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Highly Collaborative Classroom Furniture

Cutting-edge learning spaces are designed with flexibility and collaboration in mind, right down to the modular tables and chairs.

This story appeared in the November 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

This is the first article in a six-part series on the elements of a collaborative classroom: furniture, social media, video/web conferencing tools, collaborative software, interactive devices, and mobile devices.

With most universities facing tight budgets, convincing administrators to invest in expensive new classrooms is a challenge. When Monika Dressler makes the case for the University of Michigan to update its classroom furniture to foster more active learning, she realizes "it is a lot less sexy than technology like iPads. When you say furniture, eyes glaze over."

But Dressler, senior manager of instructional support services for Literature, Science, and Arts, insists change is necessary. UM has classrooms that are 45 years old. "What does it say to our prospective students when they come to campus and see 1970s classrooms?" asks Dressler.

Like many higher education officials involved in space planning, Dressler is increasingly focused on how classroom setups can enhance collaboration. "We are taking a holistic approach to get the right equipment and support for the right teacher in the right room," she says. "We want to shift the way we think so that these are no longer just facilities- or IT-driven decisions."

University staff members and faculty are particularly interested in modular furniture that can be reconfigured quickly for different group sizes and activities. Many UM faculty members have been trying to lead active-learning classes for years, but are constrained by classrooms in which the chairs have tablet arms and are nailed to the floor, all facing front. "They do it in spite of the classroom, but it tends to stifle innovation," says Dressler. "They don't get the feeling they can try new things and take it to the next level in terms of collaboration."

Classroom-Design Research
Could new, more interactive pedagogy encourage universities to replace outdated furniture? Or could the introduction of technology-rich classroom designs and modular furniture have an impact on how instructors engage their students? Instructional technology and space-planning experts have been pondering these questions for years, but research suggests that the classroom setup does indeed have an effect on instructors' habits--as well as on student participation and collaboration.

Several universities, notably North Carolina State and MIT, have researched technology-enhanced, activity-based classrooms. For five years, the University of Minnesota has been studying the impact of its 17 Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs), which are based on designs created at those two universities. ALCs feature a 360-degree glass-surface marker board; multiple flat-panel display systems; round tables that accommodate nine students each; and a central teaching station.

In one study, Minnesota researchers ran controlled experiments in which instructors taught identical sections with the same materials in two settings: a traditional lecture classroom and an ALC. "We did detailed observations of 52 variables about how the instructor interacted and how the students interacted with each other," says J.D. Walker, a research fellow in Educational Technology Services in the Office of Information Technology. "We found that, in the lecture classroom, the instructors spent more time at the podium, whereas in the ALC there was more consulting with students and more small-group discussion. There was an ineluctable effect of the space itself. In the ALC, there is no easy central point of focus."

Research in spring 2012 confirmed the earlier studies: The overall response to the ALCs from faculty and students was positive. Both groups rated the ALCs very high in terms of engagement, enrichment, flexibility, effective use, and course-room fit. In focus groups, faculty and students emphasized the ease of conducting collaborative-learning activities in the ALCs, and the usefulness of the round tables, multiple whiteboards, and display screens for collaborative work.

More significantly, the data showed that students in the new spaces exceeded final grade expectations relative to their ACT scores, suggesting that features of the technology-enhanced classrooms contributed to students' learning.

New Furniture Designs
The difficulty of conducting activity-based learning in traditional classrooms has not been lost on furniture designers. "If you want to create a learning environment, we think the right approach is to start with what you are trying to accomplish," explains Sean Corcorran, general manager of Steelcase Education Solutions, "and then choose the technology and space to support that."

Steelcase has developed classroom solutions with names such as Verb and Node to respond to the need for mobile, flexible, comfortable furniture. "We were finding support among education customers for…furniture that supports teamwork, so we put a chair on casters and added the capability to swivel 360 degrees," notes Corcorran. "That supports dialogue and a sense of community, and allows [students] to follow the conversation more easily." The Node chairs also feature a place to put a backpack, so it's not on the floor blocking movement.

Flexibility and Experimentation
The University of Michigan has experimented with several types of furniture, including piloting Steelcase's Node chairs with a dozen faculty members. "We took what we learned from that pilot and expanded on it with a variety of chair and table types, including Herman Miller furniture," Dressler says. Central to the school's strategy is the principle of flexibility. "We want faculty to be able to change the class from tables of two or four students in half-moon shapes in one class session to one giant U-shaped group the next."

UM also has a writing class using Steelcase's media:scape product, which allows students to display content from their PCs, tablets, and other devices on a single high-definition screen. The class of 24 uses four media:scapes, with six students per table. The students research and write individually, but then come into class to edit and comment on work together.

UM is not afraid to experiment. "We can bring in something we saw at a conference and try it with one or two faculty members," Dressler says, noting that her dean and provost have been very supportive. "We are also looking at changing spaces just outside classrooms to allow people to linger and talk before and after class. Just putting a few benches there can make a big difference."

Cafés and Sandboxes
In a quest to create collaborative learning spaces that promote deeper student engagement, technologists at Indiana University are putting their own spin on a venerable learning venue: the coffeehouse.

Launched in the fall of 2012, the café classroom allows teachers and students to interact in a space that is more like Starbucks than a traditional classroom, says Stacy Morrone, associate vice president for learning technologies for the university and an associate professor of educational psychology at the IU School of Education. (Morrone presented on IU's experimental classrooms in a session at the Campus Technology 2012 conference; view the session recording here.) Located in a residence hall on the Bloomington campus, the café classroom has soft furnishings, bistro-style tables, a corner sofa, and booths equipped with monitors, whiteboards, and PCs.

The room is also equipped with video cameras, giving IU researchers a window into how the café is used. "We want to see how student perceptions compare with faculty perceptions of the space, as well as how the instructor's use of the space evolves over the course of the semester," Morrone says. "Will collaborative activity evolve over the semester?" The IU team expects to publish results of the experiment in 2013.

In another test, IU has developed a classroom space that is rich in technology--a place to try new things, says Mark Russell, manager of Student Technology Centers and Learning Space Planning and Design. Situated on the Indianapolis campus, the classroom is envisioned as a sandbox where faculty and technologists can experiment with new teaching and learning models and make incremental improvements.

Last year, Russell worked with professor Jacqueline Blackwell in the School of Education on a project that involved giving each student a laptop and using a complex screen-sharing application. While the setup had many collaborative capabilities, the team found that technology can actually be a barrier if the learning curve is too great for the instructor or if it requires too much IT support.

They also discovered that when every student has a laptop, it often leads to students working independently. "We changed to one PC per table with a keyboard that reaches anywhere," Russell says. "We didn't need 25 laptops. A major lesson was not to overbuild a room. Keep it simple."

Transforming Libraries

Libraries are also rethinking how design affects collaboration--and vice versa. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point library has teamed up with the campus information technology team to create a Learning Commons environment, providing a variety of collaborative learning spaces ranging from small-group, specialized presentation rooms to larger, open spaces.

System librarian Terri Muraski, who spoke about the project at the Campus Technology 2012 conference, describes how one area of the library has been reimagined as an "Idea Studio." Converted from a former reserved-book collection area, it now serves both students and faculty as a collaborative workspace, complete with digital viewing, computer, video production, and digital projection capabilities. Featuring small tables that can be easily moved, the room is used for classes, study groups, and student organizations. Often, students work on a document together, editing on a big screen.

Other collaborative spaces were created in the Reference Room and on the library's second and fourth floors. "New presentation rooms were created to facilitate student and faculty presentation practice and production," Muraski notes.

In addition, all the group rooms on the third and fourth floors have been renovated and the technology has been updated. A "Food for Thought Café" is now front and center in the library, with furniture that enables collaborative work. "As libraries evolve, we have to look at our spaces," Muraski says, "and share responsibilities with others on campus for empowering faculty and students."

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