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Higher Education Design Trends

07.31.14 / Jennifer Gregoire

How do students learn?  Where does learning happen?  How is content delivered and shared?  What do the answers to these questions mean and what are the implications on the space these activities inhabit? 

As Architects and Interior Designers, we have to stay on top of changes in educational trends so that we can not only design for the current classroom needs but also allow for the evolution of pedagogy and thus the evolution of the classroom, what it looks like and how it functions. 

Today we examine top five trends in educational design:

1. Flexible Learning Environments

Pedagogy is changing, technology is changing and schools are changing.  All this change means the classroom is undergoing an evolution.  In the mist of this evolution flexibility becomes the key factor to allow for change to occur.  

Flexibility can be built into a classroom by allowing for multiple teaching walls in one room, selecting the proper furniture and by providing appropriate supply of power and data.  Designing in these items allows for the classroom configuration to change from semester to semester or even from one class to the next.  The easier things are to change the more often the change will occur.  Instead of locking instructors and students into one classroom configuration this built-in flexibility allows them to reconfigure the classroom as they need to better support learning.  Properly designed a single classroom can serve as a traditional lecture classroom, an active classroom and even a group project room.  If the proper components are in place all that is needed is a simple and quick furniture rearrangement.  The classroom then becomes the facilitator of learning rather than the barrier. 

2. Active Learning Classrooms

A shift in teaching has occurred putting less emphasis on lecture style learning and more emphasis on small group and project based learning.  This shift has resulted in a change in classroom design from the traditional layout with the teacher up front and inflexible furniture positioned in forward facing rows to a more collaborative and active classroom layout. 

Active classrooms are technology rich and student focused.  This style of classroom is set-up with students clustered in groups around large screens where everyone can see the content that is being discussed and the sightlines in the classroom are greatly improved. Improved sightlines allow for greater interaction between students because now everyone can be seen and be part of the discussion.  A more open classroom design also allows for the instructor to interact more directly with each group, further enhancing the learning experience. 


3. Collaboration Space

Learning is no longer a static experience that happens when people sit in rows facing forward in a traditional classroom.  Learning happens when people connect and those connections can and do happen everywhere.  Facilitating this means examining circulation patterns and understanding spatial adjacencies to determine the appropriate size and location for collaboration spaces.

Identifying these natural collision zones where people and ideas come together, allows us to then design the spaces, where students can connect and share their ideas outside the classroom.  With a mixture of team rooms, lounge spaces, tables and chairs, interactive screens and furniture with “plug and play” power and data ports that allow for devices to be utilized as part of this informal sharing of information we can create rich environments that promote peer-to-peer learning. 


4. Technology Integration

Today’s students are digital natives; they utilize technology to empower their learning experience.  Designing classroom spaces that take advantage of this and adapt to changes in technology is the challenge of the 21st century educational environment.  Just as we are designing flexible spaces we are also designing for flexible technology needs.  

Mobile devices have changed the way students receive and share content.   With students constantly connected to a device the requirement becomes a need for more accessible power.  An increased number of outlets in the classroom, mobile charging stations and furniture with power integrated in are all solutions that allow for technology to be a seamless part of the learning experience.  We cannot predict the future but be can design for it by creating the infrastructure to allow for changes in technological needs.


5. Sustainable Design

A well designed classroom goes beyond furniture layout and technology integration.  Those components are important but equally important is how the space feels.  Proper ventilation, good acoustics, quality indoor air quality and natural daylight all have a positive impact on how the classroom functions.  These elements also make up the sustainable practices that go into building design; they optimize the indoor environmental qualities and address the comfort of the student which supports learning while also providing a design that is sustainable and energy efficient. 

The boundaries of the classroom have blurred creating a time ripe for experimentation and just as the classroom is changing, these design trends will continue to change and evolve with it.  It’s critical during times of change to actively seek information, to experiment and to test assumptions to help determine which next steps are best for you and your institution.  


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