February 15, 2017
Teachers Talk - Learning Spaces - Designing for Flexibility
Colin Hill, Director of Computer Services, Burman University, Lacombe, AB

One of the themes I noticed in the presentations at this year's EDUCAUSE convention had to do with learning space design.  This topic has been increasing in prominence recently, although I think that many K-12 classrooms are already ahead of where most college and university classrooms are today.  However, the principles are basically the same no matter the level of education.  So let's take a brief look at what current research is suggesting and what technology is now available to help us create the most versatile spaces that will contribute to the success of our students.
 
What goals should you be thinking about when designing your learning space? If there is one word to sum up the design principles, it would be “flexibility.”  A well designed learning space will provide flexibility for both the teacher and the learners.  
It  will allow students to be actively engaged with the content, which will likely incorporate various technologies that support multiple modes of teaching and learning. Another flexible area of well designed spaces is that of communication.  It  will facilitate communication and interaction between the students and teacher as well as provide features that permit students to work better individually and in collaboration with one another.
 
With that flexibility in mind, I want to review a few of the outstanding or new items I saw available at Educause this year: (links to the items mentioned are in the Resources Section at the end of the article)
 
Seating:
Increasing comfort is conducive to increased learning.  When thinking of comfort, we need to consider all the environmental factors such as temperature, noise level, air quality, light levels and even glare.  One of the simplest factors to address is seating. Many address this by having multiple seating opportunities available.  More traditional seating can be used for desktop work, while softer more mobile options are provided for away from desk work and group activities.  One interesting hard seating option shown by Steelcase was their Node chair.  It provides full 360 degree swivel capability, a ultra stable base with storage space, and has several worksurface options. For more relaxed seating, bean-bags or large plush toys may even be used.  Creature Comforts offers some more traditionally styled but very comfortable classroom worthy options with components that allow you to create the shape to fill most areas or configurations desired.

Tables:
Having the flexibility to move tables to accommodate different size groups and configurations can allow you to plan for multiple activities in one class period, or allow you to react on the fly to a unique learning opportunity.  One table that gives you this freedom with its unique fish shaped design is the Computer Comforts Koi table. One weakness of this table though is that it has no provision for electrical connectivity for charging devices.  This could be addressed by the Thread line of products by Steelcase. This system allows you to provide power in an safe and aesthetically pleasing manner with minimal installation effort.  If you are tied to a more traditional fixed table situation, but still want some flexibility, look for desks that have retractable monitor and keyboard mechanisms.  These will allow you to enforce times of no computer distractions, or allow maximum use of desktop space for group projects. Computer Comforts, Nova Solutions and Spectrum Industries all provide such desks with electronic linking hardware included.
 
Wall Coverings:
Have you ever wished that you had more white-board space?  What about having the flexibility to write on whatever wall you wanted? Wherever you are in the room, whatever group you were next to, just turn to the wall and write, or encourage the learners to do the same.  This is possible with either stick-on whiteboard material, or even whiteboard paint. These can also be used as display areas for projection devices.  One great supplies of these materials in Canada is Writey Boards.
 
Projectors & Displays:
To be truly flexible, you will want to have projectors and displays on each of the wall surfaces in the room, perhaps multiple on longer walls, that will allow for viewing from any position.  Another approach as demonstrated in a session I attended presented by Indiana University involved a large projection wall at one end of the room, and a large LCD display mounted to each table in the class. Students at each table would be able to display their personal devices to the LCD panel, and the teacher could also choose any of those table displays to project up on the main wall display, or including to all of the other LCD panels. You need some control system to provide the flexibility to do this, of which Extron and Crestron both provide multiple solutions.  This is definitely one of the bigger cost areas, so do shop around and be knowledgeable of the options and benefits of their usage.  Lower cost solutions are possible using Apple TV, or the Kramer Via series of collaboration devices.  For brightness and clarity, the laser projector is the best performer. While these are still quite pricey, they are sure to become more affordable as development and production increases.    
 
Lighting:  
As denizens of a northern country, we all know what research has verified, that lighting can affect our moods and our learning. Products like the SolaTube can be used to bring real daylight into the classroom with minimal renovation. Providing daylight spectrum lighting and reducing power consumption is now available through a variety of LED bulbs that mount in existing sockets, or can easily replace fluorescent fixtures. To go one step further, how does being able to set the brightness and colour of your lighting sound, being able to instantly set a mood for the activity at hand.  Look at the Phillips Hue system for taking your lighting to new levels.
 
So, even if you are not lucky enough to be planning a new classroom or given the chance to retrofit an existing one, hopefully you will find inspiration from one or more of the things mentioned here to try something new in your classroom in the new year ahead of us.
 
Resources:
 
Learning Space Design Guidelines for University of British Columbia:  http://www.infrastructuredevelopment.ubc.ca/facilities/learningspaces/documents/LearningSpaceDesignGuidelines.pdf
 
Principles for Designing Teaching and Learning Spaces. McGill :
https://www.mcgill.ca/tls/files/tls/principles_for_the_design_of_teaching_and_learning_spaces_2014_f.pdf
 
SteelCase Node Seating:
http://store.steelcase.com/seating/guest-chairs/node
 
Steelcase Thread system:
https://www.steelcase.com/products/computer-support/thread/
 
Creature Comforts tables & soft seating:
http://computercomforts.com/softseating.html
 
Nova Solutions desks:
http://www.novadesk.com/
 
Spectrum Industries, seating and tables.
http://www.spectrumfurniture.com/en/
 
Writeyboards,  Whiteboards, stick-on and paint:
https://writeyboards.ca/
 
Indiana University Learning Spaces:
https://uits.iu.edu/learning-spaces
 
Kramer AV collaboration VIA system:
http://www.kramercanada.ca/products/#filters?&groupli=57
 
Extron AV Controls:
http://www.extron.com/
 
Crestron AV Controls:
https://www.crestron.com/
 
SolaTube lighting:
http://www.solatube.com/sites/default/files/field/files/tech_resources/daylight-facts-figures-educational-student-performance.pdf
 
Phillips Hue lighting:
http://www2.meethue.com/en-ca/