Chapter 12. Sustaining and Supporting Learning Spaces

Chapter 12. Sustaining and Supporting Learning Spaces
Christopher Johnson


Formal and informal learning spaces aren't just created—they must be sustained and supported to bring lasting value. As a result, institutions must commit funds, expertise, and technology to the ongoing operation of spaces. But institutions might also need to negotiate how different groups (for example, faculty and information technology staff) see their roles. Along with some general guidelines, this chapter provides examples of how some institutions have approached sustaining and supporting their learning spaces.


Almost all institutions face the challenge of how to fund the deployment, support, maintenance, and refresh costs for learning spaces. The expenses go beyond the physical infrastructure of hardware, software, networking, furniture, and physical plant to include "intangible assets"1 such as human expertise and digitized information. Further complicating the challenge, space is often the responsibility of multiple functional units or, in the case of informal space, it might not be perceived as anyone's responsibility.

First-Year Adjustments

When planning for a new space, consider the adjustments often needed in the first one or two years following construction. In the renovation of the Aero-Astro building at MIT, for example, approximately 15 percent of the total renovation costs were allocated to space changes after the renovation was complete.2

Replacement Cycle

As a space becomes more heavily used, it is necessary to monitor its use and support. Resources may need to be shifted or new resources added. And, technology will change. What new technologies will need to be incorporated? At what point in their maturation? What new support will they need?

Beyond initial funding and ongoing operations, a replacement cycle should be established for the different components (hardware, software, wiring, physical plant, and personnel). Although some items may have been purchased using "budget dust" (serendipitous, temporary budget surpluses), their ongoing staff costs and downstream, life-of-the-technology costs must still be considered.3 Beyond the technology, support staff are critical in ensuring learning spaces achieve their potential. It is all too easy to underestimate the cost of staff to support technology.4

Cost Model

How much should be budgeted? Metrics or service level agreements can be established for IT services and costs benchmarked. Knowing costs helps in the evaluation of their relative value.

Bill Lewis, chief information officer and vice provost for information technology at Arizona State University (ASU), has developed a model for this type of funding support.5 Lewis and his staff continually collect data on support costs and refine their cost models for technology-enabled classrooms. These models include both construction and long-term support for new spaces. Based on this model, ASU's senior administration has allocated funds to the central IT budget to ensure adequate support, maintenance, and refresh of the new Lattie F. Coor Hall on the main campus of ASU.6

Cost Containment

One way to manage costs is to standardize institutional hardware, software, and support (where possible) to achieve economies of scale. While potentially difficult to do for experimental or discipline-specific spaces, standardization for common baseline services (such as networking) should help. For example, ASU is standardizing technologies across centrally scheduled classrooms. This helps with maintenance and replacement costs. However, it has also helped with other, less tangible costs, such as training and scheduling.


Location may play a role in the efficiency of support. For example, ASU has located staff at service locations close to the classrooms they support. A variety of software tools let staff diagnose, and sometimes fix, problems without leaving their offices. In addition, the University Technology Office works with other units on campus such as facilities, campus architects, and, most importantly, the individual support units located in the colleges to coordinate support of campus learning spaces.

Instructional or Information Technology?

In learning spaces, two ITs are involved: instructional technology and information technology. Information technology professionals—applications and network support specialists—often focus on operations. With the goal of providing secure, reliable technology, systems are often "locked down"; users have minimal control over their computers. Instructors and instructional technology professionals—instructional designers and professional development specialists—tend to explore new ways to use technology to enhance learning. Their mind-set is more experimental, exploratory, and nonstandard than operational, sometimes conflicting with the approach of information technologists.

Both groups have legitimate approaches. Instructors need to experiment with their instructional systems. In today's hacker and virus-infested world, however, systems need to be safe and secure. The concerns of both information technology and instructional technology professionals must balance through all stages of a learning space's life cycle. For example, at the University of Arizona's Manuel Pacheco Integrated Learning Center (see chapter 37), a management team with representation from the library, student services, professional development, information technology, and instructional technology units makes operational decisions.

Awareness building is important. Instructional support staff can help instructors and students appreciate issues facing the information technology staff. Ensuring network security must be seen as a prerequisite to a dependable work environment, not as an unnecessary inconvenience—even if the environment is experimental. Similarly, technology support staff must find ways to allow instructors to deviate from the standard environment and experiment.

Coordination is an ongoing task. Instructors must be willing and able to talk to support staff in order to avoid potential conflicts, for example, by not scheduling a major assignment on the same evening as an upgrade of the campus course management system. Forging lines of communication and understanding between these two cultures ensures that space functions in a smooth and efficient manner.

Policies and Procedures

Space changes may impact existing written or implied policies and procedures such as network access or food service. Current polices should be reviewed to determine if they are still relevant or if more appropriate polices might be implemented.

One example is the campus network access policy. For security purposes, many campuses restrict access solely to students and staff. If the learning space is used to encourage community interaction, such as an information commons, such a policy blocks off-campus users who wish to use their own devices. To resolve this issue, network personnel might develop a process where patrons, working with commons staff, register their devices to obtain network access.

As more attention shifts to informal learning spaces, institutions must rethink policies that interfere with human interaction. For example, when Bertrand Library at Bucknell University remodeled space to create an information commons, they loosened their food policy. According to Gene Spencer of Bucknell, "Our food policy was roughly 'We know you are drinking and eating. Please don't bring in pizza or soup, and if you have a drink, cover it.'"7 Three years later, a new café located at the front of the library was integrated with the reference, circulation, and technical support desks. The library and food services entered "an informal joint covenant for success," explained Spencer, that "'You can't succeed if we don't succeed.'" Through this agreement, the library has input on the types of food served, so the café now offers only premade sandwiches, salads, muffins, and cookies; they refrain from selling "messy" food items such as pizza or soup. The café also displays signs asking students and instructors to please cover their drinks.

The addition of food services created a need for somewhere to eat. In response to student demand, Bertrand's staff took an area with built-in seating and installed café-style chairs and tables. This space has become the most popular study area in the library. This change lead to another policy revision, as students using the new area often work in groups. Because of this, volume levels have steadily risen. "Basically, we had to let go of the noise volume on the first floor," Spencer said. "We still have spaces dedicated to silent study, but students want social spaces to study."

When determining policies and procedures, planners must find the balance between the sometimes conflicting needs of users and support staff. Kim Braxton of Emory University has found that "rules constrain you…. It's easy to run a place with lots of rules because you don't have to think much; the rules set the precedent. When you're flexible, you've got to pay attention; everything's a case-by-case basis. You've got to be on your toes. It's harder to be flexible, but I think in the end there is a much higher level of satisfaction; creativity certainly spikes."8

Supporting People

Professional development and support of instructors using new learning spaces are key components of making space successful.

Faculty Support

When developing support strategies, it is important to have a rough idea of people's experience with new teaching methodologies. Are users early adopters or the early majority?9 Some faculty simply need to be pointed in the right direction and given the resources to try out their ideas.10 Others need quick fixes when problems arise, along with consistent help.

Helping instructors share ideas is also important. For example, in the initial stages of the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona, a specific space was set aside where instructors from diverse disciplines could prepare for or relax after class—the Meeting Place. A member of the University Teaching Center had her office in the Meeting Place, which allowed her to help instructors, see what others were doing, and share ideas about what worked and what didn't.

While most support efforts target instructors, it is also important to understand what types of students will use the space. Although some students are heavy technology users, others have little experience. Nontraditional students may have difficulty accessing and using new technologies. Assessing the skills and comfort level of all users will allow an institution to provide the support needed.

Classroom Support

Classroom support is usually a distributed function on campus. Instructional questions are handled by a faculty development center or center for teaching and learning. Classroom equipment is supported by A/V services. Technology issues (networking, desktop, and laptop support) belong to the help desk. Often multiple help desks exist: one for networking, one for desktop support, one for the course management system, and so on. Instructors and students don't care where support comes from—they simply want assistance. "If faculty get burned once they won't come back; they'll revert to talking heads."11 Ensuring learning spaces are well utilized requires a coordinated support strategy.

To create a support environment that "focuses on the individual and makes technology less of a barrier to faculty use,"12 ASU studied its support practices and instituted several changes. Technicians have relocated to offices where they can easily reach technology-enabled classrooms. Phones placed in classrooms let instructors contact support personnel with problems.

ASU intends to "make sure that the rooms are somewhere where faculty want to teach."13 To ensure this, A/V technicians visit each technology-enabled classroom once a day to verify that the equipment is working. They also clean the boards, put chairs back into position, and scan the room for any problems, then report problems to facilities for resolution. In an effort to decrease interference if an instructor has a problem, ASU is standardizing equipment in centrally scheduled classrooms to allow for hot-swappable replacements. Said Bill Lewis, "Our goal is to have any problem fixed within 10 minutes of receiving a call."14 ASU has also invested in remote diagnostics that allows technicians to solve some problems without entering the classroom.

Perhaps the most unique change at the ASU main campus is moving room scheduling to the office of the CIO through the Office of Classroom Management, allowing them to maintain a complete inventory of rooms and equipment. Instructors can be assigned to rooms based on pedagogical needs. This arrangement also permits moving an instructor from one room to another, similarly equipped room if a problem cannot be fixed quickly. At the beginning of the year, faculty are informed of the classroom they have been assigned and the equipment available, ensuring that instructors are placed in rooms with the desired equipment.15 The shift has made it possible to target professional development and provide more individualized help to instructors.

At the Integrated Learning Center at the University of Arizona, support is embedded within the facility itself. One A/V technician is permanently assigned to the building, and support staff from the Learning Technologies Center [] and the University Teaching Center are available to assist with instructional questions. The Office of Student Computing Resources is located in the building, providing technology support to students. The support helps instructors and students use the technology tools provided to improve teaching and learning.

It is important for support staff to remember that the goal is to create a welcoming space that encourages users to actively participate in their own learning. Alan Cattier, director of Emory University's Cox Hall Computing Center (see chapter 8), observed, "The old computing lab was a facility. The new computing lab is a relationship…. What ends up happening is that students do the work that they want to do. They go in and they feel empowered; they feel creative because the space is empowering and creative."


Learning spaces require ongoing, coordinated, and institutionalized funding, support, and maintenance. Neither instructors nor students care whose responsibility it is to support the space—they simply want it to work. "If you're not going to support the technology, then don't put it in the classroom. It's worse than not having it," claimed Bill Lewis.16

What works today might not work tomorrow, though. New technologies emerge and existing ones become obsolete. New technology availability must be balanced with instructors' and students' acceptance of a given innovation. Constant evaluation and assessment will ensure that support goes where it is needed the most. Well-used and well-supported spaces will help institutions meet the learning needs of our Net Generation students.


  1. Kathy Harris, Maurene C. Grey, and Carol Rozwell, Changing the View of ROI to COI—Value on Investment, Gartner, Inc., ID no. SPA-14-7350 (November 14, 2001).
  2. Philip Long in an e-mail message to the author, December 27, 2005.
  3. EDUCAUSE and the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), Funding Information Technology, EDUCAUSE Executive Briefing (Boulder, Colo.: EDUCAUSE, December 2003), p. 3, <>.
  4. Ibid., p. 2.
  5. Phone interview January 4, 2006, with Bill Lewis, chief information officer and vice provost for information technology for Arizona State University.
  6. For more information on ASU's funding model, please contact the CIO through the Web site at <>.
  7. Phone interview with Gene Spencer, associate vice president for information services and resources at Bucknell University, March 15, 2006.
  8. Kim Braxton of Emory University speaking in a Web seminar with Alan R. Cattier, Adventures in Space Design: Building and Supporting a Collaborative Computing Lab, ELI Web Seminar, April 10, 2006, <>.
  9. See Everett M. Rogers's Diffusion of Innovations, 4th ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1995) for a more detailed explanation of the various types of adopters.
  10. Judi Harris, Design Tools for the Internet Supported Classroom (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998), pp. 16–17.
  11. Lewis, op. cit.
  12. Interview March 13, 2006, with Sarah Hughes, assistant vice provost, Office of Classroom Management, Arizona State University.
  13. Phone interview with Sarah Hughes, January 4, 2006.
  14. Lewis, op. cit.
  15. Hughes, Jan. 4, 2006, op. cit.
  16. Lewis, op. cit.

About the Author

Christopher Johnson is a consultant on 21st-century learning and an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Arizona South. In 2005, he retired from the University of Arizona, where he served as a senior consultant in the Learning Technologies Center. As facilitator of the Consulting and Enrichment Activities group, his primary focus was assisting faculty in exploring and implementing new teaching methodologies supported by technology. He also served as the director of humanities computing and technology and the Digital Media Resource Center in the Manuel Pacheco Integrated Learning Center. He serves on a variety of technology committees and has shared his knowledge and expertise at a number of conferences. Johnson received his PhD in secondary education from the University of Arizona.