Here is an example of what an active learning classroom is not—a lecture hall with rows of desks, all facing a single lectern at the front. It sends a clear message: one person will do most, if not all, of the talking. Everyone else will listen.

Any architect will tell you that the spaces around us influence our state of mind and body. Spatial design can quicken or calm our pulses, induce tension or relaxation, encourage social interaction or solitary activity, even help focus our concentration and discipline. But latest research in pedagogy shows that active learning outpaces traditional lecturing in terms of student engagement and learning outcomes. For that, you need to build a physical, and virtual, active learning environment.

How an active learning classroom is physically designed

Active learning is a series of instructional approaches that help the instructor to teach lessons centered around students. In other words, it’s best described as the opposite of sitting in front of somebody talking. Participation is key—and the average learner feels discouraged from taking part if they’re in a lecture hall without communal tables or even moveable chairs.

Case studies, group work and problem solving, peer-to-peer education and targeted student-teacher interactions need space for an instructor to implement them. And if you’ve flipped your classroom (one of the most popular active learning strategies) so that lectures happen on the students’ own time, what would be the reason for keeping a lecture configuration in your classroom?

Because of this, American colleges and universities are changing the physical configuration of their learning spaces. According to the Educause 2018 NMC Horizon Report on Higher Education1, “as higher education continues to move away from traditional, lecture-based lessons toward more hands-on activities, classrooms are starting to resemble real-world work and social environments that foster organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem solving.”

This year’s Horizon Report, which identifies and describes the higher education trends, challenges, and developments in educational technology, identifies the ongoing shift to the active learning classroom as one of the technologies that will most reshape the higher education experience. “Active learning classroom designs increasingly promote coursework that helps learners discover, invent, solve problems, and create knowledge.”

There is a basic template for an active learning classroom. It typically features a series of tables, each seating roughly half a dozen students, combined with an arrangement of multiple flat screens—sometimes mounted on walls, sometimes hung jumbotron-style in the center of the room—beneath which a professor can stand to address the whole group. In this collaborative workspace, many institutions, including Indiana University and Georgia State University, use advanced digital technologies in their active learning classrooms, including interactive virtual reality and augmented reality displays.

But there are many more straightforward ways to design active learning spaces. The Flexible Learning Environments eXchange2, or FLEXspace, is an initiative of the State University System of New York that provides photos, floorplans and technical specifications for a wide variety of active learning classrooms.

Montreal’s McGill University has developed a simple set of five basic principles for designing active learning spaces3: they should foster academic challenge and peer learning, and promote interactions with faculty and other high-impact practices—all while integrating into the larger campus environment. Educause has developed a Learning Spaces Rating System4 which helps institutions assess classroom suitability for active learning and letting students engage with the material and one another.  

Educating in an active learning classroom

Even so, the Horizon Report cautions that learning space design alone cannot ensure better outcomes for students. “Unless the course designs are explicitly adapted to take advantage of the room, outcomes may fall short of expectations.” The institutions that make best use of the active learning classroom paradigm are those that encourage and assist faculty in re-thinking their courses for the right environment.

And not all of them need the latest bells and whistles—or the capital and maintenance expenses they entail—to be effective.  Thanks to the advent of mobile platforms for student engagement, the biggest step towards the creation of active learning classrooms is often simple improvements in WiFi quality and access, so that students can seamlessly connect with their classes and that the educator and teaching assistant aren’t wasting valuable time troubleshooting.

The report does note that “students unfamiliar with active learning classrooms and active learning practices may even resist them.” It’s a matter of exposure: students know exactly what’s expected of them in a lecture hall, but are unsure of expectations when they walk into a novel classroom configuration. Innovation is sometimes hard if it’s not your idea.

It’s estimated that no more than five percent of current classrooms are designed up for active learning. That figure raises the question of which programs and which students have the opportunity to experience the benefits of active learning spaces. It also explains why institutions are eagerly building more of them.

But while universities wait to rearrange and rebuild the physical environments of their classrooms to promote these pedagogical shifts, they can also begin incorporating the digital elements they need to start their active learning classroom project on the right foot.

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References

1. 2018 NMC Horizon Report (2018, August 16). Retrieved from https://library.educause.edu/resources/2018/8/2018-nmc-horizon-report
2. The FLEXspace initiative (2018, October 2). Retrieved from http://flexspace.org/about/
3. Principles for Designing Teaching and Learning Spaces. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/tls/files/tls/principles-for-design-of-teaching-learning-spaces-2017.pdf
4. Learning Space Rating System (2018, October 9). Retrieved from https://www.educause.edu/eli/initiatives/learning-space-rating-system