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How Do Your Learning Spaces Measure Up?

Two initiatives -- FLEXspace and the Learning Space Rating System -- are developing ways to review and share designs for active learning spaces.

In the late 1980s, Stanford University's (CA) writing program received a grant from Apple Computer to build a computer classroom and writing instruction lab. The facilities staff suggested putting the computers in rows, because that was the easiest way to hook them up, but the instructors had different ideas about how to arrange the classroom.

"It was one of the first computer classrooms designed by teachers instead of by the technologists and facilities folks," recalled Richard Holeton, director of academic computing services at Stanford. But he remembers that the communication about the new space was a challenge. "The facilities staff has always thought in terms of things like square footage per person. We realized we had a situation where there was no common language, no standard for how you talk about group work."

That problem has continued and will persist until there is a common taxonomy for faculty, facilities staff and architects, Holeton said. "We have a lack of best practices we can refer to, both in internal conversations and across institutions."

Now, however, two separate yet complementary initiatives under development promise to fill that void: 1) FLEXspace, an interactive online database with images and videos of learning spaces, provides a searchable collection of best practices in active learning design, and 2) the Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) seeks to provide a set of measurable criteria to assess how well classroom design supports and enables active learning activities.


The impetus for FLEXspace (the Flexible Learning Environments eXchange) started with recently retired State University of New York Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost David Lavallee, who noticed that every time SUNY built new classrooms it seemed that the designers were starting from scratch. In 2011 he charged an advisory group with investigating how SUNY could be more proactive in engaging faculty, instructional support personnel and facilities planners to share information about learning environment design. In 2012, as the group investigated how to share assets, its leaders engaged in a proof-of-concept solution using ARTstor's Shared Shelf media management software, which enables schools to manage and publish their institutional and faculty media collections within their institution or publicly on the Web.

The group built the FLEXspace database with taxonomies for three main areas:

  • Technology integration, to appeal to the instructional support professionals who select, install and maintain technology in the spaces.

  • Facilities integration, to appeal to architects and those charged with space planning and design.

  • Learning/assessment, to appeal to faculty and academics researching suitability of spaces and interested in measuring the impact.

One goal of FLEXspace is to help broaden the community of interest and allow people to more easily share their perspectives, according to Lisa Stephens, senior strategist in the Academic Innovation, Academic Technology and Information Services Office of the SUNY Provost. Too many decisions are made through the lens of facility people who have no opportunity to talk with faculty, she explained, and the faculty members don't talk to the tech integration people. "We have these three domains and this gives us an opportunity to look at content under one umbrella and to see the perspectives and challenges that the others face. This will help us find our priorities together."

The FLEXspace team demonstrated the concept at several industry gatherings, including meetings of the Consortium of College and University Media Centers (CCUMC) in October 2012 and the New Media Consortium in January 2013, and received an enthusiastic response. It soon became apparent that interest in the project extended far beyond SUNY.

As the project added some new players, the SUNY team morphed into a "core team" of collaborators representing national organizations, with Stephens as the overall project lead. Other core team members include:

The core team is serving as an interim board of directors, Stephens said, with an understanding that at some point, FLEXspace will require full-time "care and feeding," either as a stand-alone nonprofit or absorbed into one of the founding institutional organizations to ensure that it remains non-commercial and open.

"One of the things we struggled with early on in the project is the very definition of an innovative space," noted Foothill-De Anza's Moreau. One institutions' definition of a successful learning space may not match another school's preference. The team considered having an editorial board review submissions, but thought that would not be the most collegial approach. Instead, they took a beat from the MERLOT collection of open educational resources and implemented an element of peer review.

"MERLOT did a great job of creating an open environment to contribute learning objects that people believe have value," said Moreau. "If you would like peer feedback, you rely on discipline experts to weigh in. So we decided with FLEXspace any college could contribute what they think is noteworthy. Then knowledgeable peers -- at the request of the contributor -- review that design." MERLOT will be actively engaged in designing the peer review process for FLEXspace. Users will be able to opt to search the database for only the peer-reviewed sites, or only those with LSRS scores.

Moreau explained how FLEXspace will benefit a community college district such as Foothill De Anza: "We are planning to rehab quite a few classroom buildings. As we go through classroom redesign, our faculty and administrators don't necessarily have the experience to describe how an innovative classroom should look. FLEXspace would allow us to look at a repertoire of examples. First, we can ask ourselves how we want to engage students differently. Once we share that input with facilities teams and architects, we can go to the FLEXspace repository and look at 20 really good designs that other schools have already executed. That might help us articulate what we mean when we say we want it to be 'innovative' or 'flexible.'" A science professor, for instance, could search the database for designs that have been used to facilitate small group work in chemistry and find examples of that, he said.

Last year, the FLEXspace group created a business plan and began soliciting a small group of non-competing sponsors to help launch and sustain the project, noted Stephens. "Our idea is to have six founding sponsors -- perhaps one company each in lecture capture, furniture and touchscreens, for example." The sponsorship model requires a careful balance: Universities have made it clear that they don't want to be "pitched to" or have their data collected in a manner that would make them targets of commercial inquiry, Stephens pointed out. But potential sponsors want to showcase their solutions to inspire institutions to consider their products and services. Sponsors also don't want to be at a competitive disadvantage by having purchase pricing detailed -- so any budget information from individual institutions is placed at a very high aggregate level. Institutional contact information is provided for anyone who wants to ask a specific question about a space.

"We're confident that the beta rollout has effectively struck that balance," Stephens said.

While sponsors have shown interest in signing on with FLEXspace, it has taken some time for the development team to figure out how to handle them because that is not the group's core competency and the database was not set up to meet the needs of advertisers, said Moreau. "But we want to get beyond FLEXspace being just the work of volunteers. We want it to outlive our enthusiasm and avoid any possibility of it just petering out."

The plans are for more beta testing of FLEXspace this spring, with a Version 1.0 rollout by July 2014.

Both Stephens and Moreau stressed that the support of the Educause Learning Initiative has lent the project credibility. And indeed, ELI's Brown is working closely with both the FLEXspace and LSRS groups.

Brown said that although there is currently a lot of attention being paid to online education, universities still have a keen focus on the physical classroom. "They are putting a lot of money into renovating spaces," he added. "The question is can we use these projects to help them do a better job."

When you are considering building or rehabbing spaces, the first thing you want to do is see what others have done, he said. "It can be time-consuming and difficult to schedule a group visit. FLEXspace allows you to get views of a space and it helps expedite the flow of information."

Learning Space Rating System

With the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) green-building rating system as its model, the LSRS forms the basis for a rating system that will allow institutions to benchmark their environments against best practices in higher education. The LSRS provides a scoring system to serve as an indicator of how well a classroom's design serves the goal of active learning. Preliminary versions of the LSRS measure formal learning spaces, but future versions will include informal spaces and more specialized spaces.

"LEED grew steadily and became more sophisticated and then branched out," noted Brown. "We hope to follow that model. We are eager to get community input to see whether we are close. The reviewers will tell us."

Early on, the LSRS team realized that when making a case for more innovative learning spaces at a university, having some kind of objective, third-party standards would be invaluable. "Otherwise you have a bunch of competing internal guidelines and no ability to compare or benchmark across institutions," pointed out Stanford's Holeton. A rating system can help campuses better understand their own spaces, identify lower- or higher-performing spaces in their own portfolio and compare them to others, he added.

"We are interested in enabling conversations within our own institutions and also conversations across institutions," said Holeton, who has co-led the Educause Learning Space Design Constituent Group since 2009 and has been actively involved in the design of LSRS. "In these conversations, when we are talking about active learning strategies, we want to have a better idea of how that translates into physical spaces."

A beta LSRS tool was released in July 2013. Six sections cover everything from technology tools and environmental features to integration with a campus's strategic plan. Under LSRS's Layout and Furnishings section, for instance, examples of criteria to be rated include versatile spaces with "no front of the room" and seating that is comfortable, movable and durable with sufficient work area per seat.

Both informal feedback and some formal reviews by universities, including the University of California-Berkeley, will be presented at conferences early this year. The LSRS team will evaluate that feedback and build it into version 1.0, to be released sometime in the summer of 2014.

One LSRS team member who has experimented with the tool is Joseph Cevetello, director of learning environments, technology-enhanced learning, and assistant professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California. Because he is one of the few university executives to have a job title dedicated to the design and support of learning environments, this project had a nice synchronicity with USC's approach, he said.

"At USC, we are four-and-a-half years into reimagining our learning spaces," Cevetello said. "We think LSRS will help us assess spaces we've created. We have conducted thousands of students and faculty surveys, and the lexicon in LSRS helped us shape the wording of those."

He noted that working with a draft of the rating system showed USC planners some things about campus spaces they hadn't seen before. For instance, they studied two or three types of furniture and how people defined their space needs. Based on the definitions created in LSRS, the planners found that students actually wanted more space than faculty did.

Holeton and Cevetello agreed that LSRS could become valuable as a marketing tool for universities that have devoted considerable resources to rehabbing classroom spaces -- prospective students could use the tool to help them decide which university to attend.

"I hope students would use the tool," Cevetello said. "One of the drivers of our changes at USC was that our learning spaces were not up to 21st-century standards. And we learned that from prospective students who told us their high schools were more sophisticated in that sense. That led us to devote substantial resources to renovate 220 learning spaces with furniture and technology. Why? To attract better students."

LSRS could also help Cevetello make the case for continued improvements. "If Stanford has 12 platinum spaces and five gold, and USC has only seven platinum and four gold, I want to use that in a competitive sense to convince our administrators that we have to keep up," he said.

Moving Forward Together

Leaders of the FLEXspace and LSRS projects all say there is potential for synergy between the two. One obvious step would be to have an LSRS rating as one field in the FLEXspace database. "There may be ways they can come together and it is not impossible that they would merge later," ELI's Brown said, "but first they have to get momentum."

Both Stephens and Moreau described being excited that the work started at SUNY drew enough attention to take the FLEXspace project to a national level. "As part of the initial phase we did due diligence to see if there was already anything like this already in existence," Moreau remembered. "We didn't want to reinvent the wheel. But when we asked people at SCUP and CCUMC and MERLOT, they all said ‘No, but if you build it we'd love to partner with you.' So all those people later became our core team. As we got a proof of concept together, they were excited to participate and it was no struggle to get more people involved. It really hit a nerve."

Stephens said it is without a doubt the most dedicated group of people she's worked with. "We're all very committed to a positive outcome, and I suspect that for all of us it's a tad personal because we believe so strongly in the value of this effort."

"There is a hunger for this," Brown added, "because there is a lot at stake financially and it has a major impact on our core mission: teaching and learning."

For More Information

The FLEXspace website includes short demo videos and instructions for requesting account access:

The LSRS site offers a way to download the beta version and the scoresheet as well as a space to offer feedback.

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