Jan 25 2023

How to Create a Flexible Learning Environment in Higher Ed

Students, instructors and their institutions can benefit from spaces designed with flexibility in mind.

What we think of as traditional classrooms are fading into the past.

Rigid classroom designs with rows of forward-facing seats with an instructor at the head of the class are increasingly vestiges of a bygone era in education.

Today, students might be experiencing a course from their seats inside a classroom, or they could be working from home, or from a coffee shop, or participating asynchronously several hours later. To accommodate all of that within the same course and the same teaching space requires flexibility.

But simply promising to offer options to learners is not enough. Classroom design is often following the lead of pedagogy, and with instructors working to serve all different types of students in various modalities, it’s beyond time for colleges and universities to remake their learning spaces and make modern methods of teaching easier and more effective.

It’s all led to the proliferation of flexible learning environments, teaching spaces tailored to fit the desires of today’s students and the needs of today’s faculty members.

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What Is a Flexible Learning Environment?

Flexible learning environments should enable students to do everything from studying solo to participating in a lively group discussion, sometimes within the same space and at the same time. That’s flexibility, after all, but what it looks like in practice can vary.

In almost any flexible learning environment, there will be opportunities for students to collaborate in small groups or, like in a traditional classroom, listen to a professor deliver a lecture. Because of the ubiquity of remote learning, there should also be opportunities for students to interact with members of their cohort who are not in the same physical space through video displays and collaboration tools.

Flexibility should extend to all types of instruction that can be delivered in that room, as well. This also takes different shapes. Some universities opt for rooms that can effectively accommodate in-person lectures, hybrid lessons and fully remote teaching in a single space; others, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have created unique classroom “personas” for what they have identified as four different needs.

Still other universities have gotten even more creative, with one piling all the tools for flexible instruction onto a cart to roll from classroom to classroom, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE.

“The faculty can just plug it in and go,” she says. “Clearly, there are benefits to having more established technology that’s on the wall, but there are also benefits in having more modular options that allow flexibility, and the faculty can create what they want to based on the technology.”

WATCH: See how one university designed future-focused learning spaces.

How Are Flexible Learning Environments Constructed?

Designing a flexible learning space in higher education starts with the furniture. Students’ chairs can’t be bolted to the ground if they’re going to go from listening to a lecture to huddling with their classmates or burying their noses in textbooks.

Students in a flexible classroom are typically seated in pods and around tables, something that also allows the professor to flow through the space and work one-on-one with students as needed. It’s also the kind of setup that allows for personalized, adaptive learning if instructors choose to employ that method.

Joe Tobares headshot
There’s a lot of movement, a lot of good things going on, and it’s great because you see a lot of learning.”

Joe Tobares Director of Academic Technologies, UTSA

To involve students who are connecting to the course virtually, flexible learning spaces should be equipped with displays to show the faces of the remote students as they interact. Cameras and sharable, interactive screens such as virtual whiteboards should be part of the mix as well, and all that technology must be securely connected to the university network.

At UTSA, administrators discovered another improvement necessary for their flexible classrooms: soundproofing.

“In the active, connected classrooms, the rooms are very loud, way louder than normal,” says Joe Tobares, director of academic technologies at UTSA. “There’s a lot of movement, a lot of good things going on, and it’s great because you see a lot of learning.”

DISCOVER: Learn why effective hybrid learning environments require thoughtful planning.

What Are the Advantages of Flexible Learning Environments?

At the end of the day, flexible learning environments are all about options.

They allow students to feel more comfortable because of the choices they have: learning in-person, remotely or asynchronously. They give instructors the option to tailor each day’s instruction to a particular type of teaching — lecture-style, in groups or individual work — based on the day’s material. And they allow colleges and universities to outfit rooms and buildings based on their curriculum, and to work with digital learning offices to tailor instruction to those spaces.

Classroom design has come a long way since the lecture halls of old, and flexible learning environments will keep universities better prepared for years to come. Because these spaces can do many different things, institutions are able to nimbly respond to the evolving desires of their students, the needs of their faculty and whatever new challenges the future may hold.

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