C-Level View | Feature

FLEXspace: From Learning Space Examples, to Planning and Assessment Tools and a Research Community

A Q&A with Lisa Stephens and Rebecca Frazee

FLEXspace, the Flexible Learning Environments eXchange, has changed over time, starting out in 2013 as a great place to showcase and exemplify learning spaces, then rapidly growing to include a comprehensive toolset for planning and assessing these spaces, and now connecting a vibrant research community. Here, CT gets an update from two FLEXspace.org pioneers.

Mary Grush: As education design strategists and FLEXspace project leaders, you've guided FLEXspace.org since its beginnings in 2013. What's the best part of its growth, and how is this being recognized? [Above: The Learning Glass at San Diego State University]

Lisa Stephens: FLEXspace is expanding in so many areas that it's hard to know where to start to talk about this. Let's begin with a recent example. We're excited that EDUCAUSE invited us to offer a full-day planning workshop this past October to describe "Tools, Traits, and Teams: Planning and Assessing Effective Learning Spaces." The title goes a long way to illustrate what we are known for now: articulating a pathway for people to ideate, plan, document, and execute learning spaces.

Grush: How do planning teams start on that pathway?

Stephens: It begins with conversations on campus to prioritize projects — maybe it's just looking at spaces within a building, or trying to specify space requirements within a department or school. Or maybe it's modernizing an entire campus.

Next, planners are able to use EDUCAUSE's Learning Space Rating System to assess existing spaces in terms of their potential to support active learning — by quantifying organizational factors as well as attributes of the spaces themselves. They can use FLEXspace to gather all the documentation in one central location, including images, descriptions, and tags, plus the LSRS scores. Then, each team member can search FLEXspace to find relevant examples through the lens of their own expertise — simply have everyone get an account, and turn them loose!

Grush: What do the team members learn from exploring FLEXspace examples? How do they bring that knowledge back to benefit the team?

Stephens: Each member looks, from their own perspective — facilities planner, faculty consultant, AV/IT integrator, librarian — at examples of learning spaces, based on what they need. Then the magic happens: Most often, we find that different team members, looking individually at an array of examples from different points of view, end up "liking" or flagging many of the same spaces as their favorites.

This activity tends to remove any focus on budget concerns or discipline-specific needs. Team members with different backgrounds and roles can ask each other why they each picked the same learning space example — this really opens up extraordinary, useful discussions that move the planning process ahead. The team as a whole focuses on the needs of the learner regardless of department or discipline. [Below: The Fab Lab at Georgia State University]

Grush: What is the role of faculty on the teams? Faculty ultimately determine how learning spaces are actually used, even though in many cases the learning spaces were planned by other stakeholders, maybe with the input of just a few faculty consultants. Will FLEXspace ultimately draw in more faculty users?

Stephens: It's critical that faculty drive the conversation. But we often hear from our colleagues across the country and globally that in these types of planning processes, faculty are typically in a consulting role.

It also depends on who is funding the initiative. If it is a campus-wide initiative, this would be different than a departmental project. And in some cases you might have a donor who wants to be included in some of the planning.

Rebecca Frazee: At this point, the people who are coming to FLEXspace as part of the planning team are typically those who are charged with the design-build-renovation process. So that's not often the faculty member. But people from the academic technology group, academic and library deans, and others, along with the faculty consultants, do have input that represents the academic side of the house and serves as the voice of the end users.

Grush: How can FLEXspace benefit faculty? Will this change going forward?

Frazee: More often, we're hearing from faculty that they are looking for a role in FLEXspace as end users — after the spaces have been designed and built — to help them leverage and maximize their use of these new, innovative learning spaces. They are asking: "If this is a flexible classroom that's built for active learning, what am I supposed to do when I'm teaching in this classroom? How can I create activities that really leverage the technology and the flexible furnishings?" [Below: The Learning Commons at Muhlenberg College]

We anticipate that more faculty will join FLEXspace as it continues to grow, especially when in addition to uploading examples of spaces, instructors and campus staff charged with faculty development can openly share instructor support materials, learning and assessment resources, and evaluation tools.

Grush: Will it be possible for FLEXspace to help faculty innovate?

Stephens: Yes, I think so — especially by connecting them with each other as a community, exposing them to what's possible, and by making them aware of the research spawned by those types of faculty connections, along with research conducted on the spaces themselves.

Grush: Is FLEXspace itself generating data that might be useful for the community?

Stephens: Yes, we have basic usage and membership data now, and once the development is complete, we can pull even more useful metrics from FLEXspace. We can see, for example, how people in specific roles are searching, viewing, liking, and sharing specific types of spaces. This can be very useful from a trends perspective, to help find out and inform the community about what kind of work is being done out there.

Grush: Do you see FLEXspace developing a bit more along the lines of a research community?

Frazee: Definitely, and there is plenty of evidence for that: The portal has a roadmap with a phased development approach. Notice that before June of this year, the collection was "frozen" so people could only view spaces. In 2018 we rolled out the feature that allows FLEXspace users themselves to easily upload information on their own spaces, boosting collaboration and sharing.

Coming next is the feature called "toolkit", which allows the sharing of information that Lisa just described in terms of metrics, plus other research information such as white papers, research protocols, research findings, tools, and strategies.

Another thing that's going to enable faculty to connect as a research community, is our building out of the community forum. The community feature has been live for some time in our portal, but our buildout is going to make connections more robust, which will support both the practitioner and the research community.

And coming soon is our ability to create curated "galleries" of spaces and toolkit resources. This will enable our core team of advisors and experts to help bridge research and practice — creating galleries of 'recommended' resources or designs, for instance.

Grush: What is one of the most impactful features of FLEXspace?

Stephens: One of the best is our mobile-ready platform. Anyone can walk into a space and take a series of photos on their mobile device, upload those photos immediately (assuming they have an account), and start tagging the attributes of that room.

Frazee: The mobile-ready platform definitely supports collaboration within and among teams, and helps the community and the collection grow. As a user, you can access the entire collection and community from a mobile device, and you can upload your own space quickly with our new, easy-to-use "create a space" template. This not only makes it easy to upload; it also makes it easy to tag the space with attributes that will be consistent with other FLEXspace users.

Stephens: Over time we have remained consistent with our stakeholder groups. This means that with the mobile-ready platform, everyone can research what's important to them in the collection.

Frazee: Another feature that has tremendous impact is the ability to 'add collaborators' who can help you co-edit the space details. For instance, you might have the facilities specialist add details about room size, ceiling, flooring, electrical, and so on. Faculty members who teach in the space could share examples of learning activities, approaches, and research. Members of the learning space design team could add details about all the technology and furniture as well as the rationale behind their design choices. These new 'team collaboration' capabilities are truly game-changers: They advance FLEXspace even further towards the vision to be an open resource created 'by educators, for educators.'

Grush: Does FLEXspace have partnerships with academic institutions, companies, or other organizations — who are its partners?

Stephens: We are thrilled about our alliances with several professional organizations and initiatives including CCUMC, the EDUCAUSE ECAR and ELI groups, AVIXA, UBTech, SCUP, the Coalition for Networked Information, the Learning Spaces Collaboratory, and more recently our friends from the K-12 community in the ISTE learning spaces network. [Above: Flagler Schools - Connect Bus]

And we couldn't have come this far without industry sponsors that helped launch us — especially Herman Miller, along with Computer Comforts, Shaw Contract, AvinEd, AVI-SPL, Mediasite, Wolfvision, Crestron, and Xennial Digital. We're very proud that sponsors have found value in this collection and stepped up to keep this valuable resource free to educators. We have set aside parts of the portal to enable them to describe tools and services that may be useful to people using the collection for space planning.

But it's primarily been the SUNY and California State University systems that have recognized the cost-saving value in supporting this collaboration. And we're excited to announce that just this past week, Penn State University indicated that it will be joining the system sponsorship as well. [Below: The Immersive Experience Lab (IMEX) at Penn State University]

Grush: Could our readers explore FLEXspace themselves, or even describe and upload their own learning spaces? How can they do that?

Frazee: I encourage anyone reading this article to visit FLEXspace.org to get an account, then log in to browse and search spaces — experience your own virtual field trip! Then, try the 'create a space' template and see how easy it is to upload a space from your own campus. (Hint: You can keep it private until you're ready to publish it to the community.)

You can also help us spread the word about FLEXspace and grow the collection. If you see great examples of learning spaces at a conference or from a personal visit, encourage those campuses to share them with the FLEXspace community. Finally, give us feedback — we love to hear from FLEXspace users about spaces, toolkit resources, galleries, or new features you'd like to see. Help us grow even more!

[Editor's note: Images courtesy FLEXspace.org under a Creative Commons license]

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