Feb 07 2020

To Make the Most of Classroom Design, Keep Things Flexible

Choice and collaboration are at the heart of active-learning spaces on campus.

In college classroom design, flexibility has become a top priority. In fact, “classrooms” might be too limited a term to describe what have become learning spaces of all shapes and sizes (including virtual reality spaces).

As administrators, IT leaders and instructional technologists evaluate the best ways to repurpose existing classrooms or design new ones, they often seek to create settings that can pivot between traditional arrangements — rows of desks, all facing the front of the room — and more collaborative settings.

What looks like a traditional lecture hall, for instance, might actually be a flex space in which students’ seats can turn around backward, allowing students to collaborate with peers on either side and with students sitting behind them. Seemingly small changes like these can make a big difference in both the feel and function of a classroom.

Other institutions create learning spaces that lack any default arrangement whatsoever: All the elements of furniture and technology can be mixed and matched to suit any need or project that might arise. A major reason for this shift is that students coming to college from K–12 schools are used to movable furniture and modular spaces, like those created in CDW’s Blueprint to Design service.

Plan for Faculty Support in Introducing Active-Learning Classrooms

Consider spaces like this classroom, situated in the central office of the Rochester City School District. Students can choose from a variety of seating options and adjust seats for their comfort. Modular tables easily come apart and re-form to suit individual and group work. Whiteboard-topped tables let students quickly write and share ideas, and interactive flat-panel displays support interaction and engagement.

While technology is an important aspect of active-learning classrooms, it’s not the only factor that distinguishes these environments from their relatively staid predecessors. Today’s learning spaces are much more likely to be colorful, comfortable and customizable.

By design, they invite students to make themselves at home and take ownership of their educational experience. The one-way transmission of knowledge traditional lectures depended upon has given way to classroom conversations that are just as likely to be led by students as by instructors.

That shift is a big one, and it often creates a need for faculty training and support. As two Penn State educators wrote for the EDUCAUSE Review, “Classrooms [are] more flexible in all aspects, including furniture, ways of sharing content, writing surfaces and power sources. At Penn State, we believe that the professional development we design to support faculty in these spaces must be flexible as well.”

Just as students benefit from agency and flexibility in their learning spaces, so do faculty — and the more that learning spaces evolve to encompass a variety of options, the easier it will be for pedagogies and physical environments to align.

MORE ON EDTECH: Check out how technology-enabled learning spaces are facilitating a new dynamic in the classroom.

Choose Tech Solutions That Facilitate Engagement and Collaboration

As with most endeavors, as an institution embarks on a reimagining of the learning space, one of the best places to start is with the people who will use it. Bring together instructors, instructional technologists and students to gather their input and ideas. When Rochester district leaders heard students’ opinions of furnishings for the new classroom, they adjusted course on some of their original ideas — ensuring greater buy-in and a bigger return on investment.

Another way to increase flexibility is by choosing the right supporting solutions. Tools such as Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex Teams give students and faculty an easy, seamless way to collaborate inside and outside the classroom. Videoconferencing tools make it possible for students, guest speakers and even faculty to join class remotely. And, of course, the right networking strategies ensure that connectivity is never a concern.

Simplifying these types of logistical concerns means that students can focus on the reason they’ve come to campus in the first place: to learn, collaborate and create their own best version of the educational experience.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

andresr/Getty Images

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