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Lost in Space

Finding the right learning space for students
University Business, Oct 2009

CONCEIVING AND CREATING A NEW learning space could be viewed as an opportunity, or a challenge, or perhaps both. This could be your chance to develop an innovative space to help students learn and to help faculty teach. On the other hand, this “opportunity” could become a mixture of competing interests and ineffective committees complemented by a seemingly endless sea of architects, consultants, contractors, and administrators, all with divergent points of view and visions.

In the middle of this universe of constituents, you have the task of bringing a team together to create a learning space that is effective, sustainable, and scalable.

Your challenge: to nimbly navigate a wide assortment of obstacles and pitfalls that can pervade the project. Or perhaps you are going “where no one has gone before.” The key to your success may be to know how to select the right people to sit at the table and how to match your new learning environment to the teaching and learning that is to occur there. Hopefully you will avoid hearing, “Danger, danger, Will Robinson,” as spoken by the B-9 robot in the popular 1960s TV show Lost in Space.

If you follow some specific guidelines and design strategies, you can avoid being lost in your own learning space project.

One of the first strategies to ensure your success is to carefully identify and understand your constituent groups. This process starts with your learners. While much has been written about millennial learners, the Net Generation, the XYZ Generation, and others, it is important not to make generalizations. It’s true that many of today’s learners energetically embrace the technology trend of the day, but we must also be aware that not all students learn in the same way. Some students flourish with group projects in collaborative settings much like spaces identified in learning commons. Other students may prefer to learn as individuals and may not be heavy technology users. Providing spaces that are flexible, engaging, and able to address a wide variety of learning styles and strategies is important to consider. While millennial students may be generally classified as able and efficient multitaskers, not all of them learn effectively the same way.

Your key constituent group involved in developing a learning space can be quite broad. Senior faculty may resist technology due to their reliance upon “chalk and talk” teaching strategies. Younger faculty may be comfortable with current technology trends but may not have the necessary IT support to effectively utilize technologies in their curriculum. To avoid this polarized landscape, it may be beneficial to explain and demonstrate the potential of innovative learning environments. In many instances stakeholders are resistant to new technologies or learning spaces merely because they haven’t been exposed to them. Demonstrating the “what ifs” of innovative learning spaces to key stakeholders provides a more positive environment to ensure success for your project. Carefully and graphically demonstrating how effective learning spaces can enhance teaching, learning, and collaboration is essential.

Beyond the academic point of view lies the architectural perspective. Architects give your project form and function. An architect interprets your vision, develops a plan, and makes it a reality. However, architects also have the potential to focus on their vision rather than the client’s. When project blueprints are 35 percent complete, it is a critical time. In architectural terms your project is nearly 80 percent designed, which illustrates the importance of clearly articulating your project vision early on. At this stage, having your learning space clearly articulated is critical. Venturing too far past this point may result in change orders, cost overruns, or, worse still, an ineffective learning space. A similar phenomenon can occur with your technology or AV consultants if they too focus on their own vision of how your learning space should look. Consultants may come to your project with their own perceptions or biases. They may be biased with what they are most familiar with, or be motivated by a desire to develop their own portfolio, rather than focused on what might be best for your institution.

The challenge of working with architects and consultants can extend to the on-site contractors who are hired to follow the architectural plan. Administrators can add yet another dynamic to the constituency group. Your job is to understand their job, motivation, and priorities. You may be put into a position to serve as the technology adviser to your administrator. Being ready to explain the goals and purpose of the learning space and the role of technology is crucial. It is easy to see that without a clear plan, a cascading and rippling series of events can derail any project. Your goal is to carefully evaluate each step and have a clear vision of where you are heading.

Perhaps one of the most important stakeholders, and perhaps one of the least represented groups, is students. While committees are formed to provide a forum to collect input for the planning process, students many times are not included in the discussions. It is typically difficult to get students to attend planning meetings, since they are doing what they came to school for in the first place?namely, to attend classes.

However, your project will greatly benefit from the involvement of students, since they can provide insights into what they want to see in the learning space to enhance their academic achievement and experience. Creating a mechanism to hear from them will greatly enhance your success in developing your learning space.

In analyzing your learning space, it is helpful to understand how learning spaces were viewed nearly a century ago. In the early 1900s libraries were built first, and then students were simply placed within the environment. Students in these spaces were expected to work but not talk. Today our philosophy for libraries has evolved into more effective designs?to provide an environment to enhance how students learn and to promote collaboration, interactivity, and engagement.

When designing a learning space, you need to analyze how the space will be utilized and if it is meant to foster group or individualized work or both. This will have a direct impact on how you light the room and how you control and shape the sound. The teaching and learning activities will give you guidance on how to develop your plan. This will in turn help you decide upon your furniture needs and the interior architecture of the space, which relates to wall colors, floor coverings, and how all your elements interact with each other. Lastly, technology in the space should not overpower the room.

The term “translucent technology” illustrates how technology can exist in the room but not overtake its look and feel. A highly effective strategy is to sit in a classroom and observe how a faculty member teaches. Observe how the elements of space, technology, and teaching and learning interact. This exercise will provide important clues for your learning space design but will also help form a bond with a faculty member. It will also give you the chance to discuss the “what ifs” of technology and how it may aid in teaching.

The placement of elements within a learning space can dramatically shape the activities that should take place there. Generally, creating U-shaped or C-shaped seated areas helps promote interactivity and engagement. A learning commons environment promotes open collaboration and group work and therefore requires furniture that is flexible and scalable, allowing you to expand your learning environment.

Perhaps no design element is more important than the concept of collaborative planning. When holding your design meetings, a person at each meeting should ask, “Who is not at the meeting today who should be?” Answering this question will ensure the right people get a chance to be “at the big table.” It will help provide a sense of teamwork and collaboration. And what better way to create engaging collaborative spaces than to have a sense of collaboration from the very start of the project? This will minimize the potential for missing important design considerations.

A very popular learning space design today is the learning commons concept. The goal of a learning commons is to bring related student center services together through innovative learning space design to create a highly collaborative and engaging environment.

According to Rick Holmgren, executive director for learning, information and technology services at Allegheny College (Pa.), when the library at Allegheny brought student services together, student traffic increased by two times, with 50 percent of the student population visiting the space at least once. In a recent webcast called “Educational Technologies in a Challenging Economy,” Holmgren says, “Even in tough economic times we can’t stop innovating.” When presented with economic or budget challenges, focusing on your original vision may provide important guidance for navigating the current crisis successfully.

At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee a collaborative planning process was put into place from the very start of the transformation of the Golda Meir Library into a learning commons space. The campus planner dutifully asked at each meeting the all-important question, “Who should be at the meeting who is not here today?” Architects, consultants, state officials, librarians, faculty, and staff were brought together to share ideas and concerns and to collaborate.

Through a broad collaborative exchange, the library has been transformed into a dynamic, engaging, and interactive learning space that promotes collaborative interactions and inquiry. The planning process started with simple hand drawings highlighting traffic flow, staff locations, and areas that would promote the learning commons philosophy. From here, two-dimensional blueprints were created, and later 3-D renderings were developed to show how space, people, furniture, and technology interact. After a series of collaborative exchanges, modifications were made and a final design was presented to the campus. Artistic renderings were created to articulate the learning commons concept to the campus community and to potential donors. In the end the project was successful because a clear vision was coupled with a collaborative process.

Maximizing how light interacts with the external portion of the building is equally important to how light is directed within the building. General room illumination should be specified in conjunction with how light falls on a projection screen. Too little light in the learning space may make it difficult for students and faculty to see. Too much directional external lighting can interfere with the projected image, causing washed-out images with low contrast. Both types of lighting can coexist; however, having a proven strategy on the position of the lights and how they are controlled is extremely important.

In creating a learning space, there are seven key planning points to guarantee success. Be sure to understand the 35 percent blueprint stage. Being at the big table will help ensure you are in the loop throughout the building project. Be sure to cultivate advocates to help achieve the goals of your learning space. Don’t rely on individual constituents; your advocates should include faculty, staff, and students. Understand the motivation and perspective of the project stakeholders. Be sure to publicize your successes. Lastly, stay objective in your discussions and your perceptions.

If you follow these points, you assuredly will avoid being “lost in (your designed) space.”

Jim A. Jorstad is director of Educational Technologies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

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