In making the classroom analogous to a skatepark, I’ve mainly focused on designing the learning opportunities that await students within the skatepark. This is because, at this point, this is the only aspect of the skatepark that I have control over. Just as important is the architecture of the skatepark itself, but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that can easily be controlled within the college classroom. Unlike K12 teachers, we aren’t assigned to a permanent room across multiple semesters nor are our assigned rooms only used by us (they’re likely to also be in active use by as many as 5-6 other instructors during a given day). We don’t have a way to create displays of student work nor are we able to create distinct spaces within our rooms, such as reading areas, group and quiet study, or technology stations. In fact, our existing spaces are distinctly adverse to anything other than factory-style instruction, with students lined up in rows of individual desks facing the instructor and their podium and whiteboard (and the only electrical outlet).
While I don’t bemoan having to come up with new bulletin board ideas every month, there are certain aspects of the K12 classroom that would be nice to have in the college classroom. This is especially true once we begin to transform our spaces into 21st century learning environments. Our existing environments are often 30 years old (if not older), in the case of my building, and even newer “smart” buildings were designed and equipped for the type of lecture-focused instruction that was still dominant in the late-20th century, with projectors and an instructor computer station to add the veneer of being grounded in pedagogically-relevant technological innovations. Since I’m a member of a committee whose goal is to identify the necessary characteristics, criteria, and components of a 21st century university, this disconnect between what needs to go on within our classrooms and what our classrooms are designed to allow to go on is an important one for me. But it’s also important to me because I struggle daily with the limitations that these spaces place on what goes on in my learning skatepark.
In looking at resources dealing with what kinds of spaces are needed for students’ current learning needs, I’ve found two that have been especially thought-provoking. The first is this infographic by Aimée Knight:
For me, what stands out about Knight’s argument is the focus on the students’ needs, rather than on the requirements of technology:
The focus of classroom design needs to be on people, not technology. When the focus is placed on active, social, experiential learning, technologies move into the background.
This seems to be a focus that is missing from many other studies of 21st century classroom design (see, for example, the 21st century classroom design guru David Jakes’s website). In addition to the infographic, Knight and Mark Sample have published a Google Doc from a brainstorming session on Hacking Campus Spaces that took place at THATCamp Piedmont 2012. Along with a summary of the brainstorming session, the Doc contains several links to various resources on how others are re-thinking and remixing university spaces.
What the infographic does for me is to solidify my own thinking about how best to re-design the physical space within which I create learning opportunities for my students. Much more vital than any accommodations made to my technology needs is the ability for my students to have access to the spaces and resources that they need, technological and otherwise. At various times during a class meeting, my students may need to work as a group, work as individuals, access the internet and word processing or presentation software, brainstorm, collaborate on various types of writing and media, conference with me, present, and instruct one another (and even me on occasion). For me, one product from the early days of factory education that still holds value for the 21st century classroom is the individual writing tablet (I’m a big fan of the method known as whiteboarding). Of course, we have the electronic equivalent, but right now the large majority of my students don’t have iPads and many don’t have laptops. Even once my university institutes its iPad initiative and gives all incoming freshman their own electronic slate, that will still not cover all of my students. But if all of the walls of my classrooms were equipped with a whiteboard (or chalkboard, which is more environmentally friendly), then all of my students would have the ability to write, brainstorm, and collaborate on a canvas that could be shared or reserved for personal use, immediately erased or recorded for posterity (I’ve considered creating the $2 interactive whiteboard, but haven’t figured out the logistics of adapting the technique to the college classroom).
Thoreau, the genius of simplicity, said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The transition to a 21st century learning environment is not quick, easy, or inexpensive and requires clear priorities. Obviously, re-designing classroom spaces is not at the top of the priority list and will entail a large financial expenditure at the same time that universities are facing a reduction in federal and state funding and a rise in operating costs. But there are simple and low-cost ways that we can make our existing spaces more user-friendly for our students. I would rather my students be able to view themselves as the focus of the classroom, with tools as simple as electrical outlets, whiteboards, and modular, multi-purpose seating (or even a few tables to supplement the existing seating) at their disposal than to have all of the technological bells and whistles out there at the front of the room for me to use.
So, how am I currently dealing with the limitations of my classroom spaces? As best I can. My students are often movers and shakers, rearranging desks into groups or semicircles, contorting their bodies in order to view various areas of the room and to look at their classmates as they talk, traveling en masse from our classroom to the computer lab or as individuals to a study carrel in the hallway. The front of the classroom is still the hot spot because it’s where the projector is aimed, the only whiteboard is located, and the electrical outlet offers the ability to plug in gadgets when batteries wane. My hybrid classes, which depend much more heavily on students’ ability to use mobile internet devices, collaborate, and have small group discussions, currently meet in the library because it affords class, group, and individual seating arrangements and access to raw materials, such as reliable wi-fi, plugs, laptops that can be checked out, and coffee (thanks to our newly-installed coffee bar).
So, before we begin advocating for a wholesale overhaul of our spaces and risk the failure that is inevitable when demanding a huge financial output for uncertain results and questionable reasons (after all, our administrators might well argue, haven’t the existing spaces functioned for hundreds of years?), lets take a step back and ask whose needs are we advocating for. It does make my job infinitely easier when I have the ability to switch my students’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video or to project a student’s blog so that the entire class can see it. But in my ideal learning environment, it’s the students who turn each others’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video and students are often working together to revise a peer’s blog post in situ. While my technological needs often overlap those of my students, it’s their learning needs that have been ignored for far longer and that are in more immediate need of attention.
Or am I totally off my pumpkin?