Innovative Learning Spaces

I participated in the annual EDUCAUSE conference earlier this month. EDUCAUSE is one of the biggest events showcasing technology in education. Two years ago at the same conference I noticed an interesting addition to the exhibition floor: vendors of furniture. The furniture vendors were mainly promoting innovative classroom designs.

This year, innovative classrooms were a prominent topic at the conference. One of the keynote speakers, State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher described how SUNY is encouraging more interactive forms of learning and redesigning classrooms to support this. She highlighted FLEXspace, an online community for sharing ideas about novel learning space design.

A traditional classroom design primarily facilitates a lecture-based mode of education and conforms to this basic layout:
Abstract diagram of typical classroom

A more modern approach to education employs the Internet for presentations and in the classroom creates a more interactive experience for students. This can be done in a traditional classroom but this is not an ideal setup, as this picture illustrates:
students collaborating in a traditional class

A layout supporting such an approach looks more like this:
Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom

This video from George Mason University illustrates such a class in action:

In one of the EDUCAUSE sessions I attended, we were polled to determine the percentage of us at colleges with interactive classrooms. Of 51 respondents, 26% reported between 5 percent and 50 percent nontraditional classrooms,  49% reported less than 5 percent and 16% had none. It is clear that the development of classrooms to support interactive learning has a long way to go.

In another session, participants brainstormed issues involved in designing and using such classrooms and came up with this list:

Collaboration/communication among stakeholders
Whose job is it to do needs assessment?
Including the student voice
How do you get involved early enough to make a difference?
Achieving multi-use reconfigurable spaces
Balancing what you spend your money on: What’s the biggest bang for your buck?

Scheduling: How to pair redesigned classrooms with the right faculty
Proving a return on investment
New spaces vs. old teaching

The last issue is particularly important. I continually emphasize in this blog that changing technology alone is not sufficient to change learning. A newly designed space will not automatically result in an instructor abandoning passive lecturing. New methods are required to engender an interactive learning environment. If an instructor is committed to making the classroom experience more interactive, such a space may transform the experience.

The change in the space illustrated in the video is more about the psychology than it is about the technology. Indeed, one presenter noted how students loved the low tech, i.e. round tables and all around white boards, but did not like the high tech, the wall-mounted flat screens that display their laptops. Students considered their laptop screens a private space not to be shared publicly.

It is important to recognize that every space on campus has the potential to transform learning. It is not just traditional classrooms that need to be redesigned for the Internet age. Click on the graphic below to see a slide show of more innovative learning spaces:

Abstract diagram of an interactive classroom