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Archives > June 2014 > Recreating the Learning Environment: A Lens Into Our Progress

Recreating the Learning Environment: A Lens Into Our Progress

"A paradigm shift is taking hold in American higher education. In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. It is both needed and wanted."

By: David A. Stubbs II

The above statement was first delivered in the November/December 1995 issue of Change Magazine. Robert B. Barr and John Tagg wrote a brilliant article defining the need for change in the delivery of instruction titled "From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education." Unfortunately, like most great ideas, the discussions of these instructional concepts were ahead of their time-not in understanding or need, but the ability for the supporting industries to respond three-dimensionally to the constraints of the learning environments that were being utilized.

Most decision makers in higher education have been challenged with this concept at nearly every conference, discussion, web site, magazine or book for what will soon be 20 years. However, until recently the resources for this change in the three-dimensional landscape continued to be limited.

Where Have We Been?
MIT's TEAL classroom (Technology-Enabled Active Learning)-piloted in 2001 in an introductory physics class in electromagnetism-focused on the combination of lectures, responses, and hands-on experiments into one classroom experience. In order to create such an opportunity, the idea of the classroom had to be completely reimagined. The placement of technology and new ideas in furniture were created to support the desired instructional strategy providing spatial opportunities of collaboration, discussion and experiments in one space. This had not been typically possible in historical classrooms of rowed desks and/or lecture halls.

The SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) project at North Carolina State University (NCSU) focuses on a different target-large-enrollment classes. The SCALE-UP is quite similar in delivery to other models; however, the rooms tend to be widely different simply due to the numbers of students in the class. These classrooms tend to rely heavily on flexibility and mobility.

The North Carolina State University conducted research comparing side by side examples of a traditional classroom against a SCALE-UP model of instruction, and has demonstrated significant results. According to the research, this approach improves conceptual understanding and has reduced the failure rate by about 50% as well as bringing an attendance increase of 90%.

Everybody Wants Some.
With demonstrated successes across the country, most instructors of higher learning realize that they may need to adapt to these models for two reasons: (1) Competition; (2) K-12 institutions are delivering a more astute set of learners that have been working in collaborative environments that are both flexible and mobile. But the hurdles continue to be abundant, the largest being cost.

New technology and furniture can be expensive. New solutions also typically require more room-not to mention they are quite often fixed, further limiting mobility and flexibility. But this is not always the case.

How Can We Afford Change?
In recent history, institutions of higher education have become more successful in leveraging new funds to support this paradigm shift. We can begin to stretch these funds if we can make calculated and informed decisions about space utilization strategies. Additionally, if we consider gravitating away from fixed components, due to our inherent perceived need to remain tethered, more cost effective work can be achieved than previously imagined. We need to resist the need to install tethered devices by funding robust wireless technologies and units that are supported with extended life batteries. This will allow the ability to utilize the classroom for a variety of uses and opportunities now and in the future. Remember that facilities are intended to last fifty years, and anything that is fixed will remain this way long after a staff member is gone or a learning strategy is changed.

Flexibility and Mobility
Universities are seeking to maximize flexibility. They are not only seeking opportunities for Scale-Up-style rooms with tables, but they are also seeking flexible classrooms designed for active learning. Institutions are looking to transform the concept of lecture halls with wider tiers and rows of tables that will allow students to listen to conversations and then turn immediately to group work. This improves space utilization as long as mobility is never compromised. In addition to mobility, the solutions need to be easily understandable; they need to be intuitively reconfigured. They need to be Simplistic, Unencumbered, and Silent.

The Creation of a New Idea
To be successful in creating appropriate three-dimensional environments, equipment, furniture or technology cannot be an afterthought in the design process. In our holistic approach to design, we need to understand the specific educational approach or strategy that is to be delivered. Additionally, considerations about lighting, acoustics, comfort, mobility, flexibility and adaptability needed to be addressed. The solutions need to be Basic, Simple, Intuitive, Untethered, Understandable and Effective. Lastly the resources or tools need to be an accessory to learning and must come with appropriate professional development.

Due to these vast parameters, in designing appropriate learning environments, we created a set of guiding principles to keep us on course. These were created in order for us to establish a finish line. We were very aware during this process we needed to keep our focus on the completed task. We did not want to go down "rabbit holes" and never return. These principles are not specific to any tool or component within the environment. They were intended to be our guide for all decisions in the design of new facilities.

Eight Guiding Principles
1. Change the Environment. Simply put, if we want to change the culture of our teaching and learning strategies, we need to change the environment; it cannot look like historic examples.

2.Reduce the Clutter. Reducing the clutter responds to limiting the tools, accessories and everyday "stuff" by delivering systematic and purposeful storage solutions. We need to ask what is needed today, this week, this month and this year to deliver the intended instruction and then design appropriate solutions for all but "today" away from the direct educational environment.

3. Integrate Untethered and Transparent Technology. Untethered and transparent technology responds to the ability to have technology when it is necessary but limits the ability of it being an obstacle when not in use.

4. Respond to Multiple Learning and Teaching Styles. The concept of responding to multiple learning and teaching styles asks us to consider the simplistic forms in our solutions. They need to be like background music, supporting all learning strategies simultaneously.

5. Develop Mobility. The need to develop mobility is paramount. Mobility can be a descriptive need for an entire set of tools or simply as a single piece within a system. As a system, mobility is a major characteristic or underlying theme that responds to documented ideals of the paradigm shift.

6. Create Adaptable, Flexible and Recoverable Tools. Creating adaptable, flexible and recoverable tools responds to the need to repurpose our set of tools within educational environments, typically occurring numerous times throughout the day, requiring ease of change in this set of tools.

7. Design Multi-Functional Tools. As a response to numerous guiding principles to streamline the learning environments by creating a reduction of the amount of furnishings and equipment, the critical need for creating tools that are multi-functional becomes paramount.

8. Create Fun, Inviting and Engaging Environments. The creation of fun, inviting and engaging environments speaks to itself. We are no longer designing our grandfather's institution; we are designing for our grandsons and granddaughters.

What Have We Learned?
As we continue to develop this holistic approach to educational facility design, we need to constantly re-evaluate the various tools and systems that have been delivered to enable us to evolve, to make improvements. We realize that this search for the solutions of the discussions surrounding a shift in teaching and learning strategies has been an ongoing work in progress.

• The more versatility that each component has only enhances the adaptability, mobility and flexibility of a specific environment.

• We were aware of the up curve of technology advancements, and we interpreted that we are going to need less technologies and more effective people in the future.

• If the marketplace does not provide appropriate solutions to fit your individualized needs, consider creating your own solutions.

• In this search for the next best idea in facility design, we have been convinced that less is truly more as we try to reflect how instructors may utilize space in the future. We are not sure how this future is going to look; however, we are certain that the environments will continue to be simplified.



About The Author
David A. Stubbs II

is a public school district facilities director. Collaborating with VS International, he recently designed a complete line of furniture solutions named Shift+. These solutions have begun to integrate with an entirely new set of educational environments. For more information, visit



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