Friday, June 23, 2006

"no-bolts" rule for learning environments

Is it so that people who are interested in technology and virtual (learning) environments forget about the importance of the physical environment around them?

I'm continuously amazed about the old-fashioned set-up of lecture halls and class rooms, especially in the institutes of higher education. Maybe it's that I haven't spent a lot of time in higher education environments since 1999, and it just struck me how they have not changed at all. I think schools (that is my interest area) are more innovative in what comes to that (at least in Nordic countries, see the links at the end).

So sitting in the Tallinn University lecture hall (traditional set-up, see the first day pic) and in the staff room (U-shaped) the second and third day of the summer school, I was thinking that there should be a "no-blots" rule for learning environments.

"no-blots" rule for learning environments

This would mean that non of the tables, chairs or structures in the learning environments should be bolted on the floor, but they should be movable around according to learners' and teachers' needs. It is almost impossible to get good conversation going on, do any group works, or even create a good learning "ambiance" when one is stuck in a given set-up such as a traditional lecture hall or a U-shape management-level meeting room.

This made me think of Wallenberg Hall at Stanford (not that I ever got to visit it, but seen a presentation, check the link at the bottom). They call it a High Performance Learning Space. Sounds flashy, and so it is: full of expensive computers, big screens, projectors - one of the goals is “layering” of media. Other goals are:
- easy transitions from lecture to small groups to individual and back,
- ability to easily change classroom configuration
- sufficiency at multiple scales

Ok, it can all sound very expensive... Interestingly, when asked what could be done with little money, Sam Steinhardt, the executive director of Center for Innovations in Learning in Standford, gives this basic rules:
put wheels on all furniture to push them around.

This makes me also think of, ah, LMS and other institutional virtual learning environments that so many e-learning decision-makers seem to love as a single solution. These massive, do-it-all-learning environments typically depict the same idea, let's bolt everything on the floor and don't let learners to construct their own learning environments. Very top down - and nearly impossible to change.

Ok, look at the photo here (to appear soon) to see the classroom after our social software interest group: looks like some learning took place here! Chairs have been moved around, people have grouped them according their needs in pairs, pushed the ones not needed away to make more room and so on...

I'll attach here a few links on the current movement that aims to design schools that are more suitable for learning. There is one in Helsinki, Finland, in Iceland, in the Netherlands and also in Sweden, to my knowledge.

Center for Innovations in Learning in Standford:

On Hight Performance Learning Spaces:

Architecture combined with strong pedagogical ideas:

A Finnish example:

A Swedish example:

Some links to a Swiss workshop on the topic in French:

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