Washington State University has High Hopes for $60 Million Digital Classroom Building

The new building is intended to accommodate today's technologically proficient students, as well as give faculty members greater flexibility in how they teach.

A new "Digital Classroom" building at Washington State University could serve as a high-tech showplace, but officials hope its flexible teaching space will be equally appealing to faculty and students.

The WSU Board of Regents approved the $60 million structure in September. The Capital Planning and Development Department expects to issue a request for quotations for architectural services in December, with construction slated to begin in August and be completed by June 2017.

Project manager Louise Sweeney said the exact size of the building hasn't been determined yet. It could provide as much as 75,000 square feet of new general education space, she said, but may be smaller depending on how much technology gets incorporated into each classroom.

"Part of the problem is we don't know what kind of technology will be available in two years or in 10 years," Sweeney said. "We want to be smart about it. If we did super-high technology in every room, we might only be able to afford 30,000 square feet. But we also have a growing enrollment, so we want to build as much space as we can while outfitting it with appropriate technology and leaving room to add more in the future."

One advanced option being considered, she said, is to create an "immersion lab."

Essentially a classroom surrounded by computer screens, the lab would allow students to take a variety of digital journeys, such as entering the human body to watch blood circulating or diving into an erupting volcano to see how magma moves beneath the surface of the Earth.

"We want to make sure we have some kind of 'wow factor' in the building," Sweeney said. "That's something we hope to hear from the design/build team. We want to see some creativity about what's out there from the people who are designing classrooms of the future.

The Digital Classroom building is intended to accommodate today's technologically proficient students, she said, as well as give faculty members greater flexibility in how they teach.

For example, rather than construct amphitheater-like lecture halls with 30 rows of seats, Sweeney said, WSU is considering rounder formats with maybe seven rows of seats, so students can engage more directly with instructors.

Similarly, some rooms will have communications technology so faculty members can roam around like a talk show host while displaying information on screens with the click of a button. That way they aren't stuck lecturing from the front of the class.

Rooms will also have flexible seating, Sweeney said, so the desks and chairs can be arranged in traditional rows or in pods to facilitate smaller group activities during the class. That will give professors the option of "flipped" classrooms, where students review a video lecture prior to class and spend their class time doing hands-on or group activities.

Another goal for the building is to foster collaborative efforts, Sweeney said. It will have a cafe, as well as two media support facilities. One will help faculty members create videos and other online instructional material, while the other serves as a "maker space" for students, giving them access to the fabricating and digital equipment they need to complete more advanced projects.

Although it's called the Digital Classroom, she said, the building's technological features are intended to compliment the teaching instruction, rather than supplant it. Together with its flexible space, the goal is to keep students more engaged and thereby help them learn and be more successful.

"The technology needs to be tied in with team learning," Sweeney said. "When students graduate and get a job, what employers are looking for is their ability to collaborate and problem-solve. Technology should be a piece of that, but (the Digital Classroom facility) is really about those interactions with faculty and other students."

©2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)