Five approaches to guide the planning, design, and use of active learning classroom spaces

Image Credit: Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary
Source: https://taylorinstitute.ucalgary.ca/about/the-building

By Natasha Kenny and Gavan Watson

Post 2 of 2

In our first post, we explored what active learning classrooms were, concluding that they are fundamental to supporting student-centred approaches to learning, provide a visible artifact of an institution’s philosophy of learning, and must be seen as a critical component of our teaching and learning community.  So how do we move forward with supporting the intentional planning, design and use of active learning spaces in the context of our academic communities?  How might our experiences during the global pandemic further influence how we incorporate these spaces into our academic communities? 

Expanding upon the principles proposed by Finkelstein et al. (2016) and Finkelstein and Winer (2020), research related to the impact and influence of active learning classroom, and our own lived experience, we propose five approaches for guide guiding the planning, design, and use of learning spaces in postsecondary education: 1) Collaboration 2) Community 3) Flexibility 4) Transparency 5) Access.

1. Collaboration

One of the most often cited impacts of active learning classrooms spaces is that they fundamentally shift the social context in which teaching and learning occurs (Baepler and Walker, 2014). ALCs can create a sense of psychological and emotional intimacy, where learners and instructors are further encouraged to actively contribute, ask questions, share opinions and collaborate with each other to co-create knowledge in a learning community (Holec and Marynowski, 2020; Baepler and Walker, 2014; Kariippanon et al., 2018). Features of these spaces that best support collaboration and engagement, and foster the development of relationships include features such as: 

  • flat floors to support movement and collaboration and reduce power dynamics in order to create a shared space of learning between students and instructors; 
  • the inclusion of multiple whiteboards and writable surfaces; 
  • tables for group seating or, in larger spaces tiered seating on wheels which allows for collaboration and small group activities between rows; and, 
  • multiple screens to ensure sight lines are maintained around the room (Kenny and Chick, 2016; Finkelstein and Winer, 2020), and (if applicable) for remote learners to see and be seen by all participants in the learning community.

In technology-enhanced spaces, this may also include hardware and software capabilities to create and share knowledge within and amongst a broader community of instructors and learners (Baepler, Walker and Driessen, 2014).  These technology enhanced capabilities have become even more important as we strive to increase access to students and instructors who may be required to engage remotely in course teaching and learning activities (either temporarily or for a sustained period of time). ALCs  help strengthen relationships between all members of the classroom learning community (Kenny and Chick, 2016). They can be seen as providing critical opportunities for instructors to engage themselves in meaning-making and sustained reflection on their positionality (and power) in learning processes (Ignelzi, 2000; Savin-Baden, McFarland, and Savin-Baden, 2008) where – in ALCs – instructors are seen as collaborators and co-creators in the learning process, rather than passive knowledge transmitters.

2. Community 

Building upon Shulman’s (1993) call to see teaching as community property, this principle speaks to the importance of ensuring that the processes we use to govern, inform and communicate the planning, design, use, and impact of ALCs engage diverse members of the academic community. Community engagement is critical to establishing a shared sense of belonging, helping the academic community and individuals within that community fulfill its needs/goals, and to creating a sense of connection based on shared history and experiences (McMillan and Chavis, 1986). Fundamentally, these community processes must include collaborative conversations, decisions, work and research from all groups connected to active learning classrooms including: students, instructors, teaching assistants, architects, space planners, facilities management and maintenance staff, educational developers, learning and information technology specialists, the Registrar’s Office, student services staff, external community members and stakeholders, and senior administrators. A community-based approach to the planning, design and use of ALCs is also advocated by Jamieson (2003) who states that educational developers and teaching and learning centres can play a key role in facilitating dialogue across multiple groups in order to ensure that educational visions and goals inform the design of learning spaces. These conversations can also help to strengthen teaching and learning cultures as individuals from across academic and non-academic units come together to engage in meaningful conversations and strategic decision-making about teaching and learning (Roxå, Mårtensson & Alveteg, 2011; Finkelstein et al., 2016).

A community-based approach to pedagogical support for instructors that use active learning classrooms is also seen as critical to their success, as instructors need support in shifting their approaches to teaching and learning in these spaces (Hyun, Ediger and Lee, 2017). This support often includes intentionally designed and facilitated professional learning programs for instructors teaching in these spaces, in the form of consultations, workshops and/or communities of practice (Finkelstein and Winer, 2020). It may also include bringing together and connecting instructors who teach in these spaces, so that they can engage in informal, but significant conversations about their learnings within and across disciplines (Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009).  Finally, it should also include developing working groups with representation from across the academic community to inform policy development and processes for the continued planning, design and use of active learning classrooms.

3. Flexibility

Flexibility can be seen as the ability of ALCs to adapt to the ongoing needs of the academic community across five areas: fluidity, versatility, convertibility, scalability and modifiability (Monahan, 2002). Flexibility may include ensuring that furniture within the active learning classroom is usable and mobile, most often including mobile and height-adjustable podiums, and large work surfaces (i.e., tables) to accommodate multiple teaching and learning devices and group work of various sizes, as well as tables and chairs with wheels in order to accommodate various classroom configurations for learning across disciplines (e.g., small group work, individual seating during assessments, learning in a circle). ALCs designed with fixed furniture, often intended to support the installation of conduit to hard-wire technology and power-drops are now limited in terms of their versatility, convertibility and modifiability (Monahan, 2002). Wireless technology and screen sharing/projection has allowed for learners and instructors to share and co-create information using almost any wireless device and application. This has become more important now more than ever, as the global pandemic has encouraged us to consider how we can create spaces of shared learning and creation for in-class and remote learners and educators. From an institutional-perspective, flexibility can also be seen as critically important in terms of the versatility, convertibility, scalability and modifiability of ALCs. For example, ALCs may be designed with retractable walls and seating to convert to various sizes and uses. Simple is often best when it comes to thinking about flexibility in ALCs.

“The most useful flexible (and cost-effective) technologies in active learning classrooms continue to be movable tables and chairs, and shared whiteboards/writable surfaces that are close at hand (Baepler, Walker and Driessen, 2014; Finkelstein and Winer, 2020). “

4. Transparency

Transparency as a principle asks us to make teaching and learning processes more explicit and visible across our academic communities, and to put an end to the isolation and solitude many instructors feel when approaching their teaching practice (Winkelmes, 2019; Shulman 1993). This principle advocates for a more explicit, collaborative and open approach to the planning, design and use of active learning classrooms. From a physical design perspective this could mean incorporating glass walls in active learning classrooms to ensure the teaching and learning activities within are made visible to members of the academic community across disciplines. From a planning perspective, the principle of transparency involves making strategic conversations and decision-making processes related to planning, design, use and allocation of active learning classrooms more visible. For example, Finkelstien et al. (2016) reflect on the importance of including principles for the design of learning spaces in institutional strategic documentation, and how that has more broadly communicated the institution’s educational goals as it relates to the design and redesign of learning spaces. This could also mean managing the booking of  active learning spaces centrally to ensure that instructors and students across all academic disciplines have access to these spaces. This principle is also intricately linked to the principle of community as we more intentionally make the teaching and learning practices we use in active learning classrooms more visible, and promote knowledge sharing across disciplines. As previously mentioned, this may include bringing instructors that use active learning classrooms together to formally and informally engage in professional learning related to their use of these spaces, and ensuring these instructors are appropriately rewarded and recognized for their commitment to supporting student learning. This may also include engaging in systematic research, scholarship and dissemination related to the impact and influence of active learning spaces in postsecondary education so that we are learning from and sharing with each other across various academic contexts and networks.

5. Access

This last principle represents a call to consider how and who is accessing (or not accessing) the planning, design and use of active learning spaces and why? Higher education continues to be dominated by Western epistemologies and processes which contribute to exclusion and marginalization (Louie et al., 2017; Tamik and Guenter, 2019), and our teaching and learning spaces are no exception.  This principle asks us to ensure our active learning classrooms demonstrate, recognize and value difference, and support the ability to participate equitably (Tamtik and Guenter, 2019) in their planning, design and use. It also asks us to consider how we are aligning the planning, design and use of our active learning spaces with other institutional priorities and commitments such as Indigenous Engagement, Sustainability, Internationalization, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and Mental Health and Well-Being. For example, how are equity-deserving groups represented in the planning, design, strategic decision-making and governance related to active learning classrooms?  How do we support access and engagement of learners who do not have access to technology, such as laptops? What physical, procedural, and institutional barriers must be removed to ensure that all instructors and students, from across disciplines have access to teach and learn in these spaces? How can these spaces be designed to validate Indigenous perspectives, methodologies, epistemologies, protocols, approaches and pedagogies (Louie et al, 2017)? How can these spaces further reflect and communicate our commitments to truth, reconciliation, decolonization and transformation? Conversations related to access have become more prevalent as interest in technology-enabled ALCs has expanded over the course of the global pandemic, with more educators seeking flexibility in the way they engage learners in their courses. Our thoughts related to this principle are emerging. We acknowledge openly that more needs to be done to expand upon, contribute to and meaningfully explore this principle. 

Summary

We recognize that it is not realistic for all spaces to be designed as an intensive, technology-enabled active learning classroom. Like Finkelstein and Winer (2020), we advocate for conceptualizing a continuum of formal learning spaces from intensively designed, technology-enabled active learning classrooms, through to flexible and collaboratively designed laboratories and seminar rooms, as well as lecture theatres that enhance opportunities for active learning. In their broadest sense, we believe that these principles can be used as a guide to inform discussions related to any learning space on postsecondary campuses.

How might you further consider, adapt and build upon these approaches to think more intentionally about ALCs based on your institutional context?

References

Baepler, P., Walker, J. D., & Driessen, M. (2014). It’s not about seat time: Blending, flipping, and efficiency in active learning classrooms. Computers & Education, 78, 227-236.

Baepler, P., & Walker, J. D. (2014). Active Learning Classrooms and Educational Alliances: Changing Relationships to Improve Learning. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 137, 27–40. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.20083

Holec, V., & Marynowski, R. (2020). Does it Matter Where You Teach? Insights from a Quasi-Experimental Study on Student Engagement in an Active Learning Classroom. Teaching & Learning Inquiry, 8(2), 140–164. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.2.10

Kenny, N.A. and Chick, N. 2017.  Learning spaces, connections and community.  TI Connections Blog. http://connections.ucalgaryblogs.ca/2017/02/03/learning-spaces-connection-and-community/

Finkelstein, A., Ferris, J., Weston, C., & Winer, L. (2016). Informed principles for (re) designing teaching and learning spaces. Journal of Learning Spaces, 5(1).

Finkelstein, A., & Winer, L. (2020). Active learning anywhere: A principled-based approach to designing learning spaces. In S. Hoidn & M. Klemenčič (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Student-Centered Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (pp. 327–344). https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429259371-24

Hyun, J., Ediger, R., & Lee, D. (2017). Students’ Satisfaction on Their Learning Process in Active Learning and Traditional Classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 108–118.

Ignelzi, M. (2000). Meaning‐Making in the Learning and Teaching Process. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2000(82), 5–14. https://doi.org/10.1002/tl.8201

Kariippanon, K. E., Cliff, D. P., Lancaster, S. L., Okely, A. D., & Parrish, A. M. (2018). Perceived interplay between flexible learning spaces and teaching, learning and student wellbeing. Learning Environments Research, 21(3), 301-320.

Louie, D. W., Poitras-Pratt, Y., Hanson, A. J., & Ottmann, J. (2017). Applying Indigenizing principles of decolonizing methodologies in university classrooms. Canadian Journal of Higher Education/Revue canadienne d’enseignement supérieur, 47(3), 16-33.

Monahan, T. (2002). Flexible Space & Built Pedagogy: Emerging IT Embodiments. Inventio, 4(1), 1–19.

Roxå, T., & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks–exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559.

Roxå, T., Mårtensson, K., & Alveteg, M. (2011). Understanding and influencing teaching and learning cultures at university: A network approach. Higher Education, 62(1), 99-111.

Savin-Baden, M., McFarland, L., & Savin-Baden, J. (2008). Learning spaces, agency and notions of improvement: what influences thinking and practices about teaching and learning in higher education? An interpretive meta-ethnography. London Review of Education, 6(3), 211–227. https://doi.org/10.1080/14748460802489355

Shulman, L.S. (1993). Teaching as community property: putting an end to pedagogical solitude. Change, 25(6). 6-7.

Tamtik, M., & Gunter, M. (2019). Policy analysis of equity, diversity and inclusion strategies in Canadian universities-how far have we come? Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 49(3), 41-56

Winkelmes, M. A. (2019). Introduction: The Story of TILT and Its Emerging Uses in Higher Education. Transparent Design in Higher Education Teaching and Leadership, 1-14.

Author: natashakenny

Senior Director, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, University of Calgary. Interdisciplinary academic and professional background in educational development, landscape architecture, urban planning and environmental science.

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