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7 Tips for Building Collaborative Learning Spaces

Technology and design can work together to maximize the effectiveness of new learning environments.

If your school is seeking to incorporate more collaborative approaches to teaching and learning, the design of the learning environment—whether it’s a classroom or a more informal space—can be a critical factor in making this transformative move. Technology, in particular, can play a pivotal role in enabling students to work effectively in teams and in supporting educators as they make the transition from a lecture-oriented to a more facilitative instructional mode. So say leaders from colleges and universities that have backed their institutions’ push toward collaborative learning with substantial investments in environments designed to promote cooperation and sharing among learners.

Some of these schools have spent millions of dollars creating new buildings designed specifically for collaborative learning. Others have invested far less renovating classrooms in older buildings, with the same objectives in mind. While there are logistical differences between these two types of projects, administrators at these institutions say there are key principles associated with outfitting collaborative learning spaces that apply whether you are retrofitting or starting from scratch.

Here, in no particular order, are some important high- and low-tech lessons culled from academic leaders who’ve been part of the design team for collaborative learning spaces.

1) Involve Faculty in the Design Process

If you’re going to ask faculty to teach differently and in a totally new environment, it behooves you to get their buy-in by soliciting their ideas about how the space should look and function.

At the University of Central Oklahoma, when officials started to plan the campus’s $8.5 million Center for Transformative Learning (scheduled to open this month), they sought faculty input in a number of ways.

First, a Transformative Learning Task Force was formed, and faculty members were invited to join. Roughly a dozen faculty members from a variety of departments chose to participate. Administrators and officials from the student affairs office got involved, too.

According to Bill Radke, OCU’s provost, this group reviewed some of the latest literature on technology and collaborative learning (see #7, page 36) and had open discussions about the tenets of transformative learning experiences. They also brainstormed how they could use technology to redefine the traditional classroom without requiring faculty members to learn too many new tricks.

Next, officials interviewed members of the faculty senate, gauging what rank-and-file educators wanted from a collaborative space. Some of the suggestions: document cameras with multiple projection screens, huddleboards (lightweight whiteboards that can be used by groups to record discussions), and work clusters from which educators can capture screen shots and project them to the class.

“We knew we wanted to move away from the traditional lecture, but these meetings gave us a great idea of the kinds of technology that faculty members wanted instead,” Radke says. “Involving them in the design process also gave them a sense of ownership over the space, a critically important step, considering they’re going to be the ones who use it most.”4

2) Gauge Student Input

Radke and his UCO colleagues also thought it critical to involve their other main constituent—students—in the design of the new center. Even with the understanding that students often ask for things that are impractical, Oklahoma officials recognized that students can have keen insights into the environmental elements that help them learn.

University administration asked a handful of students to participate in a special student task force to gather initial student input. Next, with help from the student body president, administrators recruited a team of about a dozen members of student government to evaluate plans for the building as it was being scoped out.

“The one thing they kept saying to us was how they wanted comfortable places to sit and study and talk—both inside the classroom and out,” Radke recalls.

Other student requests included pervasive wireless internet, a broader role for multimedia, and what Radke describes as a “more engaged” classroom environment—an environment in which professors toggle seamlessly from lecture to technology and back to lecture again, incorporating input and work from individual students all the while. The new building will have all of this—and more.

Down the road, Radke says, the process of gauging student input on the collaborative learning environment will continue via direct observation. Here, the thinking is that university officials may glean more about how students are using certain features of the classrooms by observing them interacting with the space.

“This is—and always has been—a work in progress,” he says, noting that the school will constantly reevaluate the spaces and tweak them as necessary.

3) Invest in Flexible Furniture

This may seem obvious, but some furniture designs are better for collaborative learning environments than others. Long tables where students can sit and work together in teams? Those are good. Individual desks like the ones you might find in an elementary school or a college from the 1980s? Those are not as effective.

Another must-have: tables and desks with wheels. Those with experience building collaborative learning spaces insist that students and educators are much more likely to reposition furniture to suit their needs if they know that the furniture itself is, in fact, easy to move.

“Flexible furniture makes collaborative environments free-form from the very beginning,” says Kyle Dickson, associate professor of English and director of the digital media center at Texas-based Abilene Christian University. “The first pedagogical choice faculty members make is how to set the room.”

Dickson has a strong history of designing collaborative environments. In 2005, when school officials set out to revamp the digital media center and make it into the collaborative environment it is today, he spearheaded an effort to get the best furniture for the job.

He asked suppliers to send out sample tables so he and his colleagues could sit around them and get a sense of the distance between participants in a discussion. Ultimately, they settled on movable tables from Teknion.

Dickson notes that once he and his colleagues picked tables for the room, it was equally important to select chairs that could be stored easily when not in use. Their pick: traditional “sled” chairs that can stack and fit snugly into storage closets that line one wall of the room (the closets also are large enough to store some of the tables).

“We can reconfigure the entire room in the time between classes,” he boasts. “If that’s not flexible furniture, I don’t know what is.”

4) Create Technological Redundancy

By design, collaborative learning spaces don’t limit how or where students can get together to work on projects. This open-endedness, however, necessitates ample and redundant technology.

Many institutions have met this challenge with multiple screens—both on the walls (as in, projection screens) and in pods, or clusters, around the room (as in, computer screens). Here, the thinking is that because there’s no front of the classroom, any end could be up.

Another important example of technological redundancy pertains to cabling. At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (PA), the school’s main campus building, which opened in January 2009, has more than 20 collaborative classrooms. Officials have run multiple VGA cables to each workstation that provide students with ample opportunities to switch which laptop or tablet PC is connected to the network. These cables also let professors display work from individual computers on the big screen.

One last point on the issue of redundancy: At a time when just about every student has a laptop, tablet PC, or mobile device, it’s critically important to provide enough A/C outlets for charging batteries. At Louisiana State University’s information commons, a collaborative learning space that opened in 2008 in the campus library, there is one A/C outlet for every seat.

“We didn’t want our students to get excited about the new facility but then run out of battery life as soon as they got there and become dissatisfied because they couldn’t recharge,” says Dee Childs, deputy CIO at LSU. “The process of making technology redundant in a particular environment doesn’t only pertain to the technology itself.”

5) Assess Acoustical Issues

With many people working in the same open space, noise pollution can wreak havoc on the learning process. Experts advise that it’s best to devise solutions for this problem preemptively, especially since retrofitting a room to muffle loud noises can be disruptive, expensive, and not as effective as designing for noise control at the outset.

One obvious option is to install carpeting—even thin carpets absorb sound a lot better than, say, a concrete floor. More sophisticated strategies include removable walls and sound baffles, which are floating ceiling tiles designed to absorb sound.

Officials at RIT, the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY), opted for the latter two measures in their University Services Center, a collaborative learning facility that opened in the fall of 2009. Because the space features a 1.5-story glass drum, sound amplifies easily. Throw in four distinct areas to which groups can withdraw and the place gets loud quickly.

Sound baffles have helped dampen the noise. Jim Yarrington, director of campus planning, design, and construction, says the baffles hang from the ceiling like clouds to catch noise as it rises. The devices look like fins, and dangle between light fixtures.

“If you didn’t know what to look for up there, you’d never even think to ask,” Yarrington says, noting that the baffles were made by acoustical ceilings vendor Gordon. “In this sense, it is a relatively low-impact way of resolving a very legitimate issue.”

Yarrington says RIT also has invested in removable walls to cordon off portions of the room when multiple groups are using it simultaneously. He notes that the walls are actually comprised of individual, lockable storage bins large enough for student laptops and other tools. The school opted for two different kinds of bin-based walls, one made by Kraftwerks, the other by Merkel Donohue.

6) Don’t Forget Low-tech

Technology can be an enabler of collaborative learning, but it’s not the end-all or be-all. Some of the best ways to promote cooperative engagement can be low- or even no-tech.

Abilene Christian University administrators have invested in portable, non-electronic whiteboards for those lessons in students and instructors don’t need technology at all. Dickson says the old-fashioned dry-erase products also come in handy during those rare occasions when the in-room system is down.

“It’s always nice to have another option for displaying presentations and group work,” he says, adding that at times the roll-away whiteboards serve another purpose: They double as room dividers.

And then there’s LSU’s old-fashioned way to promote collaboration: Officials installed a coffee shop inside the information commons to spark impromptu study sessions and interactions among students.

7) Train, Train, Train

Giving faculty a theoretical underpinning for why and how a technology-supported, collaborative approach can improve teaching and learning is the first step toward promoting new instructional methods. Faculty members of OCU’s Task Force for Collaborative Learning, for example, were required to read up on some of the predominant thinking in this area, including Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, by Don Tapscott (McGraw-Hill, 1999), and Our Underachieving Colleges, by Derek Bok (Princeton University Press, 2007).

Collaboration on the Fly

In addition to classrooms designed for collaborative learning, the best campuses have engineered study areas and other nooks and crannies designed to engender spontaneous teamwork.

Many of these secondary collaborative spaces are in overtly public spots—the library or the student union. Others are offshoots of a larger collaborative learning space—a modern-day spin on the traditional notion of a breakout room. (For more on how libraries are transforming into new collaborative spaces, see “A Space to Collaborate,” CT November 2009;

At Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (PA), for instance, the school built a number of group-oriented study nooks in a high-rise building in downtown Harrisburg. These areas, formally dubbed “knowledge alcoves,” boast some of the same features as collaborative learning spaces elsewhere: comfortable furniture and an ample supply of A/C outlets.

Mel Schiavelli, Harrisburg’s president, says these spaces seat up to six people at a time, and are available on a first-come-first-served basis.

“So many collaborative learning environments only facilitate collaboration inside the classroom,” he says. “We wanted places where—when our students are out of class—they can still sit down and work with their teams.”

Different kinds of spaces at the circa-2009 Student Resource Center at the University of Phoenix facility in Washington, DC, have become popular for some of the same reasons.

Here, students have a number of options to work together: the learning team room, a glass-enclosed breakout room with flexible furniture that seats up to eight; the study room, which boasts pods for small group work; and the tutor bar, a Starbucks-like kiosk where students can walk up and get coffee—and help with their schoolwork.

Cyndie Shadow, the institution’s territory vice president for Maryland and Washington, DC, says these spaces provide the “foundation” for collaborations to occur organically.

“The truth is that some of the best collaborations occur outside of the classroom environment,” she says. “We thought that providing our students with the tools for these kinds of interactions when they step out of class would be just as valuable.”

Next, showing faculty how these changes might look—with practical, classroom-based examples—is imperative. At Abilene Christian University, special training sessions help educators consider how they would incorporate collaborative technologies into their existing lesson plans. These sessions encourage educators to rethink everything—from which data they project onto walls to how to share student work with the class, says Dickson.

“Most teachers are accustomed to sharing only one set of examples at a time,” he says. “With the technology in our room, they can show two sets of examples and a student’s attempt to solve the problem, or three sets of examples. Just teaching them about these options helps expand their thinking pedagogically.”

In the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver (CO), faculty training has been a key part of the $21 million Katherine A. Ruffatto Hall, slated to open this month.

The new building is full of collaborative learning spaces, and Bill McGreevy, the college’s assistant dean, says training sessions for making the most of these classrooms began in earnest earlier this year. Early training sessions focused on familiarizing educators with new technologies such as document cameras and high-definition videoconferencing, as well as the facility’s movable tables and chairs.

McGreevy notes that in addition to training educators on the technology itself, his college plans to provide professors with support on how to maximize the collaborative advantages of the new space from a pedagogical and instructional point of view.

“We’re still ironing out specifics of our plan, but we know that it doesn’t make sense to have this new technology and train our teachers how to use it if we’re not going to help them figure out how to change their lesson plans accordingly,” McGreevy says. “The tools aren’t just going to make a poor instructor into a good instructor and vice versa; it’s how folks choose to use them.”

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