Monday, October 24, 2005

Designing the Learning Space

Educause Review
July/August 2005

As Malcolm Brown, of Dartmouth, states in Educating the Net Gen, "Net Gen students, using a variety of digital devices, can turn almost any space outside the classroom into an informal learning space."1 What, then, becomes the role of spaces such as faculty offices, hallways, plazas, courtyards, dormitories, and food service areas? Designers have traditionally studied courtyards, plazas, and hallways for usage and flow patterns. Learning space designers must now consider the instructional implications of these spaces. Although discussions about these spaces still need to be concerned with usage patterns, a more important issue is: What types of learning activities should be facilitated in these spaces, and what type of infrastructure is needed to support these activities?

Phillip Long and Ed Crawley have proposed a different view of the design process. This new view, based on the Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate (CDIO) process of engineering, begins with seeing the learning environment as a "product" to be developed rather than simply as a space to be redesigned.4 The product has certain characteristics that are based on the institution’s values about learning, or "learning principles." These learning principles become the driving force within the design process and are the benchmarks through which progress is measured and decisions are made. Throughout the entire process, the client (the department, college, or university) remains the expert in the product—learning—while the architect remains the expert in space development. To guide this process, the client should appoint a full-time champion who has the domain and departmental expertise necessary to see the project through. Thus, the learning needs of the discipline drive the planning process.

Metalearning from How People Learn: Expert learners have a more developed scaffold of experiences and knowledge that allows them to assimilate and process new information quickly. Novice learners will fare better if they can reconcile new information with prior knowledge. Expert learners are able to transfer problems and data from one context to another with greater ease than novices. Self-conscious reflecting on learning, or meta-cognition, is a particularly effective tool to promote deeper learning.

To achieve these outcomes by the time they graduate, students need to have spent a good deal of their time communicating, calculating, inquiring, taking action in the wider world (e.g., service learning), exploring other cultures (sometimes by actually going to other places while staying in touch with their institution and faculty), working in teams with people from other cultures, and pulling together the strands of what they have learned in order to tackle authentic problems in their fields.

If institutions are to achieve demonstrable gains in these five outcomes, students and faculty will need their facilities to support several fundamental activities that will occupy much of their time:

A typology for such specialized learning spaces might include the following:

  1. Thinking/conceiving spaces (spaces for deliberating)
  2. Designing spaces (spaces for putting structure, order, and context to free-ranging ideas)
  3. Presenting spaces (spaces for showing things to a group)
  4. Collaborating spaces (spaces for enabling team activities)
  5. Debating or negotiating spaces (spaces for facilitating negotiations)
  6. Documenting spaces (spaces for describing and informing specific activities, objects, or other actions)
  7. Implementing/associating spaces (spaces for bringing together related things needed to accomplish a task or goal)
  8. Practicing spaces (spaces for investigating specific disciplines)
  9. Sensing spaces (spaces for pervasively monitoring a location)
  10. Operating spaces (spaces for controlling systems, tools, and complex environments)

Our ability to imagine the classroom of the future is shaped by changes in our own beliefs about learning spaces:

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