Classroom Design Principles for an Increasingly Online World

There is no doubt that we must stem the tide of rising costs and tuition and adapt our current business models to change. But as one provost I talked with put it, "The future of education is not 18-year-olds going to college in their bedrooms. Learning is social."
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In my travels, I have the opportunity to speak with education leaders around the world. When I ask these presidents, provosts, deans, faculty, and chief technology officers what keeps them up at night, increasingly their answers all center on two areas; 1) Cost (of instruction delivery tuition), and 2) the explosion in online instruction models. In the evolving education landscape, these factors are front and center in shaping the future of learning. But often over-looked, or less well understood, is the critical role that the physical learning space has in complimenting a new, lower cost, instructional model.

Believe it or not, the average "functional age" of a school building in the United States is more than 42 years. Meanwhile, students have changed (90 percent of students use email to communicate with a professor), pedagogies have changed (54 percent of freshmen say that they frequently work in groups with other students on class assignments) and technology has changed (160,000 enrolled in a MOOC at Stanford in 2011). So why do the majority of our physical learning environments look and work the same as they did 100+ years ago?

The focus of our education research at Steelcase is on understanding how the physical learning environment can change to meet the needs of new pedagogies, new technologies, and today's students. We've spent thousands of hours observing how the physical learning environment enables or disables change. We've explored the new expectations of "GenY" students, teaching and learning theories, student engagement and its measurement, new education technologies, neuroscience, and the concept of "brain-compatible classrooms." We've leveraged this research to create design principles that enable the intentional design of learning environments that will support new behaviors and activities in face-to-face (F2F) learning settings, that will help increase student engagement, and be synergistic with online programs. In other words, they support the emerging blended models of teaching and learning. These design principles can be applied to both formal and informal learning spaces, from classrooms and libraries, to resident life and the many learning spaces in between.

My advice for education leaders looking to take the first step toward rethinking their school's physical space is to design intentionally with pedagogy as the driver. Below I have listed some simple design principles from our research that can be easily applied:

Design for multiple modes of teaching and learning in the classroom

If peer-to-peer learning, teamwork, group presentations and discussions are all going to take place in one class period, it requires flexible spaces that allow seamless transitions between these modes. Lower the barriers to switching between these teaching and learning modes by selecting furniture that is flexible and mobile, not static.

Design for the changing role of the teacher

As the teacher's role becomes less about content delivery and they become more of a "guide-on-the-side", enabling access to students for real-time assessment and hands-on mentoring is important. Design the space so that this access is afforded.

Design so there are no "bad seats" in the classroom

Consider sight-lines, comfort, lighting and acoustics so that all students can easily connect to the instructor, each other, and content, from anywhere in the room.

Design spaces that say "You can act differently here"

If you want students and faculty to act differently in the classroom, move beyond static row-by-column seating and give them "permission" through new designs that surprise and inspire.

Design for dynamic information sharing that engages

Help bring content alive through thoughtful integration of both analog and digital tools.

Design beyond the classroom walls to support learning wherever it happens

Learning happens everywhere -- in hallways, cafes, lounges, and outside of faculty offices. Consider the adjacent spaces near and beyond classrooms.

There is no doubt that we are riding a tidal wave of new online learning and teaching models, including MOOCs, learning analytics, etc. And there is no doubt that we must stem the tide of rising costs and tuition and adapt our current business models to change. But as one provost I talked with put it, "The future of education is not 18-year-olds going to college in their bedrooms. Learning is social. "

Considering the critical role of physical space in the broader context of new pedagogies, new technologies, and the growth in online teaching and learning models, will enable education institutions to adapt more quickly, and help keep their bricks and mortar campuses relevant. We believe the design principles here will help in that quest.

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