departmental status in June 2012. In the program’s short existence, however, it has seen tremendous student demand. In the first official year of our new department, 2012–2013, we had a fast-growing major and limited faculty and resources. With over 250 students enrolled, we had only three tenure-track faculty to serve this student population and one (marvelous) classroom (see table 2.1).

    Table 2.1. Growth in department between 2009 and 2014



    tenure-system faculty






    1 ½










    The university administration was slow-paced with regard to the allocation of resources and facilities. During this time, the university administration asked us repeatedly (1) to raise our course caps (all of our courses were capped at seventeen) and (2) to teach in existing (less than ideal; see figures 2.6 and 2.7) classrooms and labs, which we resisted.

    Figure 2.6. Less than ideal lab
    Figure 2.6. Less than ideal lab
    Figure 2.7. Less than ideal classroom
    Figure 2.7. Less than ideal classroom

    Meanwhile, faculty in my department entered into almost daily conversations about what we valued pedagogically. Our pedagogical values necessitated arguments for small class sizes and studio-type teaching environments. We repeatedly returned to these pedagogical arguments, in reports, in meetings, in conversations, in emails—anytime we needed to advocate for resources that would help us to best teach communication studies in theory and practice. These repeated ideas and approaches became the basis for what we call our design philosophy—our particular ideas about the purpose of built environments and what they should accomplish. Written in plain English with minimal jargon, the statement reflects our shared beliefs and specific objectives regarding teaching spaces. Our design philosophy became a tool to effectively interface with a variety of stakeholders, from administration to facilities to IT. It became a tool to guide our process of production; at times, it served as our creed, or manifesto.

    A design philosophy is akin to a philosophy of teaching, a genre with which many teachers and scholars of computers and writing are familiar. The design of curriculum, syllabi, even lesson plans and activities is often informed by these philosophical statements. Many teachers craft public statements of teaching, the purpose of which is to explain our personal pedagogical attitudes, values, and approaches to a variety of stakeholders, including search committees, departments, administrators, colleagues, and even ourselves, as we reflect on what shapes and guides our own practice in the classroom. The design philosophy, as we see it, is different in that it is a collective department document that guides a process of production in order to effect change.

    In the spirit of “Hacking Spaces” (Walls, Schopieray, and DeVoss 2009), we view design philosophies as tools for “hacking” our classrooms. In this article, the authors take a hacktivist approach to analyzing instructional spaces. Taking their cues from The New Hacker’s Dictionary, they situate a hacker as one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. By offering a five-part analytical framework, Walls et al. help teachers identify how spaces can be hacked to better support their pedagogical goals and values as well as “hack slow-moving institutional structures” (272). A design philosophy operates similarly to this analytical framework; it is another kind of tool for departments to make local arguments to hack instructional space design.

    Although individual teachers or collective departments might not see themselves as designers (or hackers, for that matter), there are inevitably things we each want to change at our institutions. A design philosophy can set those changes in motion. According to social scientist Herbert Simon (1981), “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones” (129). A design philosophy is just that: a proactive statement that reflects the goals and intentions of the department. Design philosophies are forward-focused documents for change. They provide departments with a tool for negotiating change and are in and of themselves change agents.


    We borrowed freely from teachers, designers, artists, start-ups, and architects while thinking about what a design philosophy is and how one should be crafted.

    Think Like a Designer

    Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving that helps people think innovatively and creatively about a problem or situation. It’s about applying a designer’s sensibility and methods to problem solving in order to create a viable strategy for change that meets people’s needs. It’s more of a philosophical approach than a particular tool or technique (Lockwood 2009). In fact, design thinking “is all about exploring different possibilities” (Brown 2009, 6) and may involve various methods, both informal and formal. The specific methods, however, are not as important as the overall approach to creative problem solving and working within constraints.

    Focus on Experience

    According to Jared Spool (2009), founder of User Interface Engineering, a research, training, and consulting firm, there are five kinds of design decision styles:

    1. Unintended design: design that just happens
    2. Self design: designing for oneself
    3. Genius design: designing for others based on experience and research
    4. Activity-focused design: Large-group seminars and presentations
    5. User-focused design: designing for the overall user experience.

    Teams that adopt a user-focused design decision style are framed by user research and look beyond just activities, examining in-depth the goals, needs, and contexts of users, using that information to drive decisions. Our own design philosophy was informed by a user-focused approach. (We do also have plans to make user-centered research more concrete in the years to come. Although we had two years of field research in our first classroom, we have not formally researched student learning and experience in a collaborative learning space. We need more empirical, user-focused design research that addresses how physical classroom designs influence students’ learning experiences. As we collect data, we will better understand the contextual nature of student’s experience in the multimedia classroom, which will inevitably lead to an evolving design philosophy in the years to come.)

    Move from Data to Story

    Whichever design style is used, whatever methods are employed, a design philosophy is born from data. It may be as simple as entering into departmental conversations about the beliefs and aspirations that drive faculty, then looking for certain patterns to emerge. It may be a full-scale research study. The idea is to synthesize the data to tell a meaningful story. According to Tim Brown (2009), “Synthesis, the act of extracting meaningful patterns from masses of raw information, is a fundamentally creative act; the data are just that—data—and the facts never speak for themselves” (70). Crafting a story around the data is a generative, collective enterprise that becomes the scaffolding for the guiding principles of a department’s design philosophy.

    Frame Principles Proactively

    Simon Sinek (2008), a strategic communicator and consultant, suggested framing situations proactively, rather than reactively: “When we react, we look to point fingers and assign blame (to others or ourselves) for the existence of the situation. We work to compensate or prevent bad things from happening. When we proact, we accept the situation as fact and start looking for solutions or alternatives. We work to make good things happen.” Sinek’s “forward focused” approach encourages people to unite around their goals and intentions. Our philosophy reflected, in tangible ways, the motivations and proactive arguments that informed our classroom design. The principles clearly expressed our purpose in a way that helped us to garner support from those outside of the department.

    Qualify and Quantify

    Sinek (2009) also encouraged people to state their goals as actionable verbs: “For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity,’ it’s ‘always do the right thing.’ It’s not ‘innovation,’ it’s ‘look at the problem from a different angle.’ Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea—we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation” (67). With verbs, there is road map for decision making and measurement. Instead of a vague or abstract concept, there is a principle people can act on or act out. Action verbs help to both qualify and quantify ambitions. The department then has a road map to action.


    Our design philosophy details a variety of concrete, tangible elements in the classroom. It also justifies those elements, pedagogically, in a persuasive fashion. Although it’s written in a Q & A format below, it’s a script we all know by heart, as we have repeated it many times throughout the year. Whether we are talking to our students, instructional technology staff, administration, architects, facilities, or faculty in other departments, we make a habit of telling everyone that we, as a department, are committed to digital innovation and collaboration with our colleagues, our students, and our community. Our objective is to build hands-on learning spaces that help us work together to reach those goals.

    Why Do You Create a Studio Environment?

    We Value Active, Hands-on Learning

    Our curriculum, centered on digital production, emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning. All students in our Communication Studies department combine theory and practice as they “learn by doing.” A studio setting is important because we believe theory isn’t enough; students must have practice applying the skills and knowledge they learn about in class. Class projects focus on the creation of media-convergent texts that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction. Students build their knowledge of techniques and media to develop a digital portfolio over a number of years. Open studio hours are an important part of the learning process, as students have a place to practice new skills and abilities.

    Why Do You Need Small Class Sizes?

    We Value Contact between Instructor and Student

    Teachers and scholars of multimodal composition recognize production-oriented work as labor intensive. When asked to produce multimodal compositions (e.g., video, audio production, web design), students are often required to work in new, unfamiliar, and shifting spaces. The work of producing these compositions requires a range of learning activities, including close interactions between teacher and student (e.g., tutoring, training, and mentoring), peer-to-peer interactions, collaborative group work, lecture, seminar, and discussion. Small class sizes ensure that students receive the support they need as they explore new rhetorical genres and experiment with new technologies.

    Why Do You Use Large Display Screens?

    We Value Collaborative Work

    Collaborative group work is a way for students to pool resources and skills to complete complex tasks (that they might not be able to accomplish alone). Peer-to-peer interaction enables students to work within their own zone of proximal development (Vygotsky 1978) and helps them navigate unfamiliar terrain with more confidence. Our pedagogical directive is to provide the space and guidance necessary for rigorous student engagement. Multiple large-panel display screens ensure that students have an optimal experience and are not crowded around one small screen while working together. Multiple laptop/tablet inputs mean that each student is part of an active, hands-on experience, even in a group setting.

    Why Is Your Furniture Mobile?

    We Value Learning in Communities

    Rather than knowledge being something that is “discovered,” we believe knowledge is socially constructed. To that end, we seek to design spaces that encourage students to engage in the process of learning together. Learning communities are defined as “groups of people working together with shared interests, common goals, and responsibilities toward one another and the group as a whole” (Brophy 2004, 27). Moveable, ergonomic furniture allows students to assemble in multiple configurations to complete shared tasks and achieve objectives, while the professor moves among them interacting, facilitating, and fostering opportunities for engaged learning. Movable, reconfigurable tables and chairs allow students freedom to explore possibilities; learning can happen in unstructured, nonpredictable ways.

    Why Is Your Technology on the Periphery?

    We Put Learning First (Technology Second)

    We believe the focus of classroom design, even technology-rich classroom design, needs to be on students first, not technology. When the focus is placed on fostering active, social, experiential learning, technologies often move into the background. While students have access to cutting-edge resources as they make and reflect upon media, our core learning outcomes are based not on ever-changing technological skills, but on effective communication, teamwork, innovation, design thinking, and social entrepreneurship.


    Based on an early Fall 2012 report issued from our fast-growing department to the dean, all parties agreed that a new classroom was a necessity. Originally, the university administration suggested a small classroom on the third floor of Merion Hall (Room 352). While this classroom offered the advantage of keeping class sizes small (around twelve students), the tiny space was not very flexible. After some deliberation, my department suggested the renovation of a much larger classroom in Merion Hall (Room 174; see figure 2.8). This classroom offered more open space and natural sunlight.

    Based on conversations with my department, I drafted a sketch of our new classroom using free, online 3D design software. Once I created a schematic (see figure 2.9), I showed the design to my colleagues for their input. I then sent the sketch on to administration and IT. All stakeholders found these renderings useful and a concrete vision of our ideal classroom began to take shape.

    Figure 2.8. Former Merion 174
    Figure 2.8. Former Merion 174
    Figure 2.9. Original sketch with AutoDesk Homestyler. This sketch was also

                        promptly critiqued by Joe Petragani (associate vice president, Office of IT,

    Figure 2.9. Original sketch with AutoDesk Homestyler. This sketch was also promptly critiqued by Joe Petragani (associate vice president, Office of IT, CIO.

    Below are some email transcripts highlighting conversations with a variety of stakeholders, dealing with some of the finer points of the renovation of the classroom. Of interest is the rhetorical role of our design philosophy and how it helped us in our design process and negotiations.

    View from Administration: Paul Aspan, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

    “One key factor to consider is that the original cost of converting this room to an updated version of MH 150 would cost $250K. As you see from Joe’s comments below, the inclusion of the breakout space probably doubles that cost. I am not trying to discourage you all, but during my previous discussions with Bill [the dean] Brice [the provost], Joe and Alex Oleykowski [facilities managers)] nobody blinked at $250K. $500K changes the game. That does not mean it cannot or will not happen, but it does make the slope significantly steeper than what we currently face. Thus, the pertinent question for AY 13–14 is: does the department need the breakout rooms now, or can these be deferred until the next phase, now projected for Academic Year 2014–15 (though projected in the most vague terms, seeking a building or other expansive space for offices and teaching)?” (Aspan 2012).

    View from Information Technology: Joseph F. Petragnani, Associate Vice President, Office of IT—CIO

    “Aimee’s ideas go beyond the scope of what was originally discussed, which was to create another version of Merion 150. In particular, adding two video gaming/usability rooms raises the stakes significantly. This will impact heating, air conditioning, ventilation, lighting and electrical in a way that is not reflected in the original request. So, if this design represents the objective, I think it is vital to submit a revised project request form that not only changes the location (174 instead of 352) but also details this change of scope.

    Assuming for the moment that the gaming rooms are part of the scope, we do not believe these should be placed on the west side of the existing room. We have a couple of reasons for taking this position: first, the existing teaching station would be difficult to move far enough out of the way to accommodate these rooms. Underneath that station is a floor box (less than eight feet off the west wall) with conduits embedded into the concrete floor to enable audio/visual and tele/data cabling to be run inconspicuously from the teaching station, out to the corridor wall, and up to the ceiling area. It would be an expensive proposition to move all of this. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, if these new rooms are located along the west wall, access will be limited when class is in session (which will be most of the time as I understand things). No one would be able to enter these rooms without passing through the main classroom space.

    Our drawing suggests (see figure 2.10; dashed blue lines) locating the new gaming rooms along the east wall, with part of the classroom space set aside for a new corridor providing access to the two gaming rooms as well as to the classroom. We’d remove the current entrance door (converting the doorway to a passage); create a new north to south classroom wall with a doorway; and, create two new rooms to the east of this corridor for gaming—formed by a second north to south wall as well as an east-west wall dividing that space. We believe this would not only provide for greater accessibility to the gaming rooms, but also allow for better noise control and less class disruption. Please note that we have not validated this concept with architects or engineers—this is something that would have to occur if a decision is made to move in this direction.

    Figure 2.10. Rendering by Media Services.
    Figure 2.10. Rendering by Media Services.

    When we’ve discussed budgetary figures for this project, the idea of gaming rooms (and whatever technology would be needed to complement these spaces) was not in the mix. I think it is reasonable to anticipate the cost of the project at least doubling if gaming is added. We spoke yesterday about this being a “design/build” project in which we had limited outside help. With the changes we anticipate to construct the gaming spaces, it is quite likely that the support of an architect and an engineer will be a requirement.

    As I type this, our Media Services team is trying to assess options for how to do the classroom display sharing in a cost effective way that reduces the amount of cabling that must be run to each LCD (since several of the displays would be located on block walls.) There are some new technologies that have matured since we did Merion 150 that may help with this” (Petragnani 2012).

    A day later, in response to Joe Petragnani’s comments, I drafted a second version of the classroom, which didn’t involve separate breakout rooms. Due to the long silence that followed, I doubt anyone ever looked at these sketches.

    Figure 2.11. Second sketch without breakout rooms.
    Figure 2.11. Second sketch without breakout rooms.

    View from Media Services: James Wilson, Director and Chief Engineer, and Justin Fowler, Engineer

    “The decision to go with the Brown Innovations Sound Domes in Merion 174 started with interest in using them in previous applications. Media Services showed interest in them in the past but the implementation always fell by the wayside due to cost and budget limitations. For Merion 174 we were able to get a budget that would allow us to purchase the Sound Domes. They play an integral role in the design of the collaboration spaces to allow the teams to work independently on a project without disturbing one another with various sounds and levels. The sound domes are designed to keep all audio confined to the listeners in the general area under each dome.

    We were also able to save on some costs because Merion 174 already has technology installed that we were able to work into the design of the new system. Based on ideas proposed to us by faculty, we wanted to implement a system that was completely wireless. This has a number of benefits. It makes for a highly flexible collaborative work environment, it is neat and aesthetically pleasing, and it requires less support and management of cables and connectors. With this in mind, we could not implement standard speakers at each station because the sound would be distracting to students at other stations.

    This led to bringing back the Sound Dome idea. With the Sound Dome, students can listen to audio at a station without plugging in headphones and without distracting other students in the room. The sound is completely isolated to their station. Although the final decision for technology implementation is made by the Media Services engineering team (Jim Wilson, Justin Fowler and Kyle Tucker), we rely on faculty input to guide us in the right direction to ensure we are meeting the needs of professors and students. We take their ideas and requests and mold them into a design that best suits their needs” (Wilson and Fowler 2013).


    Through our design philosophy, we were able to convey our goals and beliefs to a variety of stakeholders. In many instances, people involved went out of their way to help us build a collaborative learning classroom. We found that the stakeholders were almost as excited as we were about the prospect of having a new kind of teaching and learning space on campus, a space that could be a model for other renovated classrooms in the future. This section references not only the return of the gaming area to the project, but also the inclusion of Sound Domes and ClassSpot (two firsts at our university) to facilitate collaborative learning.

    Our Communication Studies department had initially been informed that the video game breakout room could not be built due to cost concerns. Months later at a March meeting, Media Services provided us with a sketch that reinserted the gaming area (with couches, tables, and divider screens). In an email, I asked Media Services for clarification on how this decision had come to pass.

    View from Media Services: James Wilson, Director and Chief Engineer, and Justin Fowler, Engineer

    “We heard that the breakout rooms would not happen because of cost. The initial idea was to build a separate room which would require building walls and re-doing the HVAC system. It was off the table for a while and we brought the idea back by saying ‘why does the game room have to be completely closed off? Can’t we just keep an open concept and use moveable dividers to section off the room?’ We thought some sort of wall was necessary to block off the students in the game room to keep from distracting the rest of the class but didn’t feel you needed to construct a completely sectioned off room to do it.

    This is also a key reason the Sound Domes were implemented so students could have a game room, in an open concept, without distracting others around them. Again it came down to doing what we could to meet the requests of faculty while staying within budget” (Wilson and Fowler 2013).

    At the early spring meeting we were also told that our classroom could feature ClassSpot, a system that encourages collaborative work spaces and file sharing. We had been looking at this system for years, but it had always proved cost prohibitive. In an email, I asked David Lees, Executive Director, Academic Technology and Distributed Learning, for details.

    View from Academic Technology and Distributed Learning: David Lees, Executive Director

    “We began looking at TideBreak’s ClassSpot a few years ago for collaborative class spaces. Unfortunately, at the time ClassSpot was too expensive to purchase and maintain. The university has experimented with some other options for collaboration, ranging from basic hardwired switching devices to an experiment with WOWvision this upcoming summer. The university decided to use ClassSpot in 174 because it was the best match for the faculty members’ functionality and the pricing structure of the product can now be supported by the university. The decision is usually made by IT trying to meet faculty needs with products that are affordable and can be affordably maintained. Annually, IT requests capital funding to upgrade existing classrooms. The university will continue to add collaborative learning spaces in the future. These rooms are much more expensive than traditional classrooms. We are considering that about 10% of the university teaching spaces will need to incorporate collaborative teaching technologies in the not too distant future” (Lees 2013).


    Although my department was vigilant about clearly and consistently communicating our ideas about teaching and learning to all stakeholders on campus, we found that the designing and planning process was not at all transparent. In fact, we were often in the dark about how any given decision was made or even who made it. For example, when the administration initially offered us a small classroom for conversion (Merion 352), we suggested a much larger space (Merion 174). Below are different viewpoints about why the university was willing to let us convert the larger classroom to suit our department’s needs and insight into that decision-making process.

    View from Faculty: Tim Lockridge, Assistant Professor, Communications Studies

    “Regarding the conversion of a large classroom, I think it is connected to a push for increasing cap sizes. Our classes have a very small number of seats, and I assume this is read (institutionally) as inefficient—especially for a private university. I can’t help but read the large classroom size as an attempt to increase the number of available seats in each section. In response to this, I think our department has to develop a strong system of internal assessment and argue (with data) that the small class sizes yield better instruction. It is also worth noting that we were initially offered a very small classroom, which we declined. I sometimes worry that, in accepting the larger space, we’ve conceded too much” (Lockridge 2013).

    View from Faculty: Mike Lyons, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

    “The university understands that students value and even are beginning to expect alternative learning spaces. That said, I don’t think this would have happened without the persistent effort of the department. The IT people are excited, the architects are excited, it’ll just a little longer for the administration to get onboard. I’m not sure who made the decision, but it probably was a pretty easy one once they saw the admissions numbers” (Lyons 2013).

    View from Administrative: Paul Aspan, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

    “The decision was made by the Provost and the Dean of Arts and Sciences, with input from the COM Studies Department, SJU IT and Facilities Management. This constituted a very positive exercise in shared decision-making, as all of those constituencies practiced openness and critical thinking as collaborative planners and stakeholders in this project. Merion 174 was chosen with input from all four decision groups due to its size, location and pre-existing conditions, e.g., the ease with which it could be converted, its insulation from the elements and overall security. This will suit the COM department’s needs in that the unprecedented growth of the department requires more lab space for the pedagogy that drives the program, and with the addition of one professor this year and two more next year, plus a lab coordinator, both labs should be running to near capacity in terms of available schedule slots as well as seating for students by August 2014. Thus, the Communication Studies Department will require significantly more office space and other facilities, including break out rooms and a third lab by the time August 2014 dawns” (Aspan 2013).


    While the design/build process was often opaque, my department still felt that we had a large degree of agency in renovating a space on campus to suit our needs. With much collaboration, our goals were achieved and we now have an ideal space for teaching and learning. We attribute this achievement to having a design philosophy that helped us to communicate our ideas clearly to a variety of stakeholders.

    View from Faculty: Mike Lyons, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

    “I think input from the COM department was the guiding force for the project. The space design would not look like it does without the persistent efforts of the COM department to consistently push for the original vision” (Lyons 2013).

    View from Media Services: James Wilson, Director and Chief Engineer

    “The COM department was essential in helping us shape Merion 174. They had this idea of a completely flexible collaborative workspace that the students can take control of the learning experience and the professor acts as kind of a mediator. They wanted the class to focus on student to student project based learning rather than traditional teacher lecture methods. These ideas led us to research technology that would help reach this goal” (Fowler 2013).

    View from Administration: Paul Aspan, Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences

    “The key has been the seamless approach to teaching, research and service evinced by the current COM faculty. Partnership is as important for any academic department as intellectual formation and technical competence. Ancient Greek texts have a word for the reality of the current COM program: koinonia. It is often translated as ‘partnership’ or ‘fellowship,’ but in fact stems from the ideal of the ancient polis, where the citizens understood themselves as bound together interdependently for the promotion of the common good. The input from the COM department in this case reflected that sort of ‘partnership’ and thus provided a clear vision that spoke not only to an ideal classroom, but also to the practical components needed to create and sustain it. I would be remiss if I did not add that both Facilities and IT ‘bought into’ this well conceived vision, and have supported it, as have the Dean and the Provost. But, to use a variation on a theme, the success of the project can be attributed directly to the solidarity of the COM department as colleagues and partners in teaching and research informed not only by their individual training, but also by their respective commitments to the mission of education in the Jesuit tradition.

    A successful argument for ideal classroom space stems from a well conceived program of research and pedagogy. The COM Department was able to craft a thoroughly convincing argument for a new lab, for the proposition grew organically out of the conversations and collaboration that happens on a daily basis in the department. It would be mistaken to think that COM is simply a department that is adept at the newest developments in digital communication. Rather, the colleagues who comprise the department have established a paradigm within the department for collaboration on building a major and minor curriculum, the ways and means of pedagogy, and for research and publication. I can think of no other department in the University where the faculty cohort has such a forward leaning vision that is so cohesive and oriented toward partnership in teaching and research. Thus, in this case, the department was able to make a strong case for an ideal classroom space by stating, in essence, ‘here is what we need for what we do. Here is what we do, together, and individually, and here is how the space we envision will help us accomplish our mission with and for the students’” (Aspan 2013).


    During the academic year 2012–2013, my department learned a great deal about making arguments for ideal classroom spaces. Still, there is much to learn. In hindsight, it would have been beneficial to have a clearer understanding of the entire decision-making process at our university and the specific roles of each stakeholder involved in the process. Below are viewpoints from faculty and media services about the process of making an argument for an ideal classroom space. Of note is the use of our design philosophy, which helped us negotiate our classroom vision from a strong bargaining position.

    View from Faculty: Tim Lockridge, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

    “I think vision is key: A department needs to communicate a vision that aligns with a set of curricular goals as well as the larger university mission” (Lockridge 2013).

    View from Faculty: Mike Lyons, Assistant Professor, Communication Studies

    “I think the first thing you need to do is lay out your pedagogical philosophy very clearly and then design a space that fits that philosophy. Don’t rely on administrators to connect the dots” (Lyons 2013).

    View from Media Services: James Wilson, Director and Chief Engineer, and Justin Fowler, Engineer

    “Unique systems like Merion 174 usually start with a request from a faculty member looking for something unique. When this happens we meet with them to hear their ideas and requests and do our best to meet them. A perfect example is the Nicolette Music Studio. A professor brought the idea of having a classroom with a professional grade 7.1 surround sound system for music composition. We got a budget together and designed a system around exactly what they were looking for.

    If it were up to me, Merion 150 and Merion 174 would absolutely be prototypes for future classrooms at St. Joe’s. The pedagogy of today advocates for collaborative peer to peer work and these classrooms provide students with exactly that. If implemented correctly, the students will have the most effective learning experience . . . in any . . . classroom. It is not to say that these classrooms are the be-all end-all for every class and subject, because we know not all classrooms and subjects are the same, but I hope at the very least they serve as a model of how the classroom experience should be” (Wilson and Fowler 2013).


    In late August 2013, the Merion 174 classroom renovation was complete, just in time for classes. The process took one calendar year, as we started the production process in August 2012. By sharing our design philosophy and classroom sketches with administration, we were able to develop a teaching and learning space that suited our needs. Collaboration with IT refined those ideas, making the classroom even more ideal for collaborative teaching and learning. The project reflects a collective approach to collaboration and creative problem solving.

    The photographs in figures 2.122.17 demonstrate how students and faculty are using the renovated classroom, including the workstations, gaming/focus group area, Sound Domes, and ClassSpot.

    Figure 2.12. Students in the renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.12. Students in the renovated classroom.

    In the article “Making Peace with the Rising Costs of Writing Technologies: Flexible Classroom Design as a Sustainable Solution,” Susan Miller-Cochran and Dana Gierdowski (2013) reported that “in computer classrooms, the technology tethered us (sometimes literally) to a specific classroom design” (52; in chapter 3 of this volume, Gierdowski and Miller-Cochran further discuss this flexible classroom design and student expectations for such instructional spaces). We too believe that technology should not dictate classroom design, which is why we opted for a BYOD (bring your own device) model. Our Communication and Digital Media program requires laptops for all majors. Theoretically, the twelve laptops provided in the stationary laptop cart are for our minors. Our design philosophy dictates that technology should be ubiquitous yet unobtrusive.

    Figure 2.13. Soundome in the renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.13. Soundome in the renovated classroom.

    The Sound Domes installed in the classroom (see figure 2.13) have directional speakers that localize sound. They focus the sound for small groups directly under the speaker dome, which keeps the overall classroom noise level to a manageable level. The new space has a significant impact on how we teach. We place an emphasis on collaboration in our design philosophy: Collaboration with our students, each other, and the community. As collaboration is part of our mission, we are constantly learning what that means, pedagogically. To make the most of the classroom, including Tidebreak’s collaborative software ClassSpot, we must design our lessons with collaboration in mind.

    Figure 2.14. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.14. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.15. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.15. The renovated classroom.

    Although the whiteboard screens in the focus groups area were a compromise, they work well—perhaps even better than the original idea to separate the areas by glass walls. Not only would the glass walls have almost doubled the cost of the renovation, due to HVAC, they might not have been the best solution for our pedagogical needs. The whiteboard dividers are not only useful to write on, but are mobile. The privacy they offer is adequate for our needs.

    Figure 2.16. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.16. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.17. The renovated classroom.
    Figure 2.17. The renovated classroom.

    Our finished classroom is now a showpiece for our university. The admissions office takes potential students and their parents through the classroom while on campus visits. Curious instructors and students come by to have a look. The room is always occupied; when class is not in session, the classroom is used for digital media labs and digital writing consulting.

    We now find ourselves promoting an awareness of the role of learning space design on campus. We help other departments craft design philosophies that support clear visions to make changes in classroom design, most recently assisting faculty in their argument for flexible Steelcase Node chairs to redesign a first-year seminar classroom. Due to the success of this project, we are now beginning a faculty research initiative on campus to promote the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), especially in the areas of learning space design and learner-centered teaching methods.


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