Designing Flexible Solutions for the 2.0 Learning Environment
By Adele Willson, AIA, LEED AP & Jennifer Cordes, AIA, LEED AP
Technology is undoubtedly having a major impact on every aspect of our lives and that includes today’s learning environments. It is shaping the way in which students learn, teachers deliver material and the way in which we design spaces for future learning opportunities.
Kristen Purcell of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project recently co-authored a new study on technology and education. She says schools aren’t just investing in computer stations and keyboards and we are witness to the fact, based on our planning and design work, and that they are quickly embracing the “constant contact” trends that have changed our global culture. Purcell says, “What did surprise us though was the extent to which mobile tools have become part of the learning process. [We found that] 73 percent of teachers that we surveyed told us that cell phones are now either part of their teaching experience, or their students’ learning experience. Tablets and e-readers are being used by more than four in 10 of these teachers.”
Learning spaces now, more than ever, are being designed to help with communication and information sharing. From tablets used to asking kids to “raise their hands” virtually, to viewing a lecture via Skype or FaceTime, the traditional four walls and a chalkboard are transforming rapidly. According to a recent USA Today article, a New York-based educational technology startup released the first device, an Android-powered touchscreen tablet, “designed for kids both to take to school and bring home. For sale only to schools for now, the Amplify tablet comes pre-loaded with virtually everything a student will encounter during the school day, including all the textbooks, lessons, tests and e-books she might be assigned.”
Today’s educational experience has become much more technology dependent as students no longer see technology as a novelty but as a utility, says Chris Evans, senior associate, Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC. “Class time may be dedicated to group work with lectures posted on line. Often the school is supporting active learning by allowing the students to break out into smaller groups, present to their group and then combine group presentations to present to the group as a whole. This requires additional technology support including multiple displays, Wi-Fi, BYOD ‘bring your own device’ support, and cloud services. Students want to be able to present from a portable device like a laptop, tablet or even their smart phone and the classroom needs to have the ability to support that.”
Interactive Dynamic Way Finding and Digital Signage
Higher Ed Environments
In the higher education spaces we are designing today, we are getting away from the permanently tiered classroom and into a flat floor design that allows for more small group interaction and projection opportunities from any location with retractable seating allowing for more breakout type work. We are already seeing the traditional classroom change into a highly flexible production studio that often include presentation and teaching systems throughout the facility.
“These types of spaces may include dedicated capture systems with immersive learning, building-wide specialized capture systems including automated processing and distribution workflows, digital signal distribution systems for building-wide distribution, audio and video teleconferencing-enabled spaces, meeting spaces, and technology-enabled student spaces,” says Evans.
A centralized control room is also a typical feature these days, according to Evans, which enables monitoring, troubleshooting, and helpdesk functions all from one central location. Additional functions for the control room could include a space for production and editing of content for distribution, content creation and distribution for digital signage, and content storage.
Flexible learning space at a PK-12 school in Colorado
In K-12 environments, where budgets are often more limited, cost effective systems with simple user interfaces are often implemented for technology integration. “These systems,” according to Dana Hougland, FASA, principal, Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC “will not only support basic teaching functions but also access control, remote monitoring and control, bell scheduling, digital signage, HVAC and lighting control, and integration with mass notification all over a single network.”
Technology hubs are being emphasized in K-12 design so that teachers can monitor students but still allow for them to work in small groups, while creating a sense of transparency. As with higher education environments, the ability to reconfigure spaces for collaboration at the K-12 level has become a critical element.
The “Flipped Classroom”
In addition to the more collaborative learning process, there has been a shift toward distributing information outside of the school environment via video capture and online avenues. Many educators are also experimenting with the flipped classroom model – delivering instruction online outside of the education environment and concentrating on the homework portion of a student’s day inside the school as a shared experience. In this model, students are encouraged to watch lectures or view other material at home and communicate in online discussion groups with teachers and other students. The instructional time is then used to “work through” questions or problems with the teachers. In this model, the class needs drive the instructional time and teachers can focus on topics that are specifically challenging to the class. The challenge to this instructional model is assumed technology of the students in their home environments.
One of the limitations to this model is the percentage of students that does not have access to online devices. According to one of Purcell’s recent reports “the internet, mobile phones, and social media have brought new challenges to teachers, and they report striking differences in access to the latest digital technologies between lower and higher income students and school districts.” While the new model seems to be thriving in many areas, there continues to be a digital divide that districts may address via grants and other funding methods.
Balancing technology with a sustainable design approach should be valued as a key component to the overall design process for the new classroom and a delicate balance. From a sustainability standpoint, we believe in focusing on enhancing flexibility versus strictly working to design for the latest technology. With technology an ever-changing but central element in our world today, it becomes critical that we address how current technology can enhance but not necessarily control or dictate the design of our learning environments as one single component. Instead, we look at how to strike a thoughtful balance and blend in digital tools. We strive for products, specific materials, systems and overall design solutions that take sustainability, flexibility, energy efficiency and our environment into account.
In the end, flexibility may well be the key to using technology well. From a design perspective, flexible spaces open up the possibilities for a variety of sustainable solutions and gets to the root of the new educational environment — allowing spaces to be reconfigured for collaborative learning and small group interaction — while setting the stage for integrating the latest technology tools for 21st century learning.
Adele Willson, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal and partner with SLATERPAULL Architects and heads the firm’s K-12 studio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jennifer Cordes, AIA, LEED AP, is also a principal and head’s SLATERPAULL’s higher ed studio. Contact her at email@example.com.