Originally published in the Spring issue of SEEN (South East Education Network) Magazine: http://seenmagazine.us/articles/article-detail/articleid/4702/designing-modern-classrooms.aspx
(This is part one of a two-part series on designing the modern classroom.)Technology rich classrooms offer incredible benefits for both students and instructors. From fostering blended learning environments through collaboration, critical thinking and practical problem solving to flipped rooms centered on student engagement; the classroom that was focused on traditional teaching has evolved into active learning.
Often, when renovating existing or creating new classrooms, incorporating the technology into the room begins after the furniture placement and room configuration is set. Frequently this process creates an obstacle to the implementation of truly modern active learning classrooms that wasn’t considered or foreseeable when the room was originally laid out. Many schools have installed technology in just about every classroom as a result of grants they were awarded. Understand that these grants were issued following successful research indicating technology rich educational spaces increase assessment scores, collaboration and retention. Technology in the classroom is only as effective and useful as the environment allows it to be. Limiting the potential for interaction, engagement and collaboration will reduce or eliminate the advantage of having a technology rich classroom. The unfortunate feedback to the administration will be that the technology doesn’t seem to help all that much, and that the equipment, software, required maintenance and training is cumbersome.
Re-imagine Traditional Teaching
Today’s technology installations aren’t effective if the idea of traditional teaching isn’t re-imagined. This should not understate the necessity of reviewing the configuration of the learning space early on in the technology design process. However, the re-evaluation of these existing or new spaces should likely start prior to the room design by understanding the teaching style most likely to be used in that room. Support for the current transformation of traditional teaching pedagogy to active learning is clear. Schools must utilize this movement to enhance room design by creating a committee of “active learning ambassadors” at the school to support the processes of design, implementation, training and overall success. Additionally, designers and administrators must outline and discuss the goals of the school as a whole. Having a firm idea of the intended use of the space, the school’s policies for security and BYOD, the layout of the room and building and the level of technological savvy your educators possess are some items to consider to efficiently and effectively design a technology rich room.
Support for this changing paradigm from what was traditional teaching to what is now active learning must be fostered within the school. Active learning schools encourage and facilitate the development of true practical and marketable skills. The most talented architects, consultants and designers cannot ensure a successful installation or renovation without first having administrator and instructor buy-in. David Barnett, CTS-D, a senior consultant and Ed Tech expert at The Sextant Group consultant firm, agrees that “faculty must be involved as early in the process as possible because everything is decided as a result, including furniture placement, windows [new construction], connectivity and equipment.” Barnett takes it one step further and believes that “students, as consumers, should be involved as well. A representative group from the student body should be present to discuss what they like and don’t like about their current classroom experience. Spaces can be designed and built taking into account their ideas and concerns.” Creating these advisory committees of instructors and students is the first step in gathering the feedback necessary to create useful and successful technology spaces.
Creating these committees can be challenging. Jahn Westbrook, Technical and Operations Manager-Classroom Services at New York University, understands completely the need for faculty feedback and the challenges in being able to properly generalize the feedback into usable design ideas. “In our past, we have surveyed faculty on their teaching needs and what they would like to see offered in classrooms. Our obstacle is that our diverse and eclectic faculty teach in any one of the 180 plus general purpose classrooms. Meaning, there is little guarantee faculty will teach in the same room semester to semester. This design thwarts focusing specific teaching spaces for specific departments and faculty.”
Engaging Room Design
Sometimes the answer may be to design a number of rooms, from traditional teaching rooms to completely enriched active learning spaces and also some hybrid classrooms that are able to be successful with diverse styles of instruction. As the shift from traditional teaching pedagogy continues to transform to active learning, schools will find it necessary to invest in evolved classrooms. Often consultants and experts are called in to educate administrators on design options and make recommendations based on space and building layout. “[Most] smart classrooms are still traditional learning environments,” claims Barnett. “Rooms are still designed with the assumption that the teacher will stand at the front. On the other hand, we have seen beautifully designed modern classrooms being transformed back into traditional teaching rooms. The professor wheels a portable blackboard into the room, and situates it right in front of the projection screen.” But with all the helpful technology available to us, this is no longer an engaging environment for today’s students. Barnett perfectly states “Part of the paradigm of new learning is to abandon traditional processes.”
Both blended learning and flipped classrooms remove the instructor from the front of the classroom and focus on student interaction and smaller group collaboration. Rooms designed for this type of engagement will continue to be useful and malleable in the future. However, instructors are sometimes left on their own to determine the best way to use the layout and equipment. Stephanie Garcia, elementary teacher at PS169q in Bay Terrace, Queens, explains that the biggest hurdle to her using technology to engage students is, “Definitely them working. Aside from that, it would be nice to have some kind of training and/or time to sit and work with the [technology]. Not just be thrown into using it, and having to figure it out as you go.”
Being forced to work with the arrangement of the room you are given is a common problem for instructors. Many of the older rooms that are currently in use are not technology friendly. Garcia has concerns but, “Right now my classroom is working the way we are set up. Sometimes we are so crowded with how everything is set up. My [Interactive] board is not in a central area; it is off to one side. I also have a document camera; the furniture that I am using to house both my document camera and lap top is crowded so sometimes there is not enough room for both to be open and the wires are cumbersome.” This type of feedback from those “in the trenches” can be quite helpful when discussing room layout, use and goals. Also, the changing pedagogy will require investments in more useful and engaging technology as well as smart space planning. As the requirements for the room are established, space planning can begin.
Breaking Down Barriers
Learning with technology is intuitive and necessary for students. Research has shown that technology in the classroom not only assists instructors but it can increase retention, interaction, engagement and assessments in students. Designers, installers, administrators and users of these modern learning spaces have a responsibility to the teachers and students to make sure the equipment provided can be utilized to its fullest potential. Are students really benefiting from the technology in the classroom and are they able to interact with content and each other if there are physical barriers within the active learning space? Is it truly an active learning environment when the traditional classroom has not been transformed from rows of students facing the teacher’s desk in the front of the classroom? Any type of barrier, whether intentional or not, prevents movement and flow both physically and psychologically.
Architects, consultants and designers along with school staff should keep open discussion throughout the renovation or construction process in order to create a room that will work with current and future needs. “Staying on time and on budget is usually a top priority,” says Barnett. “Things like understanding where support structures are placed in order to determine clear line of site for a projector screen are necessary pieces of information.” Keeping open communication with all involved will allow for an efficient build and a valuable learning space.
While it’s clear that some things/people may never change, there are those who have the ability to influence many of the barriers to the effective use of classrooms and technology as learning tools. First is including those who have passion for modern learning to be included into the learning space design. This can include both educators, administrators and students. Second is evaluating the types of rooms that may be necessary using group feedback, school goals, future thinking and building layout. Finally, determining the configuration of the room that will work best including technology equipment, furniture, lighting, connectivity, etc.