A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Understanding Expectations and Mapping Preferences for Writing Classroom Design

Dana Gierdowski and Susan Miller-Cochran


Over the last two decades, classrooms with individual computers for students have slowly begun to replace non-technologically enhanced classrooms as the default environment for writing instruction at many higher-education institutions. In these spaces, students have access to university-supplied computers for class use; however, the technology in computer classrooms quickly becomes dated, and maintenance of such classrooms is expensive.

The associated costs of maintaining computer-provided classrooms can become overwhelming in a program at a large university. In our own program, we offer 200–220 sections of first-year writing each year, taught for many years in six classrooms with computers provided for students and six classrooms without computers for students but with an instructor station for projection. In the rooms with computers provided, students were either in “desktop” classrooms (see figure 3.1), which resemble computer labs and are outfitted with university-supplied desktop computers, or “laptop” classrooms (see figure 3.2), which are outfitted with university-supplied laptop computers tethered to group tables, which seat between four and six students. The technology in the classrooms had become outdated, and the costs of replacing the machines were monumental (Miller-Cochran and Gierdowski 2013).

computer classroom
Figure 3.2. Desktop classroom.
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laptop classroom
Figure 3.1. Laptop classroom.
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Our first solution was to design a computer classroom where students could “bring your own technology” (BYOT) through a pilot program launched in 2008. The BYOT room was arranged in fixed groups around tables and contain an electrical outlet hub for charging student computers (see figure 3.3). BYOT sections were designated with a footnote in the registration system so students would be aware that they were registering for a class that required them to provide their own writing technology. The financial efficiency of the design and student satisfaction with it (represented by few requests to change sections at the beginning of the semester and anecdotal evidence that students enjoyed being able to use their own computers for writing in their classes) encouraged us to redesign all of our non-technologically enhanced classrooms as BYOT rooms, moving half of our first-year writing sections to BYOT environments. This redesign meant that all writing classes were taught with student access to technology with minimized cost.

bring your own technology classroom
Figure 3.3. Bring-your-own-technology (BYOT) classroom.
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On the surface, the BYOT design seemed to address the problem, but then a new dilemma emerged: The instructors teaching in the room reported that they were frustrated with the inability to rearrange the BYOT classrooms. Even though students were bringing mobile technology to the BYOT classrooms, the tables were heavy and fixed and arranged next to power supplies. The mobility of student technology paired with the fixed nature of the classroom furnishings highlighted the disconnect between our classroom design and the instructional technology our teachers wanted to be able to use in the classroom. We learned that instructors wanted furnishings that could be easily reconfigured for a variety of activities, from peer review workshops to group activities of varying sizes. As a result, our attention turned toward the design of the classroom itself instead of just the available technology. We wanted the design of our writing classrooms to reflect, as much as possible, the values and principles that also guided our pedagogical and curricular choices.

To respond to instructor needs, we redesigned one of our BYOT classrooms to include all mobile furnishings, mobile whiteboards, and multiple LCD screens for projection to better support the pedagogical needs of writing instructors and the needs of students. Thirteen of our first-year writing courses each semester could meet in this new classroom (approximately 12 percent of our total course offerings). We also found that such a redesign was a more sustainable, economically feasible approach (Miller-Cochran and Gierdowski 2013). We realized that redesigning space alone would not change what was happening in the space, but a flexible design would better support the existing pedagogical values and practices of our program. Learning space scholar Jos Boys (2011) noted that having a flexible space with mobile furnishings “does not automatically mean that students will feel empowered or that equipment will be moved… it depends on the conventions and assumptions—the ordinary social and spatial practices—that participants bring to a space, the activity and the context” (129–130). These experiences, expectations, and social practices could be influenced by a number of variables, including differences in age, race, gender, ability, class, and/or culture, not only for students, but also for instructors. Although the new design would well match our curriculum and pedagogical practices, we needed to systematically investigate these new flexible writing spaces to see what really was happening in the spaces and how they were being perceived by teachers and students.

Drawing on the work of learning space researchers in a variety of disciplines, we began to systematically study writing classes held in our flexible classroom. In a pilot study of the new space during its first semester, instructors claimed that the space enabled them to do more varied, active learning activities with their classes, and students felt that the flexible room had a positive effect on their learning. During the pilot study, we conducted an end-of-semester survey with 353 student respondents. The students gave very high scores to emotional descriptors for the classroom such as “comfortable,” “engaged,” “productive,” and “relaxed.” They also indicated with high frequency that they felt the design of the classroom contributed to their learning and that they would prefer a flexible classroom to a more traditional, fixed room. The results from the pilot study interested us in understanding on a deeper level what expectations students bring with them into a writing classroom, and we wanted to understand those expectations in conjunction with their perceptions of the flexible classroom space they encountered in their writing class.

To understand student expectations and perceptions further, we designed a study of expectations and preferences for the design of the space through the use of conceptual mapping exercises. In this chapter, we ground our research design in a review of literature that combines research in the areas of rhetoric and composition and leaning space studies. We also present the data we collected, discuss our analysis of and interpretation of the results, and then discuss the implications of these findings for learning space design and writing instruction.