These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 session, “Teaching and Learning in Two New Smart Classrooms: Research Findings on the Pedagogical Implications of Space Design,” presented by Ann Hill Duin, Associate Vice President & Associate CIO, Linda Jorn, Digital Media Center Director, and Aimee Whiteside, Research and Evaluation Consultant, Digital Media Center, all from the University of Minnesota.

The Digital Media Center assessed the effectiveness of two Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota. The rooms accommodate 117 and 45 students and include:

  • Large, circular tables
  • Multiple, 3-person, shared, switchable displays at each table (each table can accommodate 9 students)
  • The ability for instructors to display any shared student display on a front screen and push content to student displays
  • Other collaborative accouterments (e.g., glass whiteboards)

Research questions related to faculty attitudes and expectations, student perceptions, teaching and learning strategies, and the impact of the physical features of the room. Multiple methods were used to gather the data, including instructor interviews, student and instructor surveys, student focus groups, and over 30 classroom observations.

Attitudes and perceptions of both students and instructors were uniformly positive and teaching in the room changed student-faculty and student-student relationships (e.g., more contact, more familiarity, greater level of comfort). Instructors reported that the environment supported their transition to a facilitator role and their willingness to redesign their courses around collaborative learning and teamwork. Challenges included training instructors to use the capabilities of the room “on the fly” and human factors issues (e.g., pillars obstructing lines of sight). None of the challenges were major obstacles and neither students nor instructors wanted to return to a traditional classroom at the end of the term.

My favorite finding came from the student open-ended responses. Students indicated that they felt more appreciated and engaged when meeting in the active learning classrooms. This relates to a psychological variable that we rarely measure directly: place attachment. As a former student and faculty member, I know how demoralizing it can be to walk into a large lecture hall where it is immediately apparent that the top priority in designing the space was not teaching or learning, but money. I think it benefits institutions when students and instructors feel attached to learning spaces. Unfortunately, we actively discourage the personalization and customization that would lead to stronger attachment when designing and assigning classrooms. Our focus on standardization and other practices that are blind to the preferred pedagogy of specific instructors, departments, and colleges turn classrooms into all-purpose conference rooms and faculty and students into visitors.

We were reminded in the general session this morning that complexity can be managed using good models and methods. Room planning and assignment are complex processes, but aligning them more closely with pedagogical needs and goals is certainly not an impossible task. What seems to be missing is an appreciation on the part of facilities planners and campus administrators of the value this might add in terms of not only improved learning outcomes, but stronger place attachment. The exciting work by the University of Minnesota is a great example of how departments charged with managing learning spaces might begin to help the institution gain this understanding and change their ways.

Ken

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