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Rethinking Classroom Design Guidelines

The guiding principles of classroom design are changing. New models for small to medium classrooms, coupled with ever-shifting educational technology practices, are requiring guidelines serve to foster more detailed discussions of cost benefit, longer term planning, and overall classroom design goals.

Classroom Design Guidelines or standards are commonly developed by colleges and universities. They serve at least four important functions within the academic environment: to help focus and guide initial planning discussions for users and design professionals; to avoid reinventing the wheel for each new construction or renovation project; to standardize the inventory of classrooms by size and capabilities; and to guide architects and engineers in the detailed design of key elements of learning spaces in order to ensure optimization for lighting, acoustics, and educational technology.

Guidelines generally are based on specific room envelopes and take into account that seating capacities in any given space are contingent on furniture arrangements deployed. Most guidelines are based on achieving efficiencies in terms of floor space and ceiling height, the goal being to accommodate the largest number of students comfortably in the least amount of space. Increasing room size or ceiling height ultimately increases the cost of building construction, and, therefore, standards suggest allocating minimum rather than generous amounts of space.

Traditionally, classroom design guidelines, as a general rule, are based on key assumptions.

  • Furniture arrangements consist of rows of movable table arm chairs or long tables and chairs in flat floor rooms, fixed table arm chairs, or fixed tables and chairs in larger sloped or tiered floor rooms.
  • The room has an orientation that includes an obvious "front," suggested by the location of the writing and/or projection surface.
  • The instructor's fixed workstation is typically located toward the front of the room.
  • Elements of educational technology are identified, with varying degrees of guidance about required infrastructure. These include projection screens, ceiling mounted video projectors, voice amplification systems, etc.
  • Often an enhanced classroom type is identified and is equipped with more sophisticated technology, a second video projector, video conferencing for distance learning, etc.

In the last decade, much has changed in the way classroom-based learning is accomplished. As a result, there is a need to take a fresh look at classroom guidelines.

Studio Classrooms
One important teaching trend is moving the instructor away from their didactic role as sage-at-the-stage to one of active facilitator. In this model of problems-based learning, students work in groups, at shared work surfaces, with chairs on wheels. Tables, which may also be on wheels, can be reoriented to allow for different workgroup methodologies. The instructor moves about the room interacting with different groups, offering suggestions and guidance. This so-called studio classroom configuration may accommodate as few as 25 students or as many as 100.

Studio Classrooms necessitate a rethinking about how classrooms should be designed. Perhaps the most important is the fact that these rooms have no formal centralized "front." Each work group has its own visual focal point, with access to a wall-mounted writing surface, and perhaps even a local large screen (flat panel or projection) video display allocated for their use.

Moreover, given that the instructor moves around, there is no need for a formal instructor's workstation, at least in the traditional sense, though there may be a need for a fixed or portable master control panel to control some of the technology in the room.

Notions about the use of educational technology also need to be revised, in at least two ways. First, visual display must now be distributed around the room. Second, it is likely that the students themselves will need to utilize and control the technology, as much or more than the instructor.

Clearly, going forward, large tiered or sloped floor lecture halls will continue to be necessary and should be furnished as requirements dictate. However, the notion of guidelines for medium to large flat-floor classrooms should consider not only those modeled along traditional parameters but aso those modeled on studio classroom characteristics.

Basebuilding Infrastructure
Most classroom guidelines identify a complement of multimedia equipment, projectors, flat panels, smart boards, control panels, computers, video players, etc. Comprehensive guidelines may even furnish detailed electrical drawings and mounting details to help make the integration process more efficient. In almost every case, the guidelines fail to take into account the evolutionary nature of how educational technology is used, updated, and integrated over time.

Best practice in classroom design recognizes the notion that teachers will expand or change how they use technology over time. This occurs not because of dramatic paradigm shifts in the equipment itself but because teaching pedagogy is evolving and because younger teachers are more comfortable using complex technology. Smart classroom technology planners think in terms of equipment implementation in short-, mid-, and long-term timelines. They know that although there may be severe restrictions placed on funding for equipment for use on day 1, additional funds for equipment may become eventually available, especially over the longer term.

Smart classroom designers always include additional infrastructure to accommodate future equipment. This may include power, conduit, and structural support for a second ceiling mounted projector, for wall mounted flat panel displays, for video origination cameras, accommodation for multiple laptop computers, etc.

The key point is this: classroom guidelines need to incorporate the same short-, medium-, and long-term equipment accommodation strategy and make sure that the necessary basebuilding infrastructure is incorporated within the bricks and mortar of every new classroom. While it is true that there is a marginal increase in cost for the infrastructure, it is usually a tiny portion of overall construction cost.

Classroom guidelines should do more than just serve to make more efficient the classroom planning process. They should also serve to foster more detailed discussions of cost benefit, longer term planning, and overall classroom design goals.

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