Creating classroom space with flexibility and longevity

August 31, 2009
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The art of educating has changed. What used to be a professor standing in front of a sea of students in tablet armchairs has morphed into something different. Students and teachers now are just as likely to huddle together for collaboration, making the old-style classroom furniture obsolete.

“When you tried to pull those (tablet armchairs) around and make them circles, half the chairs ended up in the back row. … It took extra time and it may not have been supportive of the activity at hand,” said Jeff Vredevoogd of Herman Miller’s Education Solutions team.

“What we’ve found in education is one size does not fit all.”

Herman Miller and the Society for College and University Planning recently compiled data from their 2009 survey of higher ed administrators to discover trends affecting college and university classroom spaces.

“The idea of supporting different teaching and learning styles has been pretty consistent,” said Vredevoogd. “There are two (trends) that have floated this year: No. 1 is the need for student and faculty engagement. The idea here is, ‘How can I create spaces that connect me with the person next to me as well as the faculty?’”

Vredevoogd said he would go into a college class mid-semester and ask the students how many of them did not know at least five people in the room; the vast majority raised their hands.

“They’re lined up in tab-arm chairs, five rows across, eight rows back, and all I know about you is that you wear baseball caps,” he said. “It’s one of those things where the spaces don’t allow or create those opportunities to connect with people.”

He said it’s an issue not only for students, but also for the teachers.

“Getting (teachers) out in front of the lectern and into the classroom to help us all interact — that’s probably the biggest one,” he said.

“The other big ‘aha’ was assessment.”

What Vredevoogd is referring to is the way in which colleges and universities assess how they utilize their campuses and facilities — “the drive to reshape and rethink how learning spaces are created and operated on, and the fact that there’s not a real strong connection to assessment,” he said.

The survey showed 58 percent of respondents were undergoing new construction or renovation on their campuses — but only 21 percent are required to measure how the new or renovated learning space increases productivity.

“As higher education leadership rethinks or evolves their approach to learning spaces on campus — especially when it includes a significant investment in new construction or a renovation — they need to do more than to make the space look aesthetically fresh,” he said.

“It’s important to consider the impact of several factors, including changes in pedagogy and technology, in the long-term view of possibilities for the space.”

A space needs to be flexible, said Vredevoogd, so it can be used for an English class in the morning, a math class in the afternoon and a speech class at night. Creating more collaborative workspaces will not only help students be more interactive, said Vredevoogd, it also will help give the space more longevity.

“The leaders of tomorrow are being prepared by using yesterday’s methods,” said Vredevoogd.

“The point here is how can we understand what tomorrow is going to be like to make sure these students are going to be ready for tomorrow, and at the same time make sure those spaces that we’re helping them create also support tomorrow.”

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