Classrooms in the 21st century are undergoing a rapid transformation into new learning environments that are highly flexible, configurable and collaborative. Large lecture halls with sloped floors and fixed seats and classrooms with immovable podiums and tablet-arm chairs are going the way of the mimeograph as colleges and universities redesign learning spaces to accommodate new instructional models, driven by a generation of students who grew up in the digital age and who now expect interactive, learner-centered instruction.
Simply adding technology is not sufficient to address the changing nature of instruction. Spaces must be redesigned from the ground up to accommodate 21st century student and faculty needs, as well as a variety of instructional models.
Classrooms rich with interactive whiteboards, document cameras and lecture capture systems will support active-learning environments. Telepresence systems and video and web conferencing expand classroom walls in online or distance learning scenarios to include participants from anywhere in the world. In a flipped classroom, students can learn at their own pace — equipped with notebooks, tablets and smartphones — using classroom extensions that can be accessed at any time, from any place. Adding network access and digital projectors to classrooms encourages the use of interactive content. New technology provides the means through which new instructional models take hold and flourish.
The intended use of a space, and the entirety of the physical space, from furniture and lighting to acoustics and electricity, must be considered first in order to maximize the effectiveness of modern instructional models and the technologies that support them. Designers must carefully consider the mix of space available and the instruction types each room can support.
Many institutions find it difficult to dedicate space to specific instructional styles. Instead, they opt for flexible classroom spaces that can support a variety of pedagogical styles and class structures, and that can be adapted as styles and needs change. Such classrooms require more square feet per person than traditional classroom designs to provide sufficient room for a variety of class configurations.
Incorporate furniture that can be moved or reconfigured easily and that provides adequate surface space to balance student technology, such as notebooks, tablets, smartphones and e-readers, as well as books, papers and group work. Tables and chairs could be on casters or easily folded and stacked; tables might also be in a variety of shapes that lend themselves to different configurations set up for individual or group work. Zone lighting systems and window shades help to provide optimal conditions for viewing content from a digital projector.
The size of a space as well as its acoustic qualities — from the types of flooring and ceiling materials to ambient noise from an HVAC system — should be considered to determine whether a microphone and speakers are necessary.
Flip the Classroom
Aided by technology, the flipped classroom becomes a rich, multimedia experience in which students may be asked to read preparatory content, listen to audio lectures or view podcasts in advance of the actual class. Professors may create their own content through the help of lecture capture or video recording software applications, or may curate content from an ever-growing pool of resources. Lecture capture technology comes in all shapes and sizes.
Hardware or appliance-based setups can be housed permanently in a specially designed classroom or kept on a mobile cart to be wheeled from room to room. Software-based systems can be hosted by an institution or in the cloud, installed on a podium computer or notebook, and used in any classroom that has the software installed.
Virtual environments — from blended classes offered by a university to its enrolled students, to massively open online courses (MOOCs) — require different technology depending on their purpose.
Web conferencing is the simplest solution when it comes to distance learning, using only a webcam and microphone to enable online interactions. Collaboration tools allow participants to chat or screen share over a digital whiteboard. Software-based systems requiring little more than an Internet connection work well for pushing content to large, remote groups, as well as small groups or one-on-one sessions such as study groups or virtual office hours.
Video conferencing usually requires dedicated equipment at each end of the conferencing session (although it also can work across IP networks) and tends to feature higher-quality audio and video than web conferencing systems. Telepresence systems use ultra-high-definition video, spatial audio and life-size images to create an environment in which remote participants feel as though they are in the same room.
Make It Easy
Classrooms equipped with interactive whiteboards, document cameras, lecture capture and digital conferencing systems should also include an automated control system that provides a single user interface for managing all of the A/V equipment as well as lighting and environmental systems. Management software allows remote monitoring and support, as well as a way to submit help requests directly from the control system.
Lecture capture systems also can be integrated with a classroom's automated control system so that recording is easily started and stopped, or even scheduled in advance, with no user interaction required. Recorded content can be published automatically through a variety of media, integrated into an LMS and viewed from practically any device.
Back It Up
Ensure a solid infrastructure is in place to support tech-enabled learning. There may be specific requirements for servers and storage depending on the particular technology deployed, and the presence of end-user devices in the classroom elevates the importance of both network and power.
The move to modern learning environments will not be easy. Budgets must be realigned, and departments must look for ways to drive down the costs of delivering commodity services so that more resources can be focused on higher-value technologies, such as those supporting teaching and learning.