One of the great challenges in modern learning space design is accommodating the shifts in technology that have come to the classroom. The pace of change is so rapid that we really have to plan for the unknown.
Perhaps the biggest question in deploying technology in the classroom is not the “what” but the “how.” Often, new devices are employed to support the same teaching methods from decades past. In a book we’ve referenced in previous posts, From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments, author David Thornburg notes that interactive whiteboards have become all the rage of late. These are wonderful and versatile tools, but when they’re used just as blackboards were – to support a teacher standing in front of a class and lecturing (the ‘campfire’) – the potential of all that new technology is diluted at best.
Thornburg also notes that many schools continue to ban classroom smartphone use by students for fear that the devices will be used to Google test answers or otherwise take shortcuts. The solution is to craft tests with answers that require independent thought and can’t be answered by an internet search, but in fairness that approach creates a much bigger demand on an educator’s already limited time, both in the creation and the grading of open-ended challenges. It’s much quicker to review multiple-choice answers than to assess the effort in independent research.
So when we don’t know what new technology the coming years will bring, and when different schools use the same technology in very different ways, where does that leave classroom design? What are the design elements that allow us to plan for the unknown?
In a word, flexibility. The same approach that allows a classroom to support different models of learning – and to quickly adapt from one to another – also supports ever-changing technology. The ideal modern learning space is a design chameleon, changing quickly to accommodate the teacher at the whiteboard, the students circled up with their smartphones to research a new assignment as a group … and whatever comes next year, and the year after that.