Computer-Classroom Design and Configuration
Some Notes on Computer-Classroom
Design and Configuration

John Stenzel, Coordinator
Computer and Composition Program
June 1996

Introduction / Disclaimer

The following report is "unofficial" in the sense that it distills my own thoughts and experiences from years of working in the computer classrooms, but it also reflects suggestions and critiques from many of my colleagues, collected via formal surveys, e-mail communications, and conversations. As such, this document is a mixture of facts and opinions, and is intended to provoke further thought and discussion as well as to guide future policy. Although at times my frustrations may become too prominent, I should emphasize that my contacts with individuals in Information Technology's Lab Management group have been, as a rule, positive, productive and cooperative. Obviously, anyone wishing to improve computer-mediated instruction at UC Davis must start by recognizing how important and how difficult IT's multifaceted call has been, and must discover new avenues to mutually beneficial solutions in a complex and quickly-changing technological environment. I do not want to appear engaged in mere finger-pointing; if fingers are to be pointed, I point first to myself and to other end users, who may have been slow or ineffective in clearly articulating our needs and tasks. In a sense, IT itself is too involved to recognize the ways it can best achieve educational goals; better communication is the key to improved partnership on these and other issues.


The UC Davis English Department has been conducting composition classes in computer rooms since the mid-1980s, developing a strong track record and a valuable knowledge base. Besides the Internet-based research tools touted every day in the mass media, a locally-networked computer classroom offers different kinds of communication opportunities for writing instructors, including real-time demonstrations, electronic essay pick-up and drop off, on-line conferencing, and screen sharing. Using projection apparatus (either a built-in unit or a plate that fits on a regular overhead projector), the screen of an instructor's Mac can be displayed (more or less readably) on the projection screen; in this way, an instructor can easily project class exercise materials and demonstrate editing techniques. When used in conjunction with the Timbuktu screen-sharing software this means that any student's Mac can be displayed for the rest of the class to see.

Each of the classrooms consists of individual computers connected (in electronically efficient or inefficient ways) to a local network server, which functions as an electronic clearinghouse and filing cabinet. For reasons of copyright and licensing, some software resides on individual computers and can be launched quickly, while other programs must first be loaded from the server to the individual computers. Sometimes, however, decisions about which software to buy, or which version to run, have sometimes been made without careful regard for user needs or long-term consequences. I discuss some of the pedagogical and logistical ramifications of such questions in a separate report, taking as a case study the "upgrade" from MS-Word 5 to MS-Word 6.

Using the AppleShare networking software, the classroom server acts as a storage cabinet for individual class files as well: each instructor has a labeled folder within the "Class folders" section, and within each of these folders is a pick-up folder (for distributing exercises and assignments) and drop-off folders (for giving files to the instructor). Students and instructors can access the file server via its desktop icon, and take advantage of its file-sharing capacities by appropriately dragging and dropping icons to and from folders. Each of these folders is protected by AppleShare's "access privileges" or gatekeeping conventions, so that students cannot root around in drop-off folders, but can only drop their papers through an electronic slot.

Computer Classroom Layouts at UCD

The room configurations, the actual layouts of tables and desks, present opportunities and problems for writing instructors: in the past, IT-Lab Management has followed its own ideas about what constitutes good classroom design, only recently soliciting input from English instructors (note that this IT entity is called lab management, and has only recently recognized the different demands of classroom design). To be charitable, the usually unacknowledged logistical requirement of warehousing many computers in a small space has sometimes led to decisions that make good teaching and high-quality writing difficult. Part of the purpose of this report is to articulate the advantages and disadvantages of various layout schemes, and to explore the sometimes hidden cause-and-effect chains that can ensue from seemingly innocuous design decisions.

247 Olson The 247 Olson classroom, conceived in the late 1980s, features four ranks of five computers each, arranged around two wide aisles, with 20 student computers and an instructor's machine. [Include floor plans here or in appendix.] Most students can read projected materials because the new NEC projection system works well and the sight-lines are reasonable; until 1994 the LCD-plate-and-overhead combination was prone to problems. Nonetheless, the windows facing Sproul often let in so much glare that the blinds must be drawn after the lights have been dimmed, or else students cannot see. While lighting can be a problem, the two-aisle layout encourages collaboration, or at least teacher input: the teacher is never more than about six or eight unencumbered steps from any student's computer, and students have several options for collaboration with their neighbors next to them or across the aisle. As an added bonus, in oral discussions those on the outside rows are looking away from their computer screens when they look at the teacher and the class, meaning that there's less temptation to surreptitiously read e-mail or play games.

241 Olson By contrast, the 241 Olson classroom, set up several years later by IT-Labs, is an abominable place to teach composition: six rows of five computers each stretch down a long narrow room, with the teacher isolated behind a set of tables and a tall desk, sitting on a high stool. Technically the capacity of the classroom is limited to 25 students, but this number leaves five computers free at the back--computers which are tempting targets late in the quarter, when would-be essay-writers badger an instructor to let them work during class. Even if enrolled students are successfully kept from the back row, they still may be nearly 30 feet away from the white-board and the projection screen, so their view of demonstrations is severely compromised.

With so many students facing computers, there is a strong temptation to read-e-mail, surf the Web, or do other work, and even instructors who are quite successful in other classrooms have expressed their frustration with this aspect of the room. Making matters worse, the ranks of tables are narrow and cramped: an instructor who wants to reach a student near the windows must walk down the aisle and then sidle in past book-bags and chairs--and even then the quarters are very close. From a pedagogical standpoint, such crowding limits the frequency and kind of collaboration between students as well: students are limited to the classmates on either side of them, with the lines of machines forming an effective screen between tables.

1102 Hart The 1102 Hart classroom, we hope the last of the rooms configured without explicit participation of full-time teachers, represents another attempt to balance the need to warehouse people with the pedagogical realities of teaching composition. It contains 21 student computers arranged in rows of tables, four rows on one side and three on the other, with a central aisle allowing easier instructor access. Just as in 241 Olson, the students-in-a-row, teacher-at-the-front paradigm makes it very difficult to engage students in discussion or even in lecture, since eye contact with the instructor often succumbs to the more attractive possibilities of e-mailing friends from a class. If it sounds as if I speak from experience here, I do: certainly this dynamic depends on the class, but I have had a much harder time establishing a community of writers and learners in Hart and 241 than I have in 247 or Surge--and I don't believe my teaching is that different in the different rooms. Some instructors report that they had to shout to be heard in this room, that student responses are drowned by the ambient noise, and that the huge aisle near the rear exit isolates the last rank of tables.

307 Surge IV The situation in 307 Surge IV is slightly different: the room is cramped, often too-warm, and sometimes breathtakingly noisy, but because students and teacher are so close together I have noticed that it's easy to establish a good rapport. The room is narrow and windowless, and has been nicknamed "the Boxcar"; four rows of five computers each run perpendicular to the side aisle where the teacher works, with the whiteboard along this side of the room and the projection screen at the far end, opposite the door. [The whiteboard was originally set too high for some instructors, and had to be moved down several inches.] Not surprisingly, the projection facilities are less than ideal on two counts: pulling down the screen blocks the air conditioner vent, and students on the side closest to the door are a long way from a small projected image, and those sitting with their backs to the screen must move or crane their necks. There's recently been a good suggestion, to switch around the table at the projection screen end, which would mimic the 247 Olson configuration in some respects, but at present we haven't figured out a way to get this done, since wiring and other considerations usually involve too much hassle. With the climate control so irregular, most instructors prefer to leave the door open­­yet the air-conditioner compressor noise from the semi-enclosed courtyard and the glare on the white board make for a distracting combination.

One of the more disturbing aspects of the 307 Surge room is the propensity for the server to misbehave: instructors who have successfully taught in Olson report far more problems when they teach in Surge, and IT's explanations generally are vague and unenlightening, running to "well, the server's flaky" or "the connections are sketchy." The first two days last Fall, the server did not work at all, severely disrupting classes. Early this Spring, a change made in a set-up routine suddenly meant that with the default settings for the instructor's Mac the projection plate was not getting video input at all--and not all site attendants (called in from across the courtyard) were able to rectify the problem. For whatever reasons, the computers in this classroom have an alarming propensity to crash unexpectedly and disastrously, and as teachers lose confidence, they become less likely to innovate. Other network considerations are discussed further in a separate section.

Pros and cons of Notebooks (247 Olson and 307 Surge)

When we heard about the possibility of using notebook-style computers we jumped at the chance, figuring that their lower profile and reduced noise would bring a partial solution to the problem of eye contact and e-mail distraction. An instructor can simply have students partially or fully close the screens over the keyboard, and thus reduce the obvious physical / attentional barrier to full participation. On the down side, the current generation of notebooks bring their own curse for fumble-fingered instructors and students alike: the keyboards are small and cramped, often ill-equipped to take the pounding they receive in lab use--and thus are prone to sticking keys (one of the Surge IV PowerBooks would drop "e's" with vexing irregularity). More seriously, instead of a mouse, these sleek machines have track-pads, sometimes with hair-trigger sensitivity, rendering some of the dragging-and-highlighting-and-dropping operations quite a test of dexterity. The official reaction to this problem seems to be "people get used to it," but it is worth considering in more detail, since the movement from mouse to track-ball to track-pad has not been insignificant.

Personally, despite the fact that I use a 520c notebook with track-pad nearly every day, I far prefer to use a standard-size mouse to do the kinds of high-level editing tasks demanded by real revision. Grease from fingers, heat variations, individual idiosyncrasies--all of these factors influence the performance of track-pads and track-balls, and anyone who hasn't watched a mouse pointer jump maddeningly back to its original position cannot appreciate how inconvenient and counterproductive such devices can be. We are requiring students to take exams on these machines, performing high-level writing tasks under time pressure, but sketchy machines can create disparities and disadvantages from day to day. Because of my own and other instructors' discomfort I have formally urged IT to procure standard keyboard and mouse set-ups for the notebooks, since the current generation of notebooks all have standard keyboard jacks on the back. With the phasing out of the SE's in 241 and elsewhere, large numbers of keyboards might well become available.

Possibly the argument could be made that mice demand more maintenance than track-pads, yet site attendants could and should be encouraged to do more preventive maintenance than they presently do. We cannot assume universal familiarity with the tools we are asking students and faculty to use, and I urge all IT Lab Management personnel to spend a few hours watching people struggle in the labs. How often has this happened, I wonder? Not often enough. If substantial thought did go into the pedagogical considerations for classroom configuration, then IT should share minutes from meetings or the design analyses themselves with the future users of these facilities; if such documentation does not exist, it should.

The key is that configuration to some extent determines usage: frustration with skittering track pads, combined with the well-documented tendency of 500-series cursors to "submarine" unnervingly, means ultimately that we are trying to get our students to write and revise and perform higher-order intellectual tasks with equipment that may make such tasks harder rather than easier. Here, then, is a classic instance of "progress" leading to less high-quality revision and writing, rather than more: mice may have their own maintenance problems in lab / classroom situations, but perhaps in this case the cure is as bad as the disease.

Spacing and other impeding ergonomic factors

Another consideration is worth noting at this point: there seems to be an immutable law of nature at work in the design of computer rooms at Davis: I refer, of course, to the standard 3-foot spacing rule that governs density decisions. Few of us (and certainly no one from IT or the Registrar's Office, whose directive has been cited as the reason for all spacing decisions) would do meaningful writing in a cubicle with less than 12 inches on either side of the keyboard, especially not with other colleagues crammed in on both sides--yet this is in fact the situation in every lab that we try to use as a classroom. Though it makes no sense ergonomically or pedagogically, this guiding principle has still not been changed, even in the most recently configured classrooms, even after many, many suggestions to the contrary. Space is a constraint, obviously--yet let's be clear in articulating just what the trade-offs are.

In the recommendations section of our 1988 report on using text-editors in composition classes, we suggested that labs were too crowded for the type of writing and revision we were trying to teach, and that 3-foot centers were too tight. Informally we have mentioned this on many other occasions. Last summer, we raised the issue again, and it was again ignored in the new Olson basement rooms. What a 3-foot spacing means, obviously, is that each work area is severely limited, and one student's mouse pad is another one's draft and notes. More than mere elbow-room or personal space is at stake here, I would argue from my own experience: under such conditions concomitantly less high-level editing and critical thinking is likely to take place--another case where decisions made from one perspective have unexpected and undesired consequences for users and the university community as a whole.

Nor has IT embraced the concept of easels or shelves that might increase effective desk space for drafts and research materials. Whenever I have mentioned this the idea never seems to be taken seriously, yet the consequences deserve closer scrutiny: we design classrooms that do not foster the multi-source writing and revision tasks that real writers depend on in their own work spaces, preferring instead to configure classrooms as collections of individual typing stations. This may be part and parcel of the overall institutional movement away from paper materials (with concomitant expense and messiness) and toward on-line research resources--yet what are the results of this movement? A student who extracts information from the World Wide Web has no place to digest this information, to look at it critically, constrained as s/he is by the size of the display and the impermanence of the medium itself. Perhaps easels or draft stands could have advertisement on them to defray expenses, if this is the issue--but the fact remains that computer classrooms tend to be crowded, thought-inhibiting places.

What kind of message does this send to the users of these facilities? The answer is not trivial, and has not been fully addressed as far as I can tell. The iterative or recursive habits of competent writers, not to mention the integrative and synthesis-driven work patterns of thoughtful analysts, are thus tacitly discouraged by the very design of the rooms we set aside for this kind of work. The best writers and programmers and researchers I know all attest to the difficulty of conceptualizing large-scale projects a screenful at a time--yet we force all students to work under this handicap by configuring their work spaces the way we do. Should we be surprised at the results?

Progress: 18A and 21 Olson

In my negotiations with IT-Labs and the Registrar's office last summer--when they solicited our input about classroom configurations for new labs in the basement of Olson--it became clear that the conventional lecturer-in-front-of-rows-of-students constituted something of an idée fixe. Some of this is due to their own models of teaching, and the rest to the suggestions made on the basis of Information Resources / IT-Instructional-Services methodology: to teach a group of staff or students how to use a software package an instructor does a demonstration, projected on the overhead, and students then follow along. This mode of instruction, in fact, was so prevalent that it led to several rooms having their overheads projecting on white-boards and not on screens--because Jeff Barrett and other instructors liked to be able to write directly on the projected image--and thought we did too! [Whether such techniques represent the most effective way to teach long-term competency in complex software tools remains an open question beyond the scope of this report. The success or frustration engendered by staff training in the latest round of Banner software "upgrades" may provide insights to faculty willing to lend an ear.]

There seemed to be consensus that computer classrooms, like regular classrooms in the sciences, should be configured for lecture-and-demonstration learning, and there was real surprise when the classroom committee was told last summer that this might not be a given for teaching composition and other critical-thinking skills. Despite the published research to the contrary, this has been a hard point to sell. What has been built in 21 Olson is a compromise proposal closer to 247 Olson than to the model that the committee of CWC instructors suggested (and that was adopted in 18A Olson, the new Second-Language Acquisition lab)--but the progress is encouraging.

18A Olson The Second Language Acquisition facility is a project spearheaded by Robert Blake of the Spanish Department, and it actually incorporates many important design considerations most conducive to good learning and better writing. First, it is an open architecture, with computers ranged around the outer walls in a horseshoe shape, and a projection screen featuring decent sight lines for nearly everyone. Second, a central seminar-style table does not interfere with access to any student's computer, and can allow for collaboration with hard-copy and texts in ways impossible in every other computer room (instructors have often complained that the computer classrooms do not have enough space to place their own books and materials; 307 Surge features a 1960¹s-vintage TV tray next to the instructor's station!). Third, students can follow lecture and demonstrations without being distracted by their own screens, and can easily work with their peers or with instructors without impediments.

Anyone who has seen 18A Olson wants to teach in there, and I fervently hope we get the chance to try composition courses in it in the near future. The possibilities for high-quality group work in such a setting are extremely promising, as published research and anecdotal evidence have clearly shown. Not only does the horseshoe-shaped desk structure work for computers, the central table accommodates conventional discussion. Niceties like carpet on the floor also contribute to the overall comfort level, besides acoustically damping the keyboard sound interference that can sometimes become a serious distraction in the other more "live" rooms. At the level of electronics and cabling, the connectivity is far superior to other classrooms' arrangements, and though the machines are still more crowded than I think is healthy, this facility may represent serious progress in the realm of functional classroom design.

21 Olson This facility is just nearing readiness as I complete revisions to this report in mid-June 1996. Because the basement rooms are deeper (closer to square) than those on the second floor, the sense of space is welcome, as is the modified-widget table arrangement (like 247 Olson, but with two rows rather than one table with students facing each other). The instructor has a wide aisle in the front of the class, with easy access to the ranks of students; the sight lines are good, and the potential for group work would seem promising. Again, though, IT has not deviated from its standard spacing, even though an extra six or ten inches might easily have been accommodated without compromising sightlines or reducing the number of work stations.

Servers and network connections: hidden "layout" issues

The performance of the servers themselves, highly dependent as it is on the number and quality of network connections, cards, transceivers, and the like, has been a matter of some frustration ever since I began teaching in the labs. It was only this year that I came to realize how significant the wiring configuration of the labs could be, that I began to understand some of the niceties of NAMs and transceivers, of splitters, choke points and electronic red tape that go into setting up a lab or classroom. Though seemingly arcane and rarely discussed unless one asks the right questions--and certainly the jargon is a foreign language in a department like ours which has never been fully hard-wired--these are matters with significant pedagogical impacts, both in short and long term.

If a server call takes five minutes (of a 50-minute class session) to transfer a particular piece of software to all student machines, this represents a significant waste of instructional time--a savvy instructor can work around that inconvenience. Ten minutes (which is what currently prevails) is almost crippling; if, on the other hand, a glitch occurs and a block of five computers suddenly freeze up during a supposedly routine operation, simply because an electronic traffic jam has occurred (and I have personally experienced this on perhaps a dozen occasions), then a less dedicated instructor will be much less likely to try such operations, and will tend to abandon the full functionality of the electronic classroom.

It is irksome to me to realize that some of the routine foul ups with which we have lived for many years might have their sources in economic or logistical decisions made by people who have never actually taught a full ten-week course in a computer classroom. More profoundly, it is striking to see how slow we have been recognize a fundamental fact of all networking: that what works in a lab setting, with students trickling in and out and spreading the load on a server, will probably not work in a classroom setting, where as many as 45 students (in the case of 241-247 Olson, running on the same server) arrive at nearly the same time, and try to perform nearly the same server-intensive actions. For a more detailed discussion of this topic, I refer a dedicated reader to the previously mentioned briefing on word-processing software in the classroom environment.

Exactly how many actual NAMs and IP addresses are being used or shared in each room, how many computers are being ganged together in a table, and how much compromise to expect in the realm of response and performance--all of these questions may seem trivial or beyond-question to those in IT-Lab Management, but I did not even know what questions to ask until halfway through my stint as Coordinator. For years, working as I did in a department dependent on modem connections, a network connection seemed a given, a set thing, yet as I have progressed up the learning curve, I am realizing that the quality and size of the information delivery-hose has a huge amount to do with the usefulness of the labs as efficient teaching tools.

I recognize that "need to know" has to rule some of what can be explained to me and to other users, but there's perhaps a greater need for a users / administrators technical briefing on the set-up and optimization of labs, a primer for network administrators and other affected by these considerations. The number and kinds of questions posted to the Network-21 e-mail list bears this out: network savvy is a precious commodity, and a marker for in-group and out-group distinctions. Decisions and policy-making must ultimately encompass both IT and its user constituencies, with considerations and performance benchmarks openly published and discussed not as they become problems, but as a matter of pedagogical and professional integrity.

Tentative Conclusions and General Recommendations

This review of the classroom layout issue­­in both its physical and electronic dimensions­­has offered a glance at the pros and cons of what we have been using at Davis to teach computer-assisted composition courses, and has elucidated, I hope, some of the pitfalls and uneven ground along the path to computer-enhanced teaching. Clearly UC Davis has made a substantial commitment to teaching in computer classrooms, but not all of its installations reflect the best insights provided by research and by skinned-knuckle experience. At times, the institutional culture of the Information Technology division, in concert to some extent with pressures from the Registrar's Office, has led to absurdities and inconvenience rather than pedagogically sound and ergonomically satisfactory classroom facilities. At other times, teachers and administrators in the Computers in Composition program have not comprehended or recognized which issues were negotiable and which were givens. With some regret I admit that, for a variety of reasons (time constraints and sheer naiveté among them), my predecessors and I have let unproductive situations drag on longer than they should have, hoping for incremental improvements or bug fixes instead of getting involved with the big picture, where our expertise was most significant. Improved communication between end users and IT is an absolute necessity--and this must go beyond sporadic questionnaires and crisis-driven interventions or reactions. As explained elsewhere, performance benchmarks must be agreed upon in advance, and decisions or reconfigurations must reflect a multi-dimensional analysis of short term and long term benefits.

We need to solicit and heed advice from teachers active in the classrooms on a more consistent basis, and the day to day workings of the labs and the classrooms should not keep us from scrutinizing new opportunities and new ways of addressing tasks. The engineering challenges of computer aided instruction may not be solvable under old paradigms, and seemingly insignificant decisions made for economic reasons or for short-term convenience may have unforeseen repercussions in the longer term. We must make time to tap into wisdom outside this University, and put our money into the best solutions available, rather than those with the most outspoken proponents or the most attractive packaging, Unless we carefully examine the ways in which good writers write well, for example, and try to create environments conducive to good writing and high-quality thinking, we will continue to succeed in spite of, and not because of, our tools and techniques.


To write such a document as I contemplate what I believe will be my third and last year as the English Department's Coordinator of the Computers in Composition Program, I cannot escape a rather depressing conclusion. I suppose I am conceding that, as this position is presently configured and funded, a part-time Coordinator cannot track and contribute to all the policy decisions and research necessary for truly optimal and effective composition instruction. The day to day coordination and operation of the classrooms, with staffing and scheduling chores, is already time-consuming enough to fill the release time allotted; hardware purchases and maintenance, software recommendations or troubleshooting, and training obligations round out what has become a nightmarish schedule. As a result, there is little time or energy for reading on developments in the field or for attending conferences that might avert problems and optimize our set-up. This is a source of frustration and disappointment for me, since I recognize both the potential for instructional improvement and the risks of overextending myself and my colleagues.

If the University is to make the most of this technology--and I sincerely believe it could and should--there must be better bridges built amongst units, between departments, and across the university community. This document is a start, but real progress cannot occur without a concerted effort to identify the best and most cost effective implementations of technology. This does not mean only "Advanced Information Technology," either: the "bleeding edge" is not where we should concentrate our efforts, just as we know that what works for one instructor may not transfer well to mass distribution. Only when we are able to integrate innovation and large-scale long-term experience will we be able to design facilities that get the most from the technology, and only when we can properly train cadres of dedicated instructors will the student body and the university be able to consider information technology--lowercase letters signifying the concept, not the Division--as a mature and productive force in preparing the next generation.

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Report written: late June 1996; html coded 16 October

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