Changing Classroom Design

“I firmly believe that we’re at a great juncture in the higher education classroom design business,” says Nestor Infanzon, FAIA, RIBA, LEED-AP, EDAC, education and healthcare studio leader for KAI Design & Build, St. Louis. “We’re looking at a changing world that’s rewriting design needs for classrooms. We have a great opportunity to look at this building element from the true essence of the issues and not just the little pieces. Technology is a little piece, not the essence, of the issue. The essence is how in the future we are going to teach.”

Frank Mulgrew, president of Waterbury, CT-based Post University’s online program, which started offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs in 1997, acknowledges that addressing how we are going to teach is a critical first step.

How Are We Going to Teach?
In fact, says Mulgrew, fundamentally, the lecture with the discussion is the standard delivery system throughout American education. “It is still faculty- and content-focused. But the world is changing.”

Mulgrew continues: “Now the future is about how do we make education as individualized, engaging, entertaining, and consistent as we can, delivering content, experiences, mentorship, and leadership in the classroom by those who are content or experiential experts, and how do we translate that into the flexible environment that students want?”

We’re just now starting to see more and more student-driven and student-focused education delivery. And a lot of that is being done via online learning. For example, since joining Post University in 2004, Mulgrew has grown the University’s online program from fewer than 100 students to nearly 4,000 students. Online education, by its very nature, is directing the education process away from content knowledge to process knowledge and toward behavioral knowledge — the ability to find and analyze information. “We need to prepare students for the types of knowledge and abilities where they can absorb content,” he observes. “I don’t want to be known as someone who doesn’t think content is important. It is. But it is becoming ubiquitous and ever-more accessible.”

Student-centered learning is also starting to occur in the traditional classroom. In fact, Mulgrew notes that modes of delivery must become more flexible, more moveable, going from face-to-face to online to hybrid. At Post, about one-third of the classes are hybrid — offering both traditional learning and online learning in the same course. “In the next several years,” he says, “I believe all our courses will be hybrid. We’re really thinking about how that is done and what impact it will have on students.”

Similarly, since North Carolina State University began its Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project a decade ago, which was designed to establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning environment for large-enrollment courses, at least 70 other colleges and universities throughout the United States and the world have adopted the program. For more information, visit http://scaleup.ncsu.edu, a Website that shares designs for state-of-the-art learning studios, teaching methods, and instructional materials based on discipline-based education research.

Changes in education delivery have similarly brought changes on the part of professors. “It’s no longer about the faculty member who comes in knowing everything,” Mulgrew explains. “It’s about what the student can deliver.” Indeed, with information being so accessible and plentiful, professors’ positions become more about guiding students to finding the best and more accurate information and helping them interpret it.

How Does Education Delivery Affect Classroom and Building Design?
Changes in education delivery not only affect students and professors, they also affect classroom design. “The building is a facilitator — an incubator where teaching and learning happens,” stresses Infanzon.

Mulgrew agrees: “Because learning of the future will be more flexible, more student-focused, the normal constraints of space and time will make sense for how learning will occur. Will there be space in the traditional classroom? Absolutely. No one thinks it will go away, but it has to change, and online learning has a role in that and is forcing the change.”

What exactly those changes are, it seems, are still somewhat nebulous, with discussion focusing more on issues and challenges than solid bricks and mortar. “When it comes to the dilemma of today,” offers Infanzon, “it is what is the classroom for the future, which is different from the classroom of the future. The classroom for the future starts talking about the change not just in the classroom itself but the infrastructure that serves it and how the instructor is teaching the course and, not least, is the ever-changing needs and skill sets that the students bring in.”

Infanzon also notes that, because there is more than one way of learning — reading, writing, hands-on, listening, etc. — the challenge is how to engage the student in a classroom setting and allow him to integrate all of the different learning modes.

Still, Infanzon does go so far as to offer solid examples, citing classrooms that are as simple as mini lecture halls, where students are set up in groups and can rotate depending upon the assignment. These spaces come complete with multiple projectors, so all four walls display content, regardless of which way students are facing. “They’re wired for large computing capabilities so students can communicate with one another and access the Internet, and still be monitored by the teacher,” he notes.

Similarly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) program offers a solid example of what the future may hold in terms of classroom design. According to the program’s Website, “two 3,000-sq.-ft. classrooms each contain an instructor's workstation in the center of the room surrounded by 13 round tables, each seating nine students. Thirteen whiteboards and eight video projectors with screens dot the room's periphery. Each table holds three groups of three.” Additionally, each group of three uses a computer for viewing lecture slides and collecting data from experiments.

Clearly, education is changing on many levels — the addition of technology, the advent of online education, the accessibility and ubiquity of information, the comfort level of students and professors in using technology, the delivery of education, the role of the professor. All this is leading to student-centered teaching, which is influencing changes in classroom design. The question Mulgrew ultimately asks is: “Where isn’t there a classroom?”

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