By Doug Ward

SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Here’s a harsh question to ask about the classrooms on our campuses: What are they good for?

Yes, there’s more than a tinge of sarcasm in that question – answering “not much” comes immediately to mind – but it gets to the heart of a problem in learning and, more broadly, in the success of our students.

Oregon State drew from several models as it created new classrooms, including a learning studio, an emporium style (below) and the set of a television talk show (bottom).

Tim Reynolds of the architecture firm TreanorHL and PK Imbrie from the University of Cincinnati asked a variation on that question this week at the Next Generation Learning Spaces conference in San Diego. At table after table in a workshop, participants said that college classrooms were designed for sitting, listening and taking notes. That is, for skills that will do our students little good in a world that requires problem solving, teamwork, strong communication skills, technical know-how, analytical ability, leadership, initiative and a strong work ethic.

“Many buildings I walk into have been rendered obsolete by new teaching styles and learning styles,” Reynolds said. “We can’t afford to be obsolete.”

Buildings alone don’t make an education, and the growth of online courses has led to many questions about the future of a traditional on-campus education. University buildings are expensive to create. They sit mostly empty for four months a year. They rarely receive the routine maintenance they need to ensure the best use, and in many cases they go neglected until they simply fall into irrelevance.

New buildings also won’t change the outdated pedagogy of recalcitrant faculty members. Nor will they solve higher education’s biggest challenge: a promotion and tenure system that rewards research almost exclusively, leaving teaching as a pesky aside.

And yet buildings are crucial to the success of students in residential education. If we plan to continue on that path in the coming decades – and most universities certainly do – then we must continue to create and re-create effective learning spaces.

Over and over at this week’s conference, participants grappled with the idea of creating spaces that will meet the needs of students and faculty today but that will accommodate the inevitable changes that education will face in the coming decades. That is, how do we better design buildings and classrooms to keep them relevant longer?

There’s no easy answer to that question. My answer – and that of most of the conference participants – is to focus on flexibility. For instance, creating a lecture hall with tiered concrete will make it nearly impossible to use that room for any other purpose in the future. It will simply be too expensive to change, something that universities face in many, many buildings on their campuses today. Creating flatter rooms will allow for easier reconfiguration as needs and technology change. That approach is part of a broader shift in thinking that universities must make.

“This is not changing a classroom; this is changing a culture,” Reynolds said. “It is changing what we think about as education.”

Other themes from the conference:

  • Look beyond universities for ideas. In planning a new classroom building, Oregon State considered many non-traditional models for large classrooms, including parliament-style seating, club seating used at concerts, and in-the-round seating used in the Phil Donahue show, the iconic daytime talk show from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. That in-the-round seating has proved especially popular among faculty, representatives from the university said, largely because even in a 600-person room, students are never more than eight rows away from the professor.
  • Different spaces can inspire new approaches to teaching and learning. A new building at Oregon State contains 13 different styles of classrooms, and Jon Dorbolo, associate director of Technology Across the Curriculum, said instructors were more willing to take more chances in the way they engage students in those classrooms. (Several others at the conference made similar observations.) The variety of room styles had also helped students become more adaptable, Dorbolo said, as they learn how to learn in different settings.
  • Maker spaces are hot. Universities around the country have been opening maker spaces where students have access to tools for creating with everything from robotics to sewing machines to 3D printers to engravers to digital media. Kyle Bowen of Penn State describes his university’s philosophy as “making as fluency.” Penn State has also been creating rooms where faculty and students can save whiteboards and other materials – “learning residue,” he called it – so they don’t have to start from scratch in the next class.
  • Immersive experiences are growing. Virtual and augmented reality drew a lot of attention at the conference, not only with live demonstrations but with discussions about how to set up rooms to allow students to immerse themselves in alternate realities that essentially leave them blind in their physical space. Colleges are using virtual and augmented reality for such things as offering campus tours, training students in anatomy and medicine, helping students understand chemical structures, and helping them understand ancient cultures.
  • Create more general purpose classroom buildings. For instance, if you label a room a genetics lab, it will go unused much of the time, Reynolds said. If you call it a classroom, many other disciplines will use it, as well. That approach also leads to a better focus on teaching and learning (rather than faculty office space) in creation of new buildings, Reynolds said.

One of my favorite descriptions from the conference came from Bowen, who spoke of two types of faculty members: FIVEs and FAVEs. FIVE, he said, stands for faculty into virtually everything. FAVE, on the other hand, refers to faculty against virtually everything. Most faculty members fall somewhere in between, but technologists and classroom schedulers must be able to accommodate the extremes, a process Bowen called the “Tetrus management” of matching classrooms to faculty needs.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Earlier this week, I interrupted two students in a small room at Spahr Engineering Library at KU.

Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow doing dynamics homework in new room in engineering library (8)
Tom Ellison, left, and Nathan Marlow at Spahr Engineering Library.

The students, Tom Ellison and Nathan Marlow, were working on problems for a dynamics class. Each had tablet computers and used styluses to work problems by hand in OneNote. Ellison’s computer was connected wirelessly to a large monitor on a wall, via an adaptor he checked out from the library, and the two of them conversed and shared ideas as they worked.

It was an impressive scene of collaboration in a space that makes collaboration easy. The room has a table for up to six people and easy access to outlets. A wall-mounted monitor is large enough for everyone at the tables to see, yet it doesn’t get in the way if students don’t need it.

Informal spaces like these are important to student life and student learning. KU Libraries, like libraries around the country, has created more of these spaces, some with tables and chairs, some with whiteboards, others with cushioned chairs and a view of campus. They are constantly in use. The new engineering building has ample numbers of these types of spaces, everything from the small rooms in the Spahr Library to booths in a food court to soft chairs in a bright atrium. Small alcoves with chairs and tables are sprinkled through the building, and students made ample use of all the spaces when I visited the building earlier this week.

These informal spaces make buildings more inviting, but they also reflect a shift toward mobile technology, a shift that is moving ever more rapidly. Within two years, smartphones will provide all the computing power you need at home or at work, Wired reports. It cites predictions from the chipmaker ARM, which recently released a new generation of processors, and a consumer trends researcher. That doesn’t mean the world will change in two years. Adoption of any new technology takes time. It does suggest a tipping point that most universities are ill-equipped to handle.

The size of computer hardware has been shrinking for decades, and if this latest prediction plays out, it will have substantial ramifications for all levels of education. Teenagers have adopted the online world as an important social sphere, with mobile phones an important connection point. Many primary and secondary schools have shifted to a bring-your-own-device model, one that incorporates students’ phones, tablets and laptops into their learning inside and outside the classroom. Pew reports that 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds rely predominately on their phones for Internet access, and that non-White Americans are more likely to have web access only on their phones.

A change by U.S. wireless phone carriers over the summer could add to the pressure to make mobile computing more accessible to students. The carriers began shifting the upfront costs of mobile phones to consumers, rather than building in a sort of installment plan that required two-year contracts. Those higher upfront costs could lead even more people to look at their phones as a primary device for computing and connecting to the Internet, especially if the phones have the power of laptops.

Higher education has generally been slow to adapt to these changes, and indeed there are many challenges in security, compatibility, and capacity of wi-fi networks. It has been even slower in adapting to a mobile web. Everything from university websites to scheduling systems to learning management systems lack basic functionality and usability on mobile.

That has to change, and soon, although the financial challenges are steep. IT departments constantly balance innovation with accessibility, but more than anything else, struggle with the financial demands to stay on top of quickly changing technology. Schools and departments face the same challenges, not only with providing technological access but with modernizing classrooms and other learning spaces to accommodate new technology, collaborative learning, and the flexibility that learning environments so desperately need. Those challenges aren’t likely to change anytime soon, given the hostile attitudes toward higher education in many state legislatures. Institutions simply must address those challenges, though, if they hope to remain relevant in which technology and physical environments can aid or hinder student engagement and learning.

A recent comment by Jay Bhatt, president and CEO of Blackboard, cuts to the heart of the mobile challenge in higher education. Blackboard is hardly a leader in adapting to mobile, though it has made progress of late. Bhatt’s comments are worth taking to heart:

“There is a critical disconnect between what today’s learners want, and how the educational system is serving them. The industry hasn’t changed in years. Today’s learners have a drastically different set of wants, needs and consumer preferences. Learners of all ages and at all points in their learning lifecycle today require something different. They want and expect technology to play a major role in their education. And they want education technology that is as convenient as what they’ve become accustomed to from companies like Apple and Amazon. They want mobile. They want to be able to connect with their peers. They want fast, simple, and intuitive.”

Test-optional application process plays well in university rankings

Colleges and universities that make the SAT or ACT optional may have less-than-altruistic goals in mind.

Stephen Burd of The Hechinger Report says that a test-optional application process is often portrayed as a way of diversifying the student body. The argument sounds good, he says, as standardized test scores often create barriers for minority and non-affluent students.

It usually doesn’t work that way, though.

By making standardized tests optional, Burd says, colleges and universities often draw more applicants, thus increasing the percentage of rejected applications and making themselves seem more exclusive. Students who do submit their scores on the SAT and ACT under such a system generally do so because their scores are higher than average, raising the institution’s overall average and again making the school seem more exclusive.

Those exclusivity figures play especially well in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, providing a boost to test-optional institutions and essentially punishing those that either require the ACT or SAT, or don’t.

As for the diversity argument, Burd says there is little evidence that a test-optional approach leads to a more diverse student body. Rather, it simply allows institutions to pander to the types of rankings that affluent families embrace in making college choices. Others say the test-optional approach simply needs more time to work. It’s definitely worth watching.

Briefly …

A short lecture helps students put readings into better context, Illysa Izenberg argues in an article for Faculty Focus. By short, she means 8 to 10 minutes, with the rest of class time devoted to activities, discussion and reflection. … University Business says competency-based education is “poised for explosive growth,” and it provides advice for creating such programs from institutions that have already moved in that direction. … Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jeffrey Arnett says companies should tap into millennials’ desire to find engaging work that allows them to make positive contributions to society. I’d argue that college instructors should do the same.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Evidence is growing about the need to change the design of classrooms.

In a previous post, I wrote about my experiences with room design, student behavior and learning. I found that students were far more engaged when I moved class to a collaborative space, and that they reverted to passive behavior when class returned to the traditional space we were assigned.

The March issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning takes on that very issue in a series of essays that looks at the research on active learning spaces and instructors’ experiences with those types of classrooms. All of the contributors to the issue are from universities or organizations that have led the way in redesigning classrooms, including North Carolina State, Minnesota and Indiana, as well as the nonprofit association Educause.

desks and chairs in The Commons at Spooner Hall
The Commons at Spooner Hall set up for an active learning class.

In their introduction to the issue, the editors, D. Christopher Brooks, J.D. Walker and Paul Baepler, summarize the dominant theories about learning spaces. Those theories include the idea that “a space does not determine behavior, but influences how we act and relate within it in ways that may not be readily observable.” This applies to both students and instructors.

“In large measure, how we configure our new brick and mortar classrooms will set the agenda for how face-to-face teaching continues to change and transform student learning,” the editors write.

Robert J. Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State, offers a brief history of classroom design and pedagogy, from lectures to labs to studios to large classrooms that use an approach called Scale-Up, or student-centered activities for large enrollment undergraduate programs, which Beichner pioneered.

In the introduction to his essay, Beichner addresses an important question about classrooms: Why do we need to change them? His answer: An information-rich, technology-rich society has changed the way students live and think, making it harder for them “to learn from the kind of patient, orderly presentation that their teachers prefer.”

In other words, if today’s instructors expect to connect with students, they have to move beyond the passivity of lecture. A different style of classroom is one way to help with that.

In a concluding essay, Aimee Whiteside of the University of Tampa, mentions the challenges of transforming classrooms and other learning spaces, citing cost and resistance to change, among other elements. She suggests a “read and lead” approach for those of us interested in changing learning environments: researching, sharing ideas, and keeping administrators apprised of the “immense educational value of active learning spaces.”

I’ll write more soon about my experiences with a new style of classroom and about the university’s efforts to make more active learning classrooms available. Meantime, I’d recommend the essays from New Directions for Teaching and Learning, as well as some other recent articles about classrooms and learning.

Among the essays in New Directions for Teaching and Learning 137 (Spring 2014) are these:

  • “History and Evolution of Active Learning Spaces,” 9-16, by Robert J. Beichner.
  • “Coffeehouse as Classroom: Examination of a New Style of Active Learning Environment,” 41-51, by Anastasia S. Morrone, et. al.
  • “Strategies to Address Challenges When Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom,” 63-70, by Christina I. Petersen and Kristen S. Gorman.
  • “Conclusion: Advancing Active Learning Spaces,” 95-98, by Aimee L. Whiteside.

Other recent research on classrooms:


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.