Returning to on-campus classrooms – are they fit for purpose?

Submitted by Eliza.Compton on Mon, 01/11/2021 - 09:01
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Gunter Saunders explains why classroom design must take technology into account in facilitating active, student-centred learning
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Before the pandemic, the design of physical classroom spaces had received significant sector-wide attention. The Association for Learning Technology’s annual survey in 2018 had identified learning space design as a rising future priority. Agencies such as Advance HE and the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) had focused the sector on classroom design through, respectively, their Future Learning Spaces case study series and Higher Education Learning Space Toolkit. In addition, Jisc had promoted the “sticky campus” roadshow, and there were other initiatives such as the Scale-up programme. These stimulated refreshed learning space design programmes in a number of universities. Paramount in all new plans was the drive towards more flexible, active, in-class learning, through a combination of sometimes innovative furniture alongside new and emerging in-class technologies.

At the University of Westminster, as at other universities, the pandemic is causing the role of technology in learning and teaching to be closely examined. Several factors derived from the teaching done during the pandemic are driving this, including academic colleagues’ growing recognition that they can use online learning tools effectively, particularly those that enable them to make video/audio recordings and others that can engage students online or in class (such as polling tools and collaborative online workspaces such as Google Docs or Padlet). Of course, students have indicated through feedback that they are happy to consume recorded content and value classroom sessions in which they are more active as opposed to being passive listeners.

As a consequence, we are seeing a renewed interest in flipped learning and teaching approaches in which students have “homework” to do out of class before typically attending a face-to-face, on-campus classroom session that is more focused on student collaborative activities.

Flipped learning and teaching

For flipped learning to be effective, it is essential that students’ out-of-class work is carefully designed and tightly integrated with the in-class activities. Assuming that academic colleagues can find the time to do the design work, the next barrier to success can be the nature of the physical classroom space itself. Given that most flipped classes are likely to exploit group work significantly, classrooms with rows of single tables and chairs are not going to be supportive to the facilitator or the students. It is vital, if the sector is to capitalise on the new enthusiasm that has arisen over the integration of online learning on campus through flipped learning strategies, that classrooms are set up to be flexible, with furniture that supports facilitated group or team-based learning.

Technology in classroom spaces

Alongside the furniture, the other potentially key element to a successful modern flipped classroom is the technology in the physical space. Appropriate use of technology can help make the classroom experience more democratic and engaging. This is the case where the learning space design provides scope for students to exploit their own devices for online collaborative work and to use screen-sharing hardware in class to help share their ideas and expertise. In such circumstances, the traditional “front of class” lectern and data projection facilities can become less relevant and influential in driving the nature of the in-class transactions.

Active student-centred learning

Most academic staff are thrilled to bits when students actively participate in a classroom. However, if the desired engagement does not materialise, it can be very demotivating. Engagement follows good learning design but is also dependent on the real “killer” classroom tool: the teacher or facilitator of learning. Their passion and commitment to their subject lay the foundation for an effective classroom. To underpin what a good teacher can do, classrooms need to be spaces they can be confident in. They need easily accessed “props” that are useable, helpful and reliable. This means spaces that can readily support different teaching scenarios within a single session, and which incorporate easy-to-use technology facilities that make it easier for students to work together in class more effectively and produce and share collaborative outputs.

The place for online learning?

With better designed classroom spaces, we hope that online learning can finally find a meaningful and embedded role in university teaching. While technology should not be the only focal point of new classroom designs, its integration into the physical teaching spaces, in simple ways, provides opportunities to better deliver what academic staff have always sought: active, student-centred learning. Going forward, the sector needs to ensure that classrooms are fit for this purpose and, further, that technology, both in and out of the classroom, can be used as an integral part of the whole learning experience, be that online or face to face.

Gunter Saunders is associate director for digital engagement and library services at the University of Westminster.

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Gunter Saunders explains why classroom design must take technology into account in facilitating active, student-centred learning