The 21st Century Classroom

designing some of the most rapidly changing spaces on college campuses

"The classroom should be an entrance into the world, not an escape from it."
— John Ciardi

Teaching and learning are constantly evolving. Classroom typologies, learning styles, pedagogical approaches, institutional culture, and campus standards vary wildly across the higher education landscape. This presents
unique challenges in the design of learning environments. As a result of our experience, Jones has developed key metrics for learning spaces that we use as a planning resource with our clients.

Learning environments are changing — faster than ever thanks to Covid-19. The rise of interdisciplinary and collaborative learning has fostered a host of changes to departmental structures, institutional policies, educational pedagogy, research funding, and student life.

Good learning environments are shaped by the activities that they contain, and space planning and design strategies are evolving in response to these changes. As teaching and learning approaches evolve, we work with clients to align and anticipate future needs in the architecture, systems, furniture, AV, technology, finishes, and other aspects of the environment.


Some of the trends that we see in learning include increased competition/increased expectations, supporting broad ranges of teaching and learning styles, providing a diverse portfolio of learning environments, combinations of service and learning, finding learning spaces everywhere, and exploiting opportunities for program sharing or consolidation.

Jones has completed hundreds of classrooms on nearly two dozen college campuses over the last 10 years.

Here’s a snapshot of what we’ve learned about planning, design, and construction of learning environments.

Contrary to popular opinion, most campuses have enough classrooms. More often, the issue to be resolved centers on the type and mix of classrooms. When we arrive to a campus and begin interviewing project stakeholders, we regularly hear the same refrain from faculty, administration, students and the registrar: there are not enough classrooms on campus. After deeper analysis, rarely do we find this to be the case.

It is much more often the case that there are the right number of classrooms, but they are lacking in some other way which impacts their utilization. This could be something simple that is easily remedied (it is just that no one ever asked), or it could be something very complex. Maybe technology is substandard. The seat count is not right. Furniture and flexibility provided in the room does not suit the needs of the pedagogical approach. The room is in a building at the edge of campus, or simply not in the same building as the department. There are never whiteboard markers in the room. The only doors are at the front of the room, so late arriving students interrupt the lecture. The room isn’t scheduled on Monday mornings or Friday afternoons because those are unpopular slots. It is important to dig deeper at these comments from campus constituents to reveal underlying cause and effect.


Trickling Up: Perception versus Reality

Following a pilot project where we converted a single, fixed-seat tablet arm room with 120 seats into a 60-seat active learning flexible classroom in 2016, Jones returned to campus in 2018 to renovate the remaining classrooms. The post-occupancy interviews found that while everyone was very pleased with the pilot classroom, no one could not imagine taking the remaining rooms in Harvard Hall and shifting them to active learning — this would require cutting two, 50-seat rooms in half as well, and there was a strong perception that the single biggest need was for 50-seat classrooms.

Working with the building committee and the registrar, further analysis of classroom utilization showed that there was what we came to call a “trickle-up” effect. Classes of 8-12 were regularly getting placed in rooms with 50 seats because there was a deficit of seminar size rooms. Subsequently, larger classes could not find a right-sized room. Classes of 50 would get bumped to lecture halls intended for 100 or more, and so on. As a result, there was a perception that there was a deficit of large classrooms. By splitting the existing two 50 seat rooms into a pair of 12-seat seminar rooms and a pair of 24-seat active learning rooms, we relieved the pressure on these 50 seat rooms elsewhere on campus. The perception of a lack of larger classrooms was debunked through analysis.

"You have ruined me for other classrooms on campus. The technology gives me great flexibility and control."

ꟷ Faculty Member, Post-Occupancy Survey, Northeastern University

Not every classroom needs technology — diverse offering of technology within the learning space portfolio will best meet your faculty's variety of needs.

We are often asked, “What is the best model for technology in the classroom?” The responses reflect what we hear from client to client — or even from different educators on the same campus — about the same room. Like other campus elements, technology must be calibrated to the needs and culture of an institution. For some, analog technology such as a piece of chalk and a blackboard is all that they need. For others, a full suite of technological tools supporting face-forward lecture, group work, and content sharing is desired.

"It's simply overwhelming. It is too much technology, and it distracts from the teaching endeavor."

ꟷ Faculty Member, Post-Occupancy Survey, Norwich University

Tech resources do offer a range of opportunities. For example, active learning rooms we designed for both Norwich University and Northeastern University, have a main screen at the front of the room where faculty can conduct an introductory brief lecture at the outset of class. Eight-top tables around the perimeter each have a flat screen where students can then conduct group work and problem solving together. The faculty can pull any of the work at these tables back to the main screen to share team process and results with the larger group. These spaces can also be useful "after hours" for students working on group projects.

Squeak & Hum

“Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”
― John Holt

One of the presumptions we often hear at the outset of a project is that every classroom needs to be dripping with technology. On the contrary, when working with the Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard on a pilot classroom in Harvard Hall, one of the design touchstones was "squeak and hum." Hearing the squeak of the marker on a whiteboard, and the hum of student discussion was deemed the benchmark for success. Faculty were less interested in students being face-down in a laptop or on a shared monitor than they were with this social-collaborative work.

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 groupsto 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.

Density differs according to teaching modes 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 changes 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

Seat counts.

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.


Buildings of the Past, Classrooms of the Future at Harvard University,” Sam Clement, Anne-Sophie Divenyi (Senior Capital Project Manager, Harvard FAS), Cara Noferi (Senior Planner, Harvard FAS), and Annie Rota (Director of Academic Technology, Harvard FAS); SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference; New Haven, CT; Spring 2020.

“Trends in Classroom Design and Technology,” Rick Jones and Michael Pincus (Vantage Technology Consulting Group) gave a tour and symposium at Norwich University for AIA Vermont in 2018.

“Transforming Learning at Norwich University: Revitalizing a Historic Campus Core,” Sarah Tarbet, Michelle Crowley (Crowley Cottrell Landscape Architecture), and Aron Temkin (Dean of the College of Professional Schools); SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference; Rochester, NY; Spring 2019.


“Technology and the Classroom,” Rick Jones, Parke Rhoads (Principal, Vantage Technology Consulting Group) and Jeanne Narum (Learning Spaces Collaboratory); Educause Learning Initiative Conference; Anaheim, CA; February 2019.

“Catalyzing Change in the Classroom at Olin College of Engineering,” Rick Jones, Aaron Hoover (Assistant Professor, Olin College of Engineering); SCUP North Atlantic Regional Conference; Worcester, MA; Spring 2017; also presented to Boston Society of Architects Roundtable in partnership with Steelcase.

Planning for Learning Environments: Maximizing your Institutional Resources,” Rick Jones; Learning Environments Conference; Orlando, FL; 2013; also presented at the Society for Technology and Learning in Higher Education Annual Conference; Montreal, CA; Summer 2012.