Technology uses for pre-K students required special planning by officials at San Antonio’s Southside ISD, Technology Director Cliff Herring says.

Mar 29 2019

K–12 Modern Learning Environments Can Be Built Outside of the Classroom

Schools and districts apply principles of the modern learning environment to enhance learning spaces beyond the classroom for everyone — from teachers to the littlest learners.

Over the past several years, schools throughout the country have embraced a modern learning environment approach to classroom design, incorporating devices for students and teachers, advanced audiovisual tools and flexible furniture to create dynamic, student-centered learning spaces.

Those initiatives have spun out beyond the classroom walls, as schools look for ways to transform libraries, lounges, cafeterias and even hallways into areas where students and teachers can connect and collaborate.

“Instead of hallways that are just a circulation space, schools are making them part of the learning environment, with comfortable furniture and video displays,” says Irene Nigaglioni, former chairperson of the Association for Learning Environments and president of IN2 Architecture in Dallas. “Libraries are doing the same thing,” Nigaglioni says, “getting away from what we call the ‘book museum’ model to create more of an environment with both quiet learning areas and active learning areas.”

San Antonio’s Southside Independent School District recently created an early childhood center that brings touch screens, interactive display panels and even augmented reality to its youngest learners. 

Ryan Adkins
Kids are going to learn better in an environment that’s more comfortable, more flexible, where you can pull a table over with someone and work together.”

Ryan Adkins Technology Director, Yorkville (Ill.) Community Unit School District 115

And in Illinois, Yorkville Community Unit School District 115 invested in a state-of-the-art central lounge and meeting area for faculty and staff, where teachers can collaborate in small groups, hop on a videoconference with peers anywhere in the world, or just catch up on email with a cup of coffee before an after-school game begins.

While those initiatives represent vastly different takes on the modern learning environment, they each reflect a mindset shift away from the “sage on the stage” teaching model — and embrace the idea that students (and teachers) are constantly learning, both inside and outside the classroom. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how to create a modern learning environment using flexible furniture.

Younger Students Benefit from Education Technology

The 4-year-old prekindergarteners at the Col. Miguel Menchaca Early Childhood Center in San Antonio don’t need to pull on a string or squeeze a plush toy to hear a cow moo or a lion roar. Instead, the children can watch as their teacher slides a card under a document camera, and the animals come to life on an interactive display through the magic of augmented reality. 

The center’s interactive zone also features tablets, hideaway desks with HP ProOne 400 desktop computers and tables with writable dry-erase tops. 

On any given day, the children may ­experiment with line-following robots, practice their letters on an ­interactive whiteboard or play with ­simple coding tools.“We’ve gotten positive feedback from pretty much everybody who has seen the interactive lab,” says Cliff Herring, technology director for Southside ISD. The district opened the $27 million center in August 2018 to house kindergarten classes, but also to get a leg up on other for-profit early childhood education competitors in the market.

“Everybody is impressed with the setup. They go in there and see kids using technology not as a distraction but as an educational tool,” Herring says. Pre-K enrollment went up in the district after the new facility was opened, he says.

The technology investments build on kids’ existing interests in mobile devices and games in ways that promote learning, he adds.

“That’s what kids use today,” he says. “We wanted to take that concept and apply it to an early educational environment.” He adds that the interactive space not only drives learning, but also engagement.

“These kids want to come to school because they have things they want to learn about,” Herring says. “At that age, when they’re 4, it’s kind of hard to pull them away from mom and dad. But when you make the classroom interactive, that’s a driving force for the kid to want to come in. That’s the whole goal.”

esports infographic

Build a K–12 Classroom to Fit the Students

When officials in Yorkville Community Unit School District 115 sat down to design a central co-working and lounge space for teachers, they didn’t visit other districts. Instead, they took a field trip to Google’s offices in Chicago.

“Their philosophy is, the more ­features or amenities they have at work, the more they’re going to get from their employees,” says Ryan Adkins, the district’s technology director. “It was really about climate and culture. There’s a lot of collaboration taking place, and we wanted to bring that here.”

When room became available at the district office, officials built out a 4,000-square-foot innovative center with a 110-inch LED display wall from NEC, several Samsung video displays connected to Cisco Webex, robust Wi-Fi, flexible ­furniture and even sliding barn doors with writable surfaces.

“We wanted to have an open ­concept,” Adkins says. “We want our teachers to be comfortable and have an environment where they can come together and work.” The district has long promoted ­flexible working spaces for students. 

And the new space is meant, in part, to help teachers discover the benefits of technology-rich, flexible learning environments and embrace such spaces for their own teaching, Adkins says. 

The ­center opened in September, and while it’s already used every day, Adkins says that teachers and staff continue to come up with new ways to get the most out of the space.

“Our football coaches may go there and watch film,” Adkins says. “Reading specialists and special-assignment teachers, who serve multiple schools, meet there. Teachers hold meetings after school. We wanted to ­provide a space to collaborate. Eventually, we hope that trickles down to the classroom and increases student achievement, which is the ultimate goal.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how K–12 schools can embrace an unconventional classroom design.

Give K–12 Students What They Really Want

Ensuring technology would be used was a key driver at Valleyview Middle School, where educational leaders sought to do more than simply purchase new versions of old resources as they built out a new library.

“A lot of the library resources weren’t being used,” says Cindy Costanza, ­technology director for the Denville Township (N.J.) School District. “It was time to clear out some of the books.”

“There was no sense in keeping the reference section anymore,” Valleyview Principal Paul Iantosca says, noting that virtually all of the information in ­dictionaries and encyclopedias can now be found online.


Portion of students who reported better grades or improved attendance or creativity in newly designed, more active learning environments

Source: Mark Fehlandt, “Flexible Classroom Design and Its Effects on Student-Centered Teaching and Learning,” Hamline University, August 2017

The school’s one-to-one device ­program gave officials the freedom to design a library around students’ use of Lenovo Chromebooks, rather than bookshelves.

“Students learn in different ways,” Iantosca says. “Some students are a ­little fidgety, and they like to stand. And the chairs are ergonomic, so the students are more comfortable. They don’t get antsy and feel like they need to get up.” Flexible collaboration tables can be rearranged to accommodate small groups of students.

A technology ­classroom with Dell desktops provides students with access to larger screens and more powerful machines. Curved lounge seating lets them huddle up with their devices, and a laptop bar, where students can either sit in tall chairs or work while ­standing, boasts built-in power.

Students tend to visit the library during class time to research school projects, but the space remains open during lunch and after-school hours to accommodate those who may want to work quietly.

“It’s an environment that allows ­students to pay ­attention and be more comfortable,” Costanza says. “It gives them patience to be able to stick with what they’re working on.”

“This is the future,” Yorkville’s Adkins says of student- and educator-focused learning and collaboration spaces. “Students are going to learn better in an environment that’s more comfortable, more flexible, where you can pull a table over with someone and work together. That’s our philosophy, and we need to ensure that we practice what we preach.”

Patrick Cavan Brown

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