Learning Space Design

The Future of Learning Environments: Flexibility, Simplicity, Connectivity

Spaces4Learning recently convened a panel of ed tech experts to discuss how technology and design can help create a better learning experience for all students — and how institutions can plan, design, and assess their own vision for the classroom of the future. Our panelists were:

While the panelists represented a variety of backgrounds and institution types, they all agreed that the HyFlex (hybrid flexible) model — in which learners may choose to attend classes in-person or remotely and receive equitable instruction no matter what their participation mode — has become an essential part of the student experience. Here, they explain how the HyFlex trend has impacted classroom design, technology's role in HyFlex learning, future-proofing tech-enabled classrooms, and more.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Spaces4Learning: What are the most significant trends in classroom design today?

Craig Park: In the last few years, really because of the pandemic, many schools have been looking at HyFlex as the future of their educational model, for a couple of reasons. One is that digital native students — the Millennials, Z, and now Alpha generations that are coming into schools — are demanding flexibility in the way that they learn and looking for that mix of online and on-campus experience. And the other is the predicted decline in enrollment in the near-term future — 2025 to 2030 — because of the demographic lack of birth rate. Campuses are adjusting their model to anticipate doing farther outreach to bring students in for an online experience, to make up for enrollment that might not be coming in locally.

Teddy Murphy: When we design our rooms, the big push is for HyFlex or hybrid. On top of students who want to be flexible in their learning, we have a lot of students who have accommodations as well. So we want to provide the same or close to the same experience for those students as the students who are in the classroom. We're using a lot of beamforming microphones in our classrooms, we're doing camera tracking — presets that follow the beams of the mic. Some of the faculty still like to use whiteboards, and some of our classrooms have a whiteboard on all four walls, so we have to make sure we're capturing what they're doing on whiteboards.

We also have a major push to begin a science-focused education here and to start building a student body that's going to feed into our professional schools. Our lab spaces are getting ready to get a huge overhaul, and we're trying to integrate more flexibility there. So I get to grasp what I'm going to do to be able to give an equable HyFlex experience for a lab student — that one's going to be fairly difficult, but I'm up for a good challenge.

Lisle Waldron: The fun thing for me, coming from an out-of-the-U.S. experience, is that all of my faculty go to the same conferences as everybody else's faculty. And then they come back to me and want everything that they've seen other faculty have, but I have to do that on a budget that is seven times smaller. Our exchange rate is seven to one. I have to rely on the same beamforming microphones as everyone else — but I have to literally do one-seventh of them. How we prioritize that is one of the big questions for me.

S4L: What's the role of technology in classroom design choices?

Christopher Dechter: I'm going to throw cold water on people right now: The role of technology in classroom design is actually pretty minimal. I don't want to be misunderstood that technology is not needed. I'm just saying most spaces are over-built and don't need all the stuff they have in there.

I'm doing everything I can to get rid of stuff in my classrooms. I don't need entire racks full of stuff. I don't need data all over the room. I don't need seven cameras and 12 projectors. None of that is useful — it has limited utility — and it gets in between the instructors and the students and their content.

Everything that I can do in a modern classroom space, I can fit inside the lectern itself and it's invisible. I'll be brutally honest: The people who go in to teach and learn in those spaces every day do not care about how fancy your microphones are, how many cameras you have, or any of that stuff.

Murphy: We use a lot of technology in the stuff that I do, but I'm pretty simplistic in that you get one or two displays and I try to make it as close as possible to a one-button touch for faculty. Some of our most complained about classrooms are rooms in our optometry school that I inherited. Every one of those classrooms has 12 displays, including a mixture of projectors and 75-inch high-def displays that are supposed to be 3D, and multiple cameras — it is like the biggest conglomeration of everything that they could throw together, and it doesn't work. The faculty just want to come in, turn on a couple of the screens, and teach.

Park: On the planning side, we're trying to be more inclusive early in the conversation about what the needs are to meet the pedagogical goals of a particular program. I've made it a mantra to include you all — Lisle and Chris and Teddy — in those conversations from day one, because we shouldn't be designing things that are not standard or supportable within your resources on the campus. For the general-use classroom, what works for an English department might not work for geology, but it's a conversation that needs to be had. And the most successful projects are the ones where the faculty get engaged in how technology can better support pedagogy.

Waldron: A long time ago, on a planet far away, I commissioned a study to ask: Is our technological design learning-oriented? Or is it really just a technology box? And what I generally found is that we're doing a lot of technology box work. We had all this complex, cool stuff in single rooms. They weren't sustainable, they weren't repeatable. You could get accolades for this one room, but then there would be 100 rooms that didn't have anything done well in there. Once we got to the table of okay, where does this technology fit pedagogically in terms of supporting teaching and learning, I was able to take a Jet Blue, Southwest approach to my classrooms, where all the classrooms are effectively the same. If I have to bring an auditorium on stream tomorrow, what I need on that touch panel is what they're going to be interacting and interfacing with the most, to facilitate the broadest reach in terms of teaching and learning. So we've really worked on standardizing those things.

S4L: What do students need from technology and design to create the best HyFlex learning experience?

Dechter: In a modern, hybrid-capable space, people have to be able to see and be seen, hear and be heard, and get access to the content. One of the big things that I've been doing a lot is dedicated whiteboard cameras. I just made that part of my standard build, because it's a relatively small expense and it takes that big writable surface at the front, the side, wherever it may be in the room, and gets that into your streaming platform of choice. One thing I try to avoid doing is telling people what software they have to be using. We do not have a standardized platform on campus. If someone wants Zoom, if they want Teams, if they want Google, if they want WebEx, we will make that work. The systems are such that it's providing that standard capability to any platform, so that I am not the one defining how they have to teach in their spaces. From the student standpoint, are they on a phone? Are they on a tablet? Are they on a shared device at home? Are they on a Chromebook? Most modern platforms will support that regardless of where they are, using shared technologies like WebRTC and things like that, so it's not creating another barrier to entry for anybody.

You have to provide something that's going to be flexible, simple to use, and adaptable to whatever platform people are most comfortable with using. If you provide a system that is clunky to use and difficult for people to access, they will create their own. Students are going to bring in whatever software they are most comfortable with. They'll create a giant shared Google doc, take notes together, and share files. The reason they do that is that whatever they come up with — security be damned — is easier than whatever locked-down, managed, maintained, very expensive system that you're trying to get people to use. So don't create something like that if it creates a barrier to entry and disenfranchises people who are there to teach and learn.

Waldron: Because my school is multi-island, multi-campus, I have many instances where I have to do teaching between campuses. And we've found, in terms of student equity, it's really important to ensure that at that far site, those students do not feel as if they're in a different space. Things like that sometimes come down to something as simple as the direction that I've oriented the confidence monitor, so that when faculty are looking at the virtual space, they're also looking intentionally at their physical classroom.

We do have spaces where an abundance of technology is needed — but everything that's in the room is there intentionally. I'm not going to have a beamforming microphone array in a space where I'm not doing any hybrid instruction or campus-to-campus instruction — that's a waste of thousands of USD MSRP to get it done. Unlike Christopher's case, we've been fortunate that our faculty pretty much all use Zoom. Officially, we're open to using anything you want to teach with. But because our support team is so small, it would really not be wise for us to try to support everything. So we've said to our faculty, "We can provide you with hyper-excellent, gold-standard, global levels of support on Zoom, because we're trained, we have a good back end of support, and we have a very good relationship with the company. In theory we can do similar with Teams, because we have a really good relationship with Microsoft. This is what we can help you with. If you want to use anything else, be aware that we may not be able to give you the same kind of internal high-touch support as we would for anything else."

Right now I'm on a drive to simplify my end-user interface even more. I'm working with the technical team to see what things we can remove. The camera display with the zoom in, zoom out, up, down, left, right, 10 presets — nobody's using it. How can we simplify those things going forward? And what rules can we make to automate other processes? Those things are where I've spent a lot of my time and efforts.

Park: On the immediate horizon, we're starting to see the use of AI tools to do the some of that camera tracking pretty effectively. New technology is expensive when it's new, but over time as it gets accepted, the prices come down and it starts to become affordable.

S4L: How do you make sure faculty get the most out of the technology at their disposal?

Dechter: Remove buttons from the touch panel — that's number one. Why are there so many buttons on that thing? Keep it as absolutely simple and intuitive as possible. If faculty have four options, can you get rid of one of them and give them three options? Go work with people, and if you see them struggling on things, note when the interface is not clear. I was working in a brand-new seminar room yesterday, and I could see the department chair struggling on how to mute and unmute the microphones. The interface literally said "mute off" and "mute on," which is kind of backwards thinking. I don't want the mute off, I want the microphone on. That's just some simple UI, changing of labels. Also, make your buttons on touch panels gigantic. Big buttons that do simple things are much easier than an array of 27 little buttons.

If you write more than half a page on how to use a system, you screwed up — go back and redo it. If you have to do documentation, make it a half page or less, laminate it, and put it on the lectern, because no one's going to stand in front of 100 students and read the manual. I'm not a fan of doing these giant manuals of stuff. I still get them at the end of projects and I throw them right in the trash, because I don't need seven-inch binders that even I am never going to read. If I need to look up something, I'll look it up in a PDF and do a search.

It's all about working with faculty directly. Work through the Center for Teaching and Learning on your campus, do your open forums, do your workshops. Find out when the new faculty orientation is going on, force your way into that, and talk to them about the top five things they need to know about classroom spaces. Get in front of faculty as much as you can, be out there, be accessible, do not hide behind locked doors, do not hide behind helpdesk tickets, be visible and do everything you can to be that face of technology in their teaching spaces.

Park: I would add if you're interested in the latest thinking and the best thinking on user interface, Nielsen Norman Group is the repository for all of that.

S4L: What are the biggest considerations for future-proofing tech-enabled classrooms?

Park: I have a simple three-word answer for that: infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. That's all the things in terms of pathways and conduit and power resources that are behind the scenes, behind the walls, that allow for future connectivity. A lot of folks say, "Well, we have WiFi, and so we can connect wirelessly," but WiFi today still has some limits in terms of bandwidth and functionality, that wired helps. We've also been moving pretty quickly in the last decade toward AV over IP, allowing any device to get plugged in either through a direct network connection or a Power over Ethernet connection, which allows us to add new components over time.

Much like Chris, I advocate for only putting in what you need — but make provisions for things you can see might be applicable in the future. And I'm a big believer in benchmarking — looking at what other campuses and universities are doing, what's out in the industry. It's really about planning for how we get from A to B in the building with a piece of network cabling in the easiest fashion. I do think we're on the verge of seeing more fiber used as a distribution model. Passive optical networking is becoming more routinely used for a lot of applications — it has a lot of bandwidth functionality and security functionality that copper doesn't have, and it runs for 8 miles, so I don't need as many IDF closets in the building — but tradition-based copper cabling still is the rule. Still, the pathway from A to B or A to C to B is the same, and we need to plot those out.

Murphy: We have a fairly new building on campus that had no future planning. We don't have enough room and conduit for new cable runs, and they left us with not enough switching capacity or network switches for some new devices we're putting in. Infrastructure — I'll scream that with Craig all day long.

S4L: All of you are involved with an organization called FLEXspace, which is a wonderful repository of classroom design, contributed by colleges and universities all over the world. Could you talk a little bit about that resource?

Park: Lisa Stephens, who's at SUNY Buffalo, and Rebecca Frazee, who's at University of California, San Francisco, organized FLEXspace as, in their own term, the "Pinterest" of the best classrooms in the world. The last time I talked to them, they had 6,000 classrooms catalogued. And they're very much advocates for tying your classroom experience to the Educause Learning Space Rating System (LSRS); they have a program called FLIPP, the FLEXspace Integrated Planning Pathway, that ties the two together. Go to flexspace.org and register — it's free. You can see what's there, you can contribute your own classrooms, it's a great resource.

FLEXspace recently aligned with HETMA, the Higher Education Technology Managers Alliance, to get those voices into the classroom design conversation. And another good resource is the Educational Technology Collaborative, which tends to be more of the CIO-level members of this conversation. HETMA in particular has been very vocal about trying to get better standards, better approaches, and better results from technology planning, by being included in the conversation.