Campus Technology Spotlight

FLEXspace: Building a Community For Learning Space Design

How this repository of best practices is bringing together educators, designers, experts and decision-makers to help create innovative learning spaces around the globe.

FLEXspace — the Flexible Learning Environments eXchange — was born a decade ago out of a desire to more effectively share classroom information across a single university system. The resource has since evolved amid a growing community of higher education participating institutions, with the State University of New York and California State University systems, Penn State, and Foothill-DeAnza Community College District among its earliest supporters. And now, the FLEXspace platform is a onestop shop for detailed exemplars of learning space design all over the world, making it an invaluable tool for institutions planning new or updated spaces.

Recently, Campus Technology visited with Lisa Stephens, Senior Strategist for Academic Innovation in the Office of the SUNY Provost and Assistant Dean of the University at Buffalo School of Engineering, who has guided as its Executive Director since its inception. We asked Stephens about current and future developments in the FLEXspace platform and plans for its burgeoning community.



Campus Technology: Clearly FLEXspace is a great resource for those who are beginning new projects. What are you doing to help people get the most out of this rich tool?

Lisa Stephens: Like so many things in life, people seem to learn about FLEXspace "just in time" through word-of-mouth when their department, college, or campus starts gathering information for a new classroom build or renovation.

We strive to make the portal user-friendly for the three main groups of people who seem to need it most: facilities planners and architects; faculty, administrators, and learning space support folks; and the AV/IT integration staff. When launching the original site, we had a ton of help from friends in each of those roles, primarily from relationships built through CCUMC, AVIXA, EDUCAUSE, and SCUP — all of which really helped with making sure the terminology and key sections of the portal made sense. And in the past couple years, we've really expanded the "how to" offerings — especially when the pandemic hit. FLEXspace became an important go-to place for people to share information about sanitizing spaces, room acoustics with faculty and students masked-up, and lots of other tips and tricks for hybrid/hyflex learning environments.

CT: What are some of the resources designed specifically to help institutions get started with their planning processes?

Stephens: What has our team most excited at the moment is the creation of the FLEXspace/Learning spaces Integrated Planning Pathway — "FLIPP" for short. This iterative process was originally tried out while EDUCAUSE's Learning Space Rating System (LSRS) and FLEXspace were both under early development on a few campuses. We ultimately turned it into a step-by-step process to address the complexities of designing and building learning spaces.

In a nutshell, we recommend that once a project scope is identified — a room or rooms, a building, or even an entire campus — existing spaces can be scored using the LSRS to assess the factors that contribute to the space's potential efficacy. These LSRS scores help inform an advisory group, which can then prioritize efforts and begin using FLEXspace to benchmark and ideate from peer and aspirant campuses.

CT: Is there a productive way institutions can lay a lot of the planning ground work before bringing in outside consultants or designers?

Stephens: The objective is to get an advisory team on the same page before external consultants, vendors, or planners are brought in. It's really helpful to have everyone singing from the same music, albeit with different harmonies, on what pedagogical, facility, and budget needs are required before you start scenario-building with contractors. That's not to suggest that an advisory group should have their recommendations in place before talking with external consultants. Often times you need fresh eyes to envision solutions and add signature aesthetics. But when the core campus team of faculty, planners, and AV/IT folks are all in agreement on the basic parameters, it saves a lot of time, effort, and resources when executing a new project.

Expanding just a bit more on the FLIPP, if I may: What a gift the Learning Space Rating System has been, integrated with FLEXspace. In many ways, it's a gift of time. For example, you don't necessarily have to tie up staff time to evaluate spaces within the project scope. Spending a little time with a group of student assistants, running them through the LSRS criteria and evaluation spreadsheet should be enough.

The LSRS creators have suggested that the best use of this scoring tool is for internal benchmarking. Scores from nearly identical spaces may vary from campus to campus, but I'm pretty much convinced that they did such a good job writing the criteria that scores should hold fairly steady across institutions.

When aggregating scores across the project scope, it's easy to assume investment priority just by ranking the scores. But it's an incomplete picture to assume that low ranking rooms always need attention or upgrades before higher ranking rooms. The first step in the FLIPP process, is to ensure the campus registrar and an institutional analysis representative are included as part of the advisory team so they can report on the growth of popular program enrollment. That feedback can sway investment priorities both in terms of technology and renovation.

Once you've got the foundational LSRS data to work with, this is where your advisors shine: They can use their background discipline and expertise to search the FLEXspace collection and look for spaces with attributes that they really care about. The most rewarding part is when people with diverse points of view come back and find that many of the same spaces have gotten their attention.

CT: What are some of the best new features of FLEXspace in the past year or so?

Stephens: The shared idea boards have had a big impact. The portal is robust enough that when a group of advisors each has an account, the lead facilitator can create a shared idea board inside the portal, to which each participant can tag and add their selected spaces. It's an easy way to see who's attracted to what spaces, and it really helps kick off conversations, whether you're Zooming together or meeting in person. We suggest using some guiding questions to help clarify the value of different spaces to the group. The bottom line is that the FLIPP planning process with idea boards enables an advisory group to make recommendations to senior executive leadership with really well-grounded rationale, and team members can easily build a presentation that can be shared internally, or even externally when working with contractors through the shared collaboration tools.

CT: The ultimate success of FLEXspace is of course dependent on participation. Are you planning any new strategies to foster the FLEXspace community in terms of increased sharing?

Stephens: Obviously each campus competes for rankings and students, but the sharing ethos is grounded in wanting to better society through our combined efforts — which is what makes working in higher education so rewarding. Having recently worked through a large room renovation process, I can vouch for my colleagues' long hours and hard work and professionalism that spilled into evenings and weekends to ensure the campus could safely open this past fall. We all want our institutions to succeed.

Currently, as new spaces are added to the collection, they are displayed in upload order, so a space uploaded on Thursday will show up in front of a space uploaded the previous Tuesday. I think our user base knows this when they open the general collection, but you can also filter on recent additions as well as on a range of space attributes.

I'd like to work with our developers, our advisory board, and our FLEXspace community members, to find more prominent ways to reward the upload of spaces and toolkit resources. We planned a conference to launch an editorial board that would guide peer-based awards — "the FLEXIs" — but that rollout was delayed when the pandemic struck.

As one of our founding members has said from nearly Day One, "We need to find a way to make sure my boss understands that our campus is drawing positive attention as the result of these FLEXspace contributions." We can help by adding more data analytics features that track viewing "likes" and track trends so we can better inform research around the teaching and learning practices.

In the end, the success of FLEXspace is not just about a collection of pretty or impressive spaces — it's about how we use them in service of the students. And to achieve that, we must not only create a superb tool, but also build an ever more connected community.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of Spaces4Learning.