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I had the pleasure of presenting at the National Forum for Active Learning Classrooms (NFALC) on Thursday August 7th, along with my UNC Charlotte colleagues Kurt Richter and Rich Preville (our slide deck is here). We were talking about our experiences in designing, building, programming, and evaluating our Active Learning Classrooms at UNCC. And in particular we were pointing to the importance of the Active Learning Academy, the community of practice model we have arrived at to make it more likely that these classrooms will be successful additions to the ways we approach teaching and learning spaces.
We are just starting to put together and think about the information we’ve been collecting this past academic year on the student and faculty practices that occurred in those classrooms. I’ve been working, with the help of graduate research assistants, on directing observations in a variety of classes, interviewing faculty on their expectations and experiences, and trying to get a sense of how best to influence the development and configuration of learning spaces (not just classrooms) elsewhere on campus.
I have been witnessing, in the last several months a flurry of intensifying discussions around learning spaces, and in particular how to approach planning for them. We who work in Atkins Library are discussing how to reconfigure our 1st and 2nd floors, and also revisiting our ground floor spaces to see what we can improve. Jisc has launched a quick guide. I have been asked to think about giving talks at 3 or 4 different venues by now around teaching and learning and spaces.
What I’d like to point out here is that, based on my experiences dealing with learning spaces in libraries and classrooms, buildings are the least interesting part of the space conversation. Yes they are necessary prerequisites. But before they are built, or reconfigured, I would like people to ask:
- what is the activity you want to support?
- how does that activity fit into the larger work of the university?
- what are the current learning spaces at the university? Do they relate to each other? Can they accommodate some of what you want to happen? Why or why not?
- What are the new spaces going to look like in relation to the spaces that are already there?
I see the 3rd and 4th points getting lost in the shuffle a great deal, and it’s frustrating and unnecessarily limiting. The learning spaces an institution plans will inevitably be in a network of other spaces. Being not just aware of those connections, but actually leveraging that awareness, making the spaces explicitly connected to one another, raising the visibility of the spaces to teachers and learners alike, can have an impact. If the activity they want to engage in (group work, for instance) is supported more effectively by a particular kind of space, institutions should not just provide that space but make sure that people are aware it exists. So what does that look like? Digital maps? Tours? Faculty telling students about where they can work? Teaching happening in as many different spaces as possible, to demonstrate what is possible across the university? What else?
Also: People occupy spaces not just because they exist but because they have motivations to occupy. There is no “build it and they will come.” If the space is built and there’s no motivation to engage, they will never show up. Kitted out classrooms that ignore motivation become just another kind of useless edtech
Another thing I am struck by, and the note we ended our NFALC presentation on last week, was that the least innovative thing about UNC Charlotte’s active learning classrooms are the active learning classrooms. The SCALE-UP model has been around for 25 years, the research has been done about the efficacy of active learning techniques and environments. The rooms themselves are not innovative.
BUT. Innovation can come out of these rooms (and is!). And that innovation does require a baseline physical setup (which costs money, and involves technology), but to really happen it requires money spent on professional development time for faculty, and in particular on providing time and space to rethink pedagogy. That is, the building of these spaces can only be the beginning. Institutions need to commit to providing institutional space (time, resources, money, prestige) to prioritize teaching and learning. This is why we want to talk less about the technical specifics of the rooms (although we can, certainly, discuss that) and more about the Active Learning Academy, the faculty and staff who trade practices, teach each other, learn from their students, go further with what works, and discard what does not. We see, in this Academy, experienced faculty stretching themselves because the presence of these rooms frees them from having to jerry-rig active learning practices into spaces such as traditional lecture halls. Once they do not have to fight the physical space they are in, they can really start to play with what is possible.
I’d like to emphasize: you can’t have spaces that generate innovative practices without surrounding them with effective staffing and programming. Building the spaces is the beginning (or should be) of an iterative process whereby the spaces are programmed, occupied, evaluated, and reprogrammed as necessary.
Who owns the thinking around holistic development of learning spaces at universities? No consistent set of people. And teaching staff don’t necessarily have the time or resources to lead that thinking. There needs to be a dedicated well-compensated team whose work it is to think carefully about learning spaces all the time.
So when thinking about space planning for teaching and learning, there should also be people-planning. Because these spaces without people, without programming, without communities of practice making them living breathing growing parts of the university’s mission, become accessories, mere performances of teaching, and learning opportunities lost.