But it’s also a room designed for focused learning, adds Vanderberg. She shares a story while pointing to one of the walls that is generally void of, well, anything. “Originally, we were going to put artwork on this side. Then one of my students who has attention deficit walked into the space and said, ‘Finally, a place with nothing on the walls. Finally, a place where I can focus,’” she recalls. “I thought, even though I work with these students all day, I’ve lived with people like this, it is not my brain that’s doing the processing.”
It’s the reason that getting PAL students’ perspective was so important in the project.
Breaking Out of ‘Jail’
A computer lab is a computer lab, right? Not necessarily, especially considering how Curry College’s previous version of its PAL center computer lab was perceived by participating students. “It was an ugly, ugly room,” Stewart recalls.
It was a small room with high-countertops along three walls amid protruding radiators. Add in desktops with chairs and the space was cramped and not conducive to learning. “The overall effect was very dark, and very, very small,” Vanderberg says. “Our students would enter, essentially, a cinderblock room.”
When it was created in the 1980s simply having a computer lab was cutting-edge, she adds, but times changed and students with learning challenges were left with a stifling space. So Vanderberg asked PAL students what they wanted out of a refreshed computer lab. “They said, ‘We want learning spaces where we can meet together,” she recalls. “It’s very hard to meet together when they’re all facing out and that was the model for many years.”
PAL students also, according to Vanderberg, indicated:
- “We don’t necessarily need to have desktop computers, just access to the Internet.”
- “We want to be able to decide if what kinds of groups we want to work in or if we want to work individually or collaborate.”
- “We want to feel like it’s our space.”
So the new computer lab opens to the student lounge creating a nice collaboration or heads-down work option. “We encourage them to open and close the doors, move the furniture,” Vanderberg says.
The new computer lab environment has become a destination on campus. Vanderberg refers to one student who worked at the previous computer lab as well as the revamped lab. “He said, ‘I feel like I’m no longer in jail. I always felt like I was in jail in that room, because the windows were really high, it was dark. Now I come in and I’m inspired to work.”
The computer lab now includes an Epson interactive projector where faculty and students can connect a laptop and leverage Extron MediaLink 104 IP Plus for controlling media in the space. The changes to the space, however, are about more than productivity, particularly for students with learning challenges.
Curry College’s Retention Challenge
Vanderberg contends that in a small way students are embracing optimism in the new space. “Instead of feeling sort of constrained, I think students feel the sense of possibility, and we didn’t, as faculty, even know this possibility of having a shared screen that multiple students could project on at once, that they would feel comfortable accessing.
That sense of optimism is palatable throughout the PAL center. Students can be found all over the building learning in different ways. That seems to be the biggest benefit that the assistive technology upgrades help provide — that students have an option to find an environment that works well for them.
Many PAL program students have challenges related to notetaking and digesting lectures in traditional classrooms. So the PAL center hosts various ways for students to leverage personal electronics or tablets and voice recognition software to help them consume the information at their own pace and on their own terms. As a result, PAL provides students with spaces in which to essentially relive their classes.
Even in PAL Center’s Webb Conference Room there’s an Epson BrightLink 595Wi interactive projector that students can connect to via HDMI and displaying images on a wall painted with Ideapaint Dry Erase paint. Students sit, listening to recorded lectures, reading and studying below a portrait of PAL founder Gertrude M. Webb.
Thanks in large part to Webb’s influence, Curry is doing something right. Like most higher education institutions, a good measurement of its offerings to students is retention. Vanderberg says PAL retention is consistent with Curry College retention as a whole. “Across the nation students with learning disabilities don’t retain at the same levels as students without. They leave schools at higher rates for a variety of reasons. So for us to see now, from fall to spring, that we have the same retention across the first year [of living with the new technology] is a really great sign.”
For Adtech, as an integration firm, the success or failure of the systems it delivers to customers is usually defined by return on investment or system utilization. Muscatello acknowledges that the ROI that its customer is experiencing with the PAL solutions is uniquely gratifying. “Adtech’s culture is defined by learning, which we believe is the root of all that is rewarding,” he says.
“We are excited and honored to use our knowledge and expertise to help enable better access to education for students with atypical learning styles. As a parent of a child that learns differently I am thrilled to see programs like Curry College’s PAL.”
This article was originally posted on sister publication Commercial Integrator.