Blended learning: Rethinking the education space

Technology has become intricately woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and the world of higher education is no different.

Technology has become intricately woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and the world of higher education is no different. From the rapid proliferation of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, to the widespread use of devices that support so-called ‘blended learning’, technology, both inside and outside the classroom, is here to stay.

Universities are leading the charge in the use of blended learning, eager to enhance the value of their courses and prepare students for the connected workplace. But this shift brings both opportunities and challenges, requiring educators to rethink and redesign the learning experience to maximise new tools and resources, while avoiding technology ‘for technology’s sake’.

The evidence suggests it’s working. A study by Steelcase across a range of schools, colleges and universities in the US, found that technology has led teachers to create more personalised, self-directed experiences for students. But there is one part of the puzzle that is often missing: the design of educational spaces to support these new ways of learning.

The set-up of many classrooms and lecture halls hasn’t changed for 50 years, with row-by-row seating and students facing the front. This design encourages students to sit and listen, while the teacher stands and talks; behaviour that was adequate for the lessons of yesterday, but is too limiting for a blended learning approach.

Through our research, we’ve identified six key insights to help universities adapt their learning spaces to the needs of the digital revolution.

1.      Person-to-Person connections remain essential: A study by the U.S. Department of Education found that a combination of online and face-to-face learning was more successful than either on their own. Learning happens best when people, technology and space are brought together in innovative ways and students still need face time with their professors, despite all the online tools at their disposal.

2.      Technology supports richer face-to-face interactions: With so much course information now available online, educators are leveraging technology to create a new role for themselves in the classroom. With class time now used to advance problem-solving, collaboration and communication, flexible learning spaces are needed to support these new and varied activities.

3.      Blended learning requires flexibility and activity-based space planning: With technology-enabled learning, students can progress at different paces and multiple subjects can be taught in the same room. Classrooms must therefore support self- directed work at computers as well as collaborative projects, with multiple zones to support different activities. Moveable walls, screens and other flexible approaches make it possible to create a range of spaces alongside each other.

4.      Spatial boundaries are loosening: As professors become untethered from the front of the room, many universities have recognised the value of informal areas outside the classroom – or ‘in-between places’ – that can be used for learning interactions. Whether that’s wider hallways, cafés with whiteboards, or lounges with informal seating and power connections — these areas give students and professors more choice and control, enabling them to tailor the space to their specific needs.

5.      Spaces must be designed to capture and stream information: Video is creating multiple new ways to capture and present content, from filming class activities, to video conferencing with experts around the world, or even evaluating students’ work. But to maximise its effectiveness, this technology must be incorporated into the design of learning spaces, with built-in videoconferencing capabilities, and allowing for audio and lighting needs.

6.      High-tech and low-tech will co-exist: Although technology developments continue to revolutionise education, students and professors haven’t abandoned analog materials — and aren’t expected to anytime soon. Whiteboards, paper and notebooks will remain important and universities will continue to need spaces that support their use. For example, work surfaces with tablet arms should be large enough for books and whiteboards should be fixed to multiple walls versus only at the front of the room.

With the help of technology, students are now taking an active role in the construction of their own knowledge, while professors are supporting their needs in a much more holistic way. It’s time our learning environments evolved with them, giving students and teachers greater flexibility and control over the configuration of their space, and putting the latest digital innovations at their fingertips.

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