Classrooms and the 21st Century Campus

Haggans in PDU 130226Classrooms for active learning are strategic assets for the 21st century campus.

Even in the digital transformation of higher education there are three-dimensional classrooms – but not the usual types. Active learning spaces will be a competitive advantage since they support better educational outcomes than traditional methods. Realizing this potential will require a disruptive campus-wide approach to the design and management of classrooms.

In the emerging campus, lecture halls are used less and less used. At the same time there is increasing demand for active learning spaces – those places that allow students to interact with each other and their teachers.

Active learning spaces are not renovated lecture halls with sloped floors built for passive instruction. They are a different kind of space. FLEXspace and the Learning Spaces Collaboratory have a growing inventory of examples. There is more floor area per student and the floors are flat. The combination of floor area and flatness provides flexibility for movement and engagement – reconfiguration for discussion and project work – and writing surfaces are everywhere.

At the high-tech end of the spectrum, the rooms have the fastest possible network speed. Eventually the need for projectors will go away as images are shared on personal screens. At the low-tech end, these rooms resemble traditional seminar rooms without a massive central table.

Existing campuses carry legacy costs from the 20th century. They have thousands of seats in rooms designed for obsolete pedagogies. To make matters worse, classrooms tend to be scheduled like workstations on a factory floor – same time – same place – same days. Few academic scheduling systems recognize the increasing variability of course meeting time and place calendars.

Faculty members know all of this and are skilled in improvisation. Whether dragging the chairs around or abandoning the room altogether, the faculty make do. They use active learning techniques where and when possible. They are stuck on the receiving end of a classroom development system that usually lacks strategic leadership, and administrators are stuck too.

All rely on a traditional academic system to deliver and manage classrooms. The Provost is nominally in charge of the process. In practice, each college and department defines its needs. These are translated into capital budgets for construction and renovation. The system works something like this.

  • New classrooms are built to meet the needs of specific departments and located for the convenience of those faculties.
  • Learning spaces are shaped by the most senior faculty members.
  • Renovation funds leave existing patterns in place.
  • Classrooms designed for lecture-only instruction are “improved” by updating furniture, finishes and technology.
  • Administrators make the system as efficient as possible, but can’t change it.

In this system, classrooms are not strategic assets; they are just a cost of doing business.

None of this was problematic when competition came only from other brick and mortar institutions. Nor was it important when lecture was the norm and active learning was reserved for the studios of the arts and the labs of the sciences. Now competition comes from every direction and lecture-only classes have been shown to be educational malpractice in many disciplines.

Strategic thinking about classrooms requires the attention of all in academic leadership. While provosts have nominal control of classrooms, large swaths of discretion are ceded to departments and colleges. This balkanized system does not prioritize the needs of the campus as a whole.

Making active learning spaces a strategic imperative will change existing academic and administrative prerogatives. It will require administrative and faculty commitments to redesign classroom development and management.

Taking on this challenge will be disruptive. It will require changes to existing patterns of capital spending. It will lead to more renovation, re-programming new buildings and even abandoning some lecture halls. Implementing these changes can be motivated by improving teaching and learning. It will have the additional benefit of gaining a competitive advantage.

This post is based on my Keynote at the Great Lakes Conference on                   Teaching and Learning at Central Michigan University on May 9, 2016

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

One thought on “Classrooms and the 21st Century Campus

  1. Very good commentary, Michael. Bringing ‘non-teaching’ environments into the classroom and curriculum are becoming the norm or should be. However, overcoming decades and centuries of habits will be slow. In my experience, I find an increasing interest in case studies, application of work experience to classroom theory, and other multi-modal methods preferred by students and more effective anyway.

    Institutions of all sizes, but particularly middle-sized institutions, will have the greatest difficulty in changing. These institutions focus on ‘butts in seats’ to make their financial model work. These institutions are often trying to build their way out of decaying or outmoded facilities but still using the same ‘butts in seats’ logic.

    Last year I visited an middle-sized institution (5,000 – 10,000 students) to discuss facility metrics and using them wisely. In advance of the visit I looked at several metrics used by facility managers: operating cost/sq.ft, operating cost/student, etc. In general, I don’t like comparisons between ‘peer’ institutions, but in this case it was informative. When comparing these two metrics, we found their operating costs per sq.ft. were reasonable but their cost per student was out of line. Digging deeper, we looked at space allocations. Obviously, they had a high allocation of space per student but nothing unreasonable until we looked at individual space types.

    We identified an extraordinarily high ratio of classroom space to student, i.e., they had overbuilt classroom space. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem since teaching is what a college is all about. However, when discussing the metric, we hit on something interesting; the provost was pondering a problem of student complaints that they couldn’t take the required courses for graduation within the normal 4-year time frame. They had lots of classrooms, so that wasn’t the problem, right? Wrong. Their management of classrooms was devolved to the academic departments that focused on addressing faculty needs. That is, classrooms were full during a narrow window of the data with instruction of all required classes in that narrow window. As a result, only one or two out of three or four required courses could be scheduled by students; they needed more than one semester to take a single semester’s worth of required courses.

    The faculty had too much flexibility! They were wasting a resource but more importantly they had sub-optimized the class hour schedule and harmed students. The symptoms were likely transmitted to potential new students who would look at the time-to-degree and seeing it took too long, selected another institution. So while there were plenty of seats, there were no butts in them and the inflow of new butts was diminished by the surplus of seats.

    The solution is clearly a strategic review of assets and development of systems and processes that will leverage one’s assets to achieve more than one goal. Reallocation of resources from new construction to renovation would solve many problems including resolving the pedagogical issues.

    These issues cannot be addressed by one or even two areas of an institution, they must be observed holistically and solved communally. There is no silver bullet just as their is no single target. We need to look at the customer, the product, the tools, and the resources needed to effectively accomplish the goals. Sure, lots of buzz words, but conceptually, we need to rethink how we educate people for the future.

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