A Better Learning Experience

Thinking smarter about space to support classroom technology. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Sean Corcorran

CREDIT Steelcase img.jpgAs in every other enterprise, educators have discovered that using new technology to improve results can be a slow and sometimes hit-or-miss process. Educators are hampered as well by a natural divide that separates teachers, who are technology adopters, from students, who are digital natives.

For a number of years, researchers have been visiting classrooms to observe firsthand how middle school teachers to university faculty are negotiating the digital divide. They’re dedicated to learning how to support teachers on their journey to become learning coaches.

We’ve moved from dealing with disciplinary problems to dealing with satisfying students’ enthusiasm to complete their tasks.

Our own observations are influenced by new understandings of learning that show students learn best when they use a range of tools. This research encourages a multi-sensory approach to teaching and learning, something that can result in what educators call active classrooms.

We’ve seen active learning occur most often in an ecosystem where proper use of physical space can support new teaching practices and technology integration. In traditional classrooms, students are seated in fixed rows and columns, the environment suggests a “stand-and-deliver, sit-and-listen” style of passive learning. But in classrooms where seating and desks can be configured in flexible arrangements, the whole teaching and learning dynamic changes.

We know, for example, that flexible spaces give students the possibility of working in groups or on team projects. They can easily collaborate and share knowledge, enabling peer-to-peer learning. Teachers have the freedom to move around the classroom and listen to students interact, also enabling ongoing assessment and frequent interactions between teacher and student.

But just rearranging and redesigning the tables and chairs is not enough. With a product called media:scape, students can share content wirelessly and build knowledge through the simple touch of a button. With media screens built into furniture, collaboration is encouraged allowing students to participate and display what is directly on their personal device. Students can improve real-world brainstorming and communication skills. We also have integrated the classic whiteboard with the technology and interactivity of a large flat panel display in ēno to streamline learning and inspire student engagement.

Sometimes small changes can have big results. Our classroom observations tell us 73 percent of students and teachers work with three or more devices and 95 percent of colleges and universities allow mobile devices in classrooms, yet power sources are often difficult to find. So we created Thread, a user-friendly, power distribution system designed to provide learning spaces and in-between spaces with power where and when students and teachers need it.

Christine Siegel, Vice Provost and Associate VP for Academic Affairs at Fairfield University, says students today have instant access to online information from many sources, and they expect to be able to engage with that information in the classroom. “The use of mobile technology, supported by wireless connectivity and charging points throughout the room, enhances access to information and mobility for professors and students,” she says.

At Ohalo College, a teachers’ college in Katzrin, Israel, a large classroom was converted into a space that accommodates up to 120 students where three teachers can work simultaneously. It includes media:scape collaborative settings, small group settings and intimate, one-on-one spaces. “When I teach in our new learning center, I love to hear the noise,” says Shimon Amar, president of the college who also teaches. “It’s a healthy productive noise. We’ve moved from dealing with disciplinary problems to dealing with satisfying students’ enthusiasm to complete their tasks.”

Many schools are rethinking how they use their libraries, which generally house stacks of books now digitally available. At Immaculata-LaSalle High School in Miami, a 4,000 square foot library was converted to a media center, learning center and library. Book stacks decreased by about 80 percent. The reclaimed space was arranged into two media:scape settings with glass wall surrounds, each accommodating 26 people. The rooms are available for classes, student collaboration and other uses. The central area of the learning center has mobile tables with personal whiteboards and a casual space for student project teams.

Ana Garcia, an English teacher at the school, is partial to the media:scape spaces. “I love the room,” she says, “because you can have eight computers or tablets hooked up to a screen. Putting information up and down is as easy as touching a puck.”

Examples like these suggest that careful space planning can help integrate technology into the classroom in ways that create a better learning experience for both teachers and students.

Sean M. Corcorran is a business leader with more than twenty-five years’ experience in management, design, engineering, product development, and innovation consulting.  He currently serves as GM of Steelcase Education in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he is responsible for all aspects of their global business serving higher education and K-12. He joined in 2009, having previously worked as VP product development for sister company PolyVision. There he led the research and development of new education solutions including visual collaboration technologies, interactive whiteboards, and furniture for classrooms and other learning environments. Sean is an engineering alumnus of the prestigious University of California, Berkeley. 

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