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
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