Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Learning About Learning Spaces

This post is the first in our new series dedicated to sharing SLATE member expertise on the same topic as our monthly meetings. Look for information below to get involved and write a post for us!

Our inaugural guest author is Ava Wolf, an eLearning Professional in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This post is written to accompany our November 19, 2014 meeting about Inspiring Pedagogical Innovation and Student Engagement through Modern Learning Studios at Saint Xavier University.

traditional classroom with tablet desks in rows
General assignment classroom at University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, before redesign
Although it’s been around for 10 years, conversations about flexible and collaborative learning spaces have really started taking off. The LSC Webinar series and ELI Online Focus Session are just two that I've attended in the last couple of weeks.

The University of Illinois recently held its own Learning Spaces Symposium featuring keynote speakers Bob Beichner, Shirley Dugdale, and others. The event was the second of its type on this campus designed to bring faculty, campus support services, and vendors together for a day of re-imagining the college classroom. It was also the first to include an interactive map and walking tours of notable campus spaces. The Symposium is one of several campus efforts currently underway to share ideas and information about transformative learning experiences and the design of spaces that support this goal.

Development of flexible learning classrooms on this campus began about 5 years ago. At that time, curricular changes in a particular department required students to work with a newly created e-text. This, plus the use of Blackboard, helped to propel the design of new classrooms that would allow for increased use of technology, web-based content, and collaborative learning. Classroom redesign for this was pretty modest: replacing old furniture with moveable tables and chairs, adding corner-mounted monitors with some enhanced AV, and updating the general appearance of the room.

Today these classrooms are in heavy use, but there is some question as to whether faculty and students are taking full advantage of the flexible design. A quick observation of the rooms and their IP data, reveal mostly traditional furniture arrangements and minimal AV usage. Recent curricular and personnel changes may be part of this story, but the lack of adequate preparation for faculty who are teaching in these classrooms is also something to consider.

same classroom redesigned to be a flexible learning space with moveable tables and chairs
General assignment classroom at University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, after redesign to be flexible
A new general assignment classroom designed to support collaborative learning opened this semester. Once an ancient lecture hall filled with mismatched tablet armchairs, the room was completely overhauled to create a fully flexible environment with seven pods of moveable tables and chairs. Each pod has a wall-mounted monitor with significantly enhanced AV capabilities, and whiteboards for small group work. Enhanced teacher displays and a room-controlling iPad along with Blu-ray DVD and a document camera were also added.

After one faculty workshop on collaborative teaching methods and dozens of classroom support calls, this classroom is at 75% capacity for scheduling and the courses are humming along nicely. Observations of classroom activities, conversations with faculty, a student focus group, and a survey will round out the semester-long effort to gather data about the effect of this classroom on teaching and learning experiences, but there is definitely a positive vibe being generated from this new learning space on campus. Further development of collaborative classrooms and informal learning spaces are also underway, and we in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning will continue to explore and promote the impact of these changes on campus.

I mention just two learning space examples (although there are other important developments as well) as a way to highlight some lessons learned:

  • Improving classrooms does not have to be really expensive. We have all seen and heard about million dollar classrooms and they’re fantastic, but there is also enough evidence to support the claim that less really can be more. Moveable chairs and increased writing surfaces alone can make a huge difference, and they are considerably more useful than interactive video walls. 
  • See what your campus mill shop can make for you. Love those beautiful glass whiteboards but not the price? Ask the campus mill shop to fabricate them at a significant savings. These talented shops can also fabricate tabletops, attractive housing for AV storage, and other items that can lessen the purchasing load. Some items can be creatively and inexpensively made on your own. 
  • Support for faculty before and during the semester is important. Some faculty may be ready to step into a new classroom and be ready to deliver collaborative learning activities with no preparation, but many will not. Teaching and Learning Centers in collaboration with Classroom Technology groups need to work together to help faculty rethink their courses and learn how to use the collaborative technologies available in new classrooms. 
  • Support for students is also important. No matter how savvy students are in using personal devices, getting them to use technology for learning requires some effort. Ditto getting them to buy into the new collaborative classroom environment. Students struggle with change as much as anyone else, and convincing them that collaborative learning is good for them requires facts and finesse. 
  • Capacity and scheduling issues need to be addressed. One downside of flexible classrooms is reduced capacity. We can squeeze lots of tablet armchairs into an old classroom, but the same space redesigned for flexible learning will always serve less. Grappling with this change is difficult for everyone. So is figuring out ways to select faculty who will make the best use of the limited spaces when demand for them exceeds the number of rooms available. 
  • Consider new uses of informal spaces. New efforts in the development of informal learning spaces suggest that hallways, libraries, nooks, and other spaces can be used to enhance and expand the classroom. Whiteboard paint in the hallway and a few couches make instant learning spaces and offer students increased opportunities to collaborate inside and outside of class. 
  • Connecting learning spaces to campus goals helps drive momentum. At the University of Illinois we are fortunate to have a Provost who is committed to transformative learning experiences. Included in our campus strategic goals is a commitment to improving classrooms and the development of exemplary teaching methods in all modalities. 
  • Advocates welcome. There is good empirical research on the relationship between classroom spaces and learning outcomes. Host webinars, hold forums, talk to everyone and anyone about this to get a momentum building. The more informed faculty and staff become about the many benefits of improved learning spaces, the more they will begin to demand them. 

Ava Wolf, PhD is an eLearning Professional in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign. She can be reached at

Thank you to Ava for being our first guest author! 

Are you interested in or have experience with one of the upcoming topics for the monthly SLATE meetings? Want to write a guest post on our blog sharing what you have learned about it? Email Stephanie Richter at with your proposal to be considered for a guest post!

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