Re-Thinking Learning Spaces
|The MSD of Warren Township’s wireless lounge.
James Aldridge, Chief Technology
Officer for MSD of Warren Township in
Indianapolis, Indiana, recently managed
the transformation of 200,000 square feet
of libraries and classrooms into creative
learning spaces that encourage creativity
and collaboration through open, interactive
environments. T&L Managing Editor Christine
Weiser talked with Aldridge at the recent School
CIO Summit in Denver to find out how his district
realized this vision.
TL: Tell me a bit about your district.
JA: We’re on the east side of Indianapolis and
serve a wide range of kids from urban, suburban,
and even rural areas, so the socioeconomic build
of the student population is very diverse. Seventy
percent of our students receive free or reduced-price
TL: How did this all begin?
JA: When I got to Warren Township, the first thing
that I noticed was that our classrooms looked like
they were from the 1970s and I thought, “Why
don’t we change them up a bit?” When you’re
talking about 1:1 programs and 21st-century skills
and project-based learning, the old classroom style
does not make sense. That’s where the idea of our
Mediaplex came from.
Every space I designed in the Mediaplex was
based on a 21st-century skill and project-based
learning. We have what we call “Collaborative
Studios” that look like mini conference rooms,
outfitted with 37” monitors, a Mac mini for
dual-boot capabilities, dry-erase countertops, and
cameras for distance learning. We have a “Creative
Thought Gallery” that is a large room with dry
erase walls that encourages innovative thinking and
problem-solving. We also have computer labs that
we call “SI-COM Labs,” which support collaboration
between the teacher or presenter and the students.
Lastly, we have an interactive theatre called a
“Digital Viewing Room,” which has some of the
latest and greatest audiovisual equipment. We still
have books in what we now call the wireless lounge
but we have also invested in lots of e-books so that
students can access our library online with their
TL: What sort of costs are we talking about
JA: The total cost of the Mediaplex was 1.6
million dollars, which included everything: the
construction, technology, and furniture. All the
money came from the savings that I had generated
from the virtualization change, VoIP project, our
refresh cycle change, and getting rid of unneeded
contracts and software.
|(From Left): Warren Township’s Creative Thought Gallery; Warren Township’s SI-COM Lab; Warren Township’s Collaborative Learning Studio.
The idea was to eventually take the Mediaplex
concept into all of our schools, but this was a big
challenge. We have a million square feet just in
the high school. We have three-and-a-half million
square feet between all of our buildings. So when
we applied for and won a national Race to the Top
grant, we then had access to 28 and a half million
dollars to help us make that dream a reality.
Using this funding, we took the Mediaplex
design and are putting it in our middle schools
to get the students acclimated to 21st-century
skills before they get to the high school. We’re also
putting it into the Walker Career Center and in the
classrooms at the high school.
TL: How did teachers respond to the change?
JA: For the most part, the teachers accepted it.
You always have those outliers who wonder why
they should change when they are meeting all
of their benchmarks. I would ask, “Is meeting
that number really a way to prepare students
for secondary education, the military, or a job?”
Meeting that number doesn’t necessarily mean
they’re ready to move forward. This new learning
space allows students to learn to communicate and
write appropriately—all of which are soft skills that
they will need. I think we need a truly personalized
learning approach to get students where they
need to be. And our high school does have a 90%
TL: Who did you invite to the decision-making
process as you planned your new
|This digital newsroom sits in the entry way of MSD of Warren Township’s Mediaplex.
JA: It started with just me asking the question:
“What do these rooms need to look like?” I knew
we needed a concept before approaching an
architect. From there, I got approval from our
superintendent, who has been very supportive
of the initiative. Next, I created a student group
and a teacher group and got their feedback. In the
first Mediaplex design, we kept a lot of the same
spaces that I designed originally, but the students
asked to make a few changes. They wanted two
collaborative areas instead of one, they thought
that two SI-COM labs were enough, and they also
asked if we could come up with another space.
They really pushed us. That feedback led us to
design the Creative Thought Gallery—or what the
contractor affectionately called the “crazy room”
since it was difficult to build. But we made those
adjustments based on this student feedback.
The teachers wondered how they would
actually teach in this new space, so we went
through all the different pieces of instructing in
that type of environment. We had the gamut of
teachers—from the very tech savvy who would
adopt this immediately to the teachers who
didn’t use much tech. We wanted this full range
of perspectives, and it’s paid off.
The other big proponent of this initiative
is David Holt, our CFO. He’s really been my
partner in all this from a financing perspective.
He and my superintendent have a lot of faith
in me, but they’re also a big reason why the
Mediaplex concept worked.
TL: What would be your advice to a school
ready to take this on?
First, find your champions and look at what exists
out there. Universities especially are doing some
innovative learning spaces. Examples include Ball
State University in Indiana, which has a small
space of about 4,000 square feet. Another good
example, from a higher education perspective, is
the University of Southern California.
The thing to keep in mind, though, is design
in higher ed spaces is for very different purposes
than what we need to do in K-12 classrooms.
We still have 30 kids in a classroom; they don’t.
It’s a challenge to accommodate that number of
kids. Higher ed is also designing their spaces for
students during their free time. We’re designing
spaces to be a retreat from the normal classroom
and to offer a space to learn 21st-century skills.
When I started this project two years ago,
I had trouble finding examples, so that’s when
I just started to design it on my own. I thought
about computer labs, for example. Computer
labs aren’t that different than typing labs were 30
years ago. We didn’t change the model; we just
replaced typewriters with computers and lined
them all up. Then we put six kids looking at six
different computers researching six different
things, even though they’re supposed to be
collaborating on that project. That didn’t make
sense. That’s why we created the collaborative
learning studios. Now students sit around the
table, just like we do in the corporate world, and
Then, of course, you have to pay for it. The
best starting point is your CFO. Collaborate
with your CFO and try to find someone who is
strong in operations management, maybe even
with a business background like I have. There
are ways to maneuver the project so that it is
more affordable. Don’t go too far and recognize
your limitations. We redeveloped 17,000 square
feet, which is the original square footage of our
library. By staying within the existing space and
reusing some of the existing walls, we were able
to get the most out of our money by putting it
into the technology instead of construction.
At the end of the day, we’re getting an
engagement improvement out of the re-design,
but it also has a cool factor. We don’t call it a lab
anymore. It’s a creative thought gallery where kids
can go and collaborate on eight 27-inch iMacs
for research and then turn around and draw their
thoughts on a wall. Sure, part of this environment
is low tech, but it’s very effective just because of
a cool-looking environment and some dry erase
paint. It really is an innovative space.