Emerging Technology

Let's Huddle...Sort of

Collaboration has become an important 21st-century skill set. Being able to work in a team or with other individuals is a desired employee proficiency. It has pervaded education as one of the 4C’s buried in every curriculum across the United States. In response, the concept of a huddle room or a set of furniture with tables, chairs, electronics for switching video sources and an LCD panel creating a “huddle” for working together is popping up on many contemporary school designs. I can’t help but wonder if how the concept is expressed in architectural designs today has an unrecognized institutional bias. Hang with me for a little bit.

It took about 10 years (from the early 1980s to mid 1990s), but the investment of providing employees with a personal computer for work, independent of a mainframe, has generated a massive increase in productivity. The productivity gains were triggered by user-friendly software and information (files) residing on that personal computer. Whether you have been using Microsoft Windows or Apple iOS, your orientation is that your work is based on file or downloaded to your computing device.

There is another design trend that impacts this discussion called “ideation”, utilized by the technology industry long before adopted by many other industries. It is a design process were a basic concept is developed by a team and then, based on input and feedback, multiple re-iterations of the prototype are rapidly developed focusing on improving the original concept. Sometimes the results fail, but most of the time it works okay, and sometimes, they work out great and the company has a new hit. Think of the Apple iPhone or any web-based application popular today. Please note that it starts with and ends in a collaborative effort requiring the ability to share information with anyone in the team.

In a brilliant move, Steelcase recognized that these collaborative groups needed an easy, simple and foolproof way to share information with each other and created their “MediaScape” product line. Remember, information is on each person’s computer, so they assembled a table, chairs, an LCD panel and a custom set of electronics. The electronics allowed each person to plug the display output of their computer into the system and with a simple pushing of a button everyone at the table can see the information on any person’s computer at the table up and onto the LCD panel. Everyone has been copying them since the product was released in 2010.

This is an observation, not a judgment; the architectural community, and therefore, engineering community are a Windows or Apple iOS centric community. Yes, files are stored on a common network location with backup but each person pulls down a file to their computing device. This is the institutional bias; collaboration requires hardware or proprietary, custom software for sharing my screen with others.

There is an alternative to the hardware-based solution. In September of 2012, Google released Google Drive and created a totally different collaboration environment. Sure, Google released Docs, Sheets and Slides in 2007, and Drawings in 2010, but Google Drive opened up a whole new collaboration environment. Any file stored on Google Drive can be shared and edited by up to 50 people simultaneously! Not simply shared and edited but everyone sees all edits in virtually real time on their computing device. I do not need an LCD panel and electronics to see what is on another person’s computer.

Perhaps part of the institutional bias towards a hardware-based solution comes from the fact that Google Drive and associated personal productivity applications are so new that those of us who are digital immigrants (we remember a time when there was no technology) have not experienced the power of collaboration using Google Drive. My concept of what it means to collaborate experienced a radical shift after collaborating with a group of people using a Google Docs on Google Drive.

Obviously, Chromebooks running the Chrome operating system are designed to maximize use of Google Drive, but any other computing device, whether it uses Windows, Apple iOS or Linux operating systems, can use Google Drive. You simply obtain a Google email account and download the Chrome web browser. Schools and their students can obtain everything for free, including unlimited storage for teachers and students. Collaboration huddles should not be limited to specific locations and furniture sets, they should be a spontaneous clustering of students, desks, chairs and computing devices when and where the students need to collaborate.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Glenn Meeks is president of Meeks Educational Technology located in Cary, N.C. He can be reached at gmeeks@meeksgeeks.com.

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