Classrooms: Bigger, Flatter, Faster and Fewer

Even in the digitally driven future of higher education, three-dimensional classroom spaces will be needed.  They won’t be used in the traditional manner and they won’t be the traditional kind.  They will be bigger, flatter, faster and there will be fewer classrooms for the same number of students.

Lectures will continue, but already they occupy less class time.  Pedagogy is changing in and outside of the classroom.  In the classroom, change is not disabling the lecture; it is enabling discussion, teamwork and practical applications. Whether fast or slow, the rate of change is limited by each institution’s culture.  Differences in institutional culture will become evident in the structure of classrooms and what happens there.

Globally, the digital transformation of higher education is in motion; yet physical campuses change very slowly even as institutions rapidly become more virtual entities.  To be successful in the context of this fluidity, institutions must find ways to accelerate the adaptations of the campus and its capabilities.  The means and methods will vary by institution, but the implications for classrooms – those scheduled learning spaces – are becoming clear.  Through the work of many groups including the Learning Spaces Rating project of Educause, the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, and FLEXspace we can see that classrooms are becoming:

  • Bigger:  to provide more space per student
  • Flatter:   to allow convenient daily modification of furniture
  • Faster:   to provide robust bandwidth; and I expect
  • Fewer:   to better match scheduling demands and respond to the changing balance between synchronous and asynchronous pedagogies.

Bigger, Flatter, Faster – The classes that meet on campus will need additional area per student to accommodate interactive configurations, such as those allowing group work in the flow of the traditional class period.  Typically these will be flat floors allowing easy configuration changes.  At the same time, these rooms must be faster, with access to robust bandwidth and ubiquitous digital display.

To make this transition, both physical and administrative adaptations will be required.  While the space per student will rise, the number of classroom hours per degree will drop, and all the while the expectation for digital transmission capability will continue to rise.  To address these costs and benefits and justify the required investment, institutions will have to rethink the administration of classroom scheduling to maximize function for students and faculty, and to achieve increased utilization.  These are not new or easily managed issues for higher education, but the accelerating move to online instruction will expose the weaknesses of current systems and the benefits of more strategic investments and scheduling.

Bigger – Existing classroom sizes are wrong.  In the mid 20th century various methods of managing space utilization were developed.  In some cases these were promulgated statewide and frequently referenced by other institutions and jurisdictions.  There were even some multi-state categorization systems.  All of these had the well-meaning intent of establishing a consistent basis for space allocation across an institution as well as by discipline and discipline specific functions.

Beginning in the mid 1950s as public funding for higher education gained significant momentum, the size of classrooms and their costs were important considerations.  The often-cited expectation for the size of classrooms was derived from the metric of 15 square feet per student.  Not only was this model predicated on a traditional layout of the classroom in regimented fashion, it was also based on bad data.  The origin of the 15 square feet per person figure came from a 1920s New York City building code intended to determine the size of exit passageways from a school building.  The code appropriately required adequate exits, but was never intended to be the basis of classroom sizes.

In a 1998 SCUP article, Dr. Ira Fink showed – through the analysis of actual built examples rather than program theories – that the 15 square feet per person figure only worked in relatively large rooms with concert type seating for more than 150 students.

At the time of his analysis, expectations for improved sight lines, handicapped access, and early classroom technologies had produced typical areas of 25 to 30 square feet per person even in comparably large rooms.  To accommodate active learning, group work and digital technologies, the effective classroom now has from 30 to 35 square feet per person.

Flatter – The goal is to create no barriers to reconfiguring seating and writing surfaces to meet the needs of the course and the tasks within the course.  Fixed seats, that produce very low area per student ratios, do not support student interaction.  Student engagement, shown consistently to be essential to successful learning, is ill served by traditional classrooms, regardless of size.

The student is no longer seen as a passive vessel, but an active participant in the class.  Fixed seats, sloped or tiered floors create barriers to the types of active engagement that is central to evolving pedagogies.  The work of Dr. Lennie  Scott-Webber and her colleagues clearly demonstrates the value of a variety of movable furniture options.  These are made possible with flat floors.

Faster – “The slowest internet connection you will tolerate is the fastest you have ever had.”  Mark Valenti said that in the 1990s and it’s still true.  Ever faster and more reliable connections are expected by students and required by instructors.  Others can speak to the technical boundaries and questions of capacity.  From the student perspective, if the classroom does not provide an experience that is materially better than an online asynchronous alternative, there is no advantage to that classroom.  There is certainly no reason to pay a premium.

Fewer – The implications for traditional classroom utilization measures will become significant.  As classes move online for all or even half of their schedule, facilities opportunities will emerge.  Much more dynamic scheduling models will be required, particularly if the “unused” hours resulting from block scheduling are captured and scheduling conflicts are avoided.

Already we are beginning to see less classroom “seat time” per degree.  I believe that this trend will continue for most institutions until as much of a third of traditional campus-based instruction will move to a range of digitally based options.  As a result, institutions will find that they have significantly more classroom hours available without adding any classrooms.

In effect most institutions will have increased capacity within the same quantity of traditional infrastructure.  Yet many of those classrooms will not meet the needs of evolving pedagogies.  Providing a classroom infrastructure that is bigger, flatter and faster will not be cheap.  It takes most institutions decades to refurbish all of their classrooms.  For now the goal should be to rapidly achieve an effective balance between traditional and newly effective classrooms.  The good news is that fully functioning examples – prototyped by Dr. Bob Beichner and many others – are now being replicated in improving versions across the country.

Bigger, flatter and faster classrooms allow changes in pedagogy, active learning and student engagement.  These rooms do not disable the lecture; they enable other methods of learning.  Call it a win-win; making what happens in the classroom not just worthwhile, but more worthwhile than the best that online functionality can support.

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

3 thoughts on “Classrooms: Bigger, Flatter, Faster and Fewer

  1. Michael, this is exaclty the type of space UConn Health Center is planning as part of the Medical/Dental School expansion project. Large flat floor learning studio that will hold the entire class in group learning environment. Similar to UVA.

  2. Pingback: Digital Visible | Campus Matters

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