Dr. Alexandra Mihai is Assistant Professor of Innovation in Higher… Meer over Mihai, Alexandra (ERD)
Time to reinvent the classroom
Learning spaces are an essential element of the educational process, playing a great role in the development of learning communities and in facilitating the learning experience. “Learning spaces” refer both to physical spaces such as classrooms or lecture theatres and virtual spaces such as online learning platforms and webinar rooms. In order to achieve high teaching and learning standards, learning spaces, both physical and virtual, need to have thorough pedagogical foundations, which are regularly revisited and adapted to the various teaching goals and activities. Learning spaces sometimes tend to be ignored in favour of the content being taught, but they are very often likely to shape the delivery of the content and the learning experience.
Physical learning spaces
There is currently a great focus on designing our online spaces to encourage interaction, while physical spaces are normally simply taken for granted as “something we can’t change”. But they are closely connected to the learning goals and teaching formats as well as to the relation between students and teachers and among students. The setup of the classroom can limit or facilitate the amount and level of interactivity and the potential for active learning.
Flexible learning spaces, where one can change the setup and seating according to the planned learning activity, are an ideal solution. Unfortunately, not all universities offer such facilities, and most of the time we need to adjust our teaching to the exiting space. However, there are a few things to keep in mind and try to optimise as much as possible:
Light (natural light, ideally);
Air & temperature;
Seating (chairs and tables; personal space);
Facilities (power outlets, access to water, etc).
There is a distinction to be made between formal and informal learning spaces. Whereas classrooms and lecture theatres can be categorised as “formal”, learning is not confined to these spaces and very often takes place elsewhere, inside the school and beyond. In order to design a coherent learning experience it’s important to try to find out where students like to learn and develop those spaces to enhance their potential. Examples of informal learning spaces are hallways, cafeteria, etc. Both formal and informal spaces should be inclusive and accessible, in order to offer equal opportunities to all students and staff.
Another important topic is the presence of technology inside the physical learning space. Is it useful or disruptive for learning? After a year of teaching and learning online, our perception of how technology can contribute to learning is definitely changing. Ideally, technology should be seamlessly integrated: easily available to facilitate learning (e.g. research, group collaboration, contact with external experts) but also easy to “switch off” when the focus needs to be on face-to-face interaction. Regardless of the use of technology, when designing or adapting a learning space it is important to keep in mind the idea of space as an enabler of the learning and creative process.
A post-pandemic vision of physical learning spaces
As we're slowly going back on campus, how about we take a bit of time to rethink the campus space we actually want to go back to. While being forced to go into (mostly) unfamiliar territory and teach in a new environment, we became aware of some of the mechanics of teaching and learning that we did not have a chance to observe before the pandemic: how students learn, what support they need and in which form, what spaces they prefer for different activities etc. We have been putting quite a bit of effort into designing online courses and I am convinced the insights we got in this process can be put to good use once we are back on campus.
So, let's deconstruct and reinterpret the various physical learning spaces, formal and informal: the lecture hall, the lab, the cafeteria, the library, the hallways… Here are some questions and thoughts to guide us:
What do students want when they are back on campus? Don’t just guess, try to talk to them about this, be open. If there ever was a time to “shake things up”, it’s now. this is also a good starting point for a discussion on how they learn and can give us useful insights into how we can support them , regardless of the environment.
Let’s think of learning as a permanent flow, not confined to spaces and media. What kind of environment - and what physical features (spatial arrangement, furniture, light, facilities,…) can enable this process, or at least are not likely to stifle it? Think formal, informal, on and off campus.
What can we take from the online environments back into the classroom? It can be specific tools (think Mentimeter or similar tools); it can be ways of doing things (e.g. how we interact, how we support students- see virtual office hours-, how students work together, etc).
How can we implement these changes? Designing and implementing learning spaces requires the involvement of various stakeholders (faculty, research and teaching staff, administration, students, IT & building infrastructure) and a clear communication strategy is the key to a successful outcome.
Let’s get creative!
It’s time to hand this over to you. Take a moment to think about the campus spaces you want to go back to. What are the features you like? What can be improved? Looking through the lens of your online teaching and learning experience, what would you like to see different?
I created a Google Jamboard as a common space to brainstorm ideas on this topic. I added different pages to allow us to focus on various aspects. But don’t hesitate to add new topics that you think are missing. This is work in progress and the aim is really to let our imagination flow, inspire and get inspired. Please add all types of media, including pictures, drawings, links. Looking forward to watching this space and seeing where it takes us!
If you would like to read more about designing and using learning spaces you can have a look at the following resources:
“Learning Spaces”: an e-book downloadable as PDF, published by EDUCAUSE, including learning spaces design principles as well as case studies and links to examples of innovative learning spaces;
“Learning Spaces”: a collection of resources and examples of active learning classrooms compiled by Vanderbilt University;
20 Things Educators Need To Know About Learning Spaces: a good overview of things to consider when we think about physical learning spaces;
“Learning Spaces”: a guide with case studies and a photo library on learning spaces in universities in the UK, published by JISC (while not a new resource, it does offer a lot of food for thought on the topic).
This article was first published in my newsletter (https://educationalist.substack.com/p/time-to-reinvent-the-classroom). For more insights, analysis and tips on Higher Education, online teaching and UX/learning design, follow me on Twitter and/or sign up to my newsletter.