The tension between open and flexible classrooms, which necessarily have a lower seat count, and dense and fixed-seating classrooms, which result in a higher seat count has been discussed above. Registrars and provosts tasked with meeting the demand for seats in a given period are sometimes at odds with faculty who want to teach with active learning, high-touch methods. We are curious whether hybrid learning will present an opportunity to have half the class in-person in a flexible active-learning model, and the other half remote in breakout rooms online. Populations could alternate weekly in-person and remote. This would relieve the pressure on the tension between these room types.
Technology on tap.
We are now working with several clients on technology improvements in an effort to overhaul classroom inventories to support hybrid settings. At a basic level, this means projector upgrades, cameras, microphones, and software. Many institutions are taking it as an opportunity to improve related technologies — assistive listening for example — to create more inclusive settings for their student body. The rapid turnover of technology (two-five-year lifespan) requires that these upgrades be focused on the backbone and infrastructure upgrade more than the device; we want to create solutions that can be readily updated.
On the Horizon
Hybrid is Here to Stay.
As we appear to turn the corner on the Covid-19 pandemic, our clients are reacting in different ways, but one underlying theme emerges: hybrid learning is here to stay. There is a consensus that there will be other pandemics or crises. Universities need to be ready to flip to remote settings at a moment’s notice. Faculty who may have been resistant to the technologies that support remote learning were forced to tackle them over the last year; some have even embraced the concept. The crisis also spawned invention — low-cost and user-friendly online collaborative software, guest speakers from across the globe, online breakout sessions for students, and integrating media into learning in new ways. As with our workplace clients, who are struggling with questions from employees about continuing to work remotely at least in a part-time capacity, higher education is hearing the same from faculty.
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” ― W.B. Yeats
A word on culture.
Beyond the intrinsic physical characteristics of classrooms, there are cultural differences at every institution that necessitate unique solutions. MIT insists on chalkboards; whiteboards are verboten. Olin College of Engineering stresses that each entering class is a collective group, and the design studio is designed to support that ethos. Norwich University’s history as a military academy brings structure and organization that may not be found elsewhere. Some colleges or schools operate independently within the university where they are housed; others are managed centrally. We inquire about these nuances and embrace them as part of our design.
The occasions for custom solutions are rare, but necessary.
Although we preach diversity, adaptability, and general use classroom approaches to best support a broad range of pedagogical styles and functions, there are applications that call for tailored solutions. These may have particular requirements related to acoustic isolation or control, audio-visual or IT systems, technology, finishes, equipment, lighting, or other characteristics.
Classrooms wear many hats; set priorities for how to serve multiple audiences.
From September to May, Monday through Friday, 8AM to 4PM, classrooms across campus are used for their primary function — teaching students. Although this is the primary audience, there are myriad classroom uses that occur “off-hours”. Summer extension classes and evening continuing education programs leverage these resources. Recording for distance learning and online simulcast of in-person classes broaden the audience to remote students across the globe. Conferences and professional development courses for University faculty and staff, and their guests, take over classroom buildings on long weekends. Increasingly, universities leave classrooms open and available for students to do group work in the evening.
Density differs according to teaching modes ꟷ fixed seat with tablet arms, fixed table with loose seats (straight), fixed table with loose seats (curved), fixed table with loose seats (horseshoe), loose tables and chairs, loose tablet-armchairs, and on and on.
Renovations that shift seat type from more dense models of fixed seating to more adaptable models of flexible seating ensure that the resultant decrease in seating count aligns with the needs of the institution more broadly. While faculty may clamor for more active learning classrooms that necessitate flexible spaces, the registrar, provost, and administration may have their eye on total seat count in classrooms. This can create a tension between registrar needs for denser, fixed, higher-seat count rooms, and faculty needs for flexible rooms that necessitate lower-seat counts. Balancing that tension over the entire portfolio of classrooms should be seen as an opportunity.
Creating a prototype classroom is a low-cost way to evaluate needs and efficacy before making a major investment in classroom changesꟷ we often develop a pilot classroom that faculty can use for a semester or more before engaging in a major capital project. This low-risk venture serves to align the institution’s expectations across many stakeholders, evaluate new technologies, give furniture a test drive, and generally work out the kinks of a new kind of space. Gathering the feedback from the many constituents that use these rooms — faculty, teaching assistants, students, staff, IT and AV personnel— during a trial period is critical. We recommend hosting lunchbox sessions in the actual room to discuss the pros and cons in person, and in situ.
Active learning is best supported by spaces that can adapt on the fly — from face-forward lecture, to small group work, to discussion, and back to closing lecture — all within an hour and a half. Technology, furniture, lighting, and other systems all need to follow suit.
Adaptability means different things to different groups ꟷ to a university planner, it may mean how well the space may be modified over the 75-year life of a building; that is, does it have “good bones?” To facilities managers, it may mean how easily the room can be modified from semester-to-semester or year-to-year. For faculty, adaptability is increasingly a question of how well the space can flex within a class period. Understanding these differences is critical to responding in ways that meet stakeholder needs over the long term.