Once again, I’ve discovered the obvious. Learning spaces matter. The space instructors and students have to work in affects the learning process.
When I was a new faculty member, I assumed classrooms came in three sizes: Large lecture halls, medium classrooms, both of which had desks organized in static rows, and small seminar rooms, where chairs were typically arranged around a table. Since nearly all teaching was lecturing, I didn’t really think much about the spaces, which I assumed were driven by the class enrollment. More and more, as I branch out beyond the lecture paradigm, I’ve found that space and the configuration of furniture, boards and IT equipment, has a clear impact on the learning that takes place. Just to give a simple example, as we ask students to take more responsibility for the learning environment, we need to be able to quickly and easily, put them in a part of the class where the attention can be on them as they direct our activities. Often times, expecting them to teach from their seats, or even to take the instructor’s podium is not ideal. Similarly, when we form groups the ability to move around and find seats and workspaces for the groups can be facilitated or not by the classroom design.
Recently, I participated in a full day workshop, on a very interesting topic with a well qualified guest speaker. Unfortunately, the audience was much larger than the room could hold reasonably. While there were almost enough desks, the fact that one had to turn sideways at times to negotiate the aisles meant that we were in each others’ laps. Add to that that the air conditioning didn’t work well so that the room was excessively warm and that the data projector was essentially jury rigged so that at times the speaker was blocking the screen, and you get a sense of why the experience could have been better.
While I was uncomfortable, that’s only part of the issue. The heat and close quarters made it hard to follow everything the speaker was saying since the side comments were very audible. Then when we attempted group activities it was somewhere between difficult and impossible to accomplish our task.
I noticed the other day that I have a course scheduled for the Fall in a room with substandard IT equipment and long tables that make it difficult to move around the room. I’m not looking forward to this. The last time I used that room I found myself truncating or omitting activities I typically teach with in better spaces.
Maybe administrators need to put a little more thought into the learning spaces they assign us, relying less on the official capacity numbers (e.g. 52 in Monroe 102) and more on what each course requires.