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These are my notes from the Wednesday, October 29th EDUCAUSE 2008 lunch discussion, “Learning Space Design,” hosted by Richard Holeton, Associate Director, Academic Computing; Head of Student Computing, Stanford University and Phillip D. Long, Prof. of Innovation & Visiting Research Scientist, MIT.

These lunch meetings of constituency groups were a great idea. As much as I like eating lunch with friends and taking a break from sessions, this was a great opportunity to meet new friends and continue processing in an informal setting. There were about 100 people in the room. Ironically, the room was way too small and there was no technology, but we made the most of it.

Richard and Phil asked us to discuss topics that had been placed on our tables and then report out. I was seated at the Planning and Management table with some great folks from a range of institutions from around the world. Most of us were directors or administrators charged with facilitating learning space decision making and supporting faculty. Here are some things that stuck with me:

  • We all had tales of disconnects among executive visioning, facilities planning, and pedagogy. We agreed that this has led to the continued use of inferior teaching methods. In some cases, faculty, departments, and colleges are changing pedagogy and vacating existing facilities in favor of group-friendly spaces, informal settings, and virtual environments. One person described large lecture halls at her institution as now empty except for the occasional campus event. Both of these outcomes are undesirable and reflect the urgent need for a more enlightened approach to facilities planning.
  • I asked whether anyone knew of a school that had this planning-pedagogy connection right. Rio Salado College was offered as an example, which surprised me a bit given its strength as an online provider. Clearly, online and virtual spaces must be considered in this discussion right alongside brick-and-mortar spaces. Perhaps online institutions that are not as bogged down by the old politics of physical space can spend more time and energy focusing on the actual needs of teachers and learners.
  • There were mixed reports about classroom technology standardization. Most agreed that it was difficult to implement in their current organizations. Some were decentralized and others simply had difficulty getting consensus on what standards to use.
  • We talked a bit about creating experimental spaces for faculty where good tools and practices could be developed, refined, and rolled out to campus. WSU is building such a space in its new faculty-staff development center. I spoke with Derek Bruff from Vanderbilt who is also developing experimental spaces. I was a bit surprised that others at the table thought their institutions would not support such an idea. How can we know what to adopt if we don’t try it first? How can we expect faculty to change their approach if we don’t provide them with safe ways to explore? The best ideas for using learning spaces are not going to come from us; they will continue to come from students and faculty.


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.