By John Sener
Recently, my colleague and Assistant Vice Provost Dominique Kliger invited me to Temple University to give a talk about my book. After the presentation, Dominique offered to take me on a tour of Temple’s TECH center. I readily accepted, but to be honest, I was prepared to be underwhelmed in a “been there, seen that” sort of way — what could be so novel and compelling about a tech lab center?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The tech center was amazing — and not for the reasons you might think.
Temple’s TECH Center has a large, open room area filled with pods of computer workstations, so my first impression was how it resembled Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium, which I had visited three years ago — but we were just getting started. Dominique pointed out a box mounted on a pillar, which had a series of several neon light tubes whose contours collectively suggested the shape of an ear. As she explained to me, this “earbox’s” neon lights indicated the ambient noise in the room; if excessive room noise persisted, an announcement was made requesting students to quiet down.
This was a neat enough device in its own right, but an even more striking feature of the TECH Center was its variety of study spaces, each clearly designed for its purpose and equipped with appropriate technology. There were areas with normal-size computer screens for independent study, and there were areas for videoconference meetings with screens large enough to accommodate a group of 10 participants. There were open areas for individual study and for small group work and for simply chilling a bit. There were breakout rooms for study groups or group projects, all equipped with a group workstation. There were rooms for graphic design and rooms filled with music keyboards and broadcasting equipment.
Even the vending machines were impressive. The one I saw was half empty, but not as the result of snack-starved students. Instead, the TECH Center fills these vending machines with practical items such as headphones, flash drives, computer and other school supplies, even personal care items. As Dominique explained, soon after the TECH Center opened, university officials realized that many students were using it all night — staying in the center late into the night, sleeping there, getting up in the morning and going to the gym to shower, then going directly to class.
Which illustrates the really impressive part of the TECH Center: not just the technology, but how the students use it. Dominique told me that when it first opened, the college president was worried that the university had poured a huge amount of money into a facility that would be underused. His worries were needless: this place was packed — on a Thursday in the middle of the afternoon the week after spring break.
As TECH Center’s Joseph Williams later told me, the center gets even more crowded close to finals; during those periods, it’s almost standing room only, with crowds of students waiting their turn at a computer station, and even lines of students waiting to get into the facility.
Simply looking at the array of displays on the computer screens was almost dizzying. Sure, there was the sprinkling of college basketball games (the day I visited was the first full round of March Madness) and Facebook pages. But there were also papers being “written” and PowerPoint slides and Autocad drawings and research-related web sites. There were practice presentations and online course media and musical compositions in progress. These students were using this facility big time.
And this is what really makes the TECH Center so amazing: it enables students — and in Temple’s case, a collection of students who are a multicultural microcosm of America today — to be engaged in the learning process. This is the nature of study in the twenty-first century, where individual and group work, socializing and solitude, are all seamlessly woven into the same experience. Dominique noted that Temple’s TECH Center has had this quality since it opened: a learning center that was a form of social media before social media burst on the scene.
Since my visit, I’ve had a chance to peruse the TECH Center’s web site, which I imagine is not all that compelling either unless you’ve already visited the center; but in the context of my recent visit, the web site’s explanation of how the center works is even more impressive. I also belatedly learned that the “TECH” in the title doesn’t stand for “Technology” but is all caps and stands for “Teaching, Education, Collaboration, and Help” Center. That it does, indeed…
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