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learning-spaces

How to plan and create true flexible learning spaces


In a blended learning world, learning spaces need to adapt

Teachers who are moving to a blended learning paradigm soon realize that their traditional physical “classrooms” need modification. In most cases, traditional furniture in a traditional room with a whiteboard at the front doesn’t support any of the blended learning models.

This can produce a loss of momentum and enthusiasm as the teacher struggles to find a solution. Teachers who are implementing blended learning have to “mark time,” get frustrated or attempt to “get by” with what is available while flexible learning spaces are designed and built.

Thus, an organization that is moving to a blended learning model needs to be aware of a number of important planning, design and timing aspects of flexible learning environments. Some of the areas that need consideration are covered in this article. A radar graph is provided to allow an organization to determine its understanding of and commitment to the changes that are needed. (Other aspects of an organization wide move to blended learning, namely infrastructure, leadership, mindset, and organizational staffing structure, are outlined in previous articles in this series.)

Graph 1 Peter West Flexible Learning Spaces

While reading these points, rate your organization’s readiness on a scale of 1 (Poor) to 5 (Excellent) on each of these points.

Next page: A planning outline for creating flexible spaces

  1. Understanding that blended learning requires modified physical spaces
    1. There are a number of blended learning models. A traditional classroom layout, with the teacher at the front of the room and student desks arranged in rows, doesn’t really support these.
    2. While student desks can be rearranged in a traditional classroom, more flexibility and space is often needed.
    3. Even when student desks can be rearranged, traditional desks may not be the best option. Providing alternatives may be necessary.
    4. The new spaces can be created by:
      1. reshaping and refurnishing (This is the least costly option but don’t underestimate the cost of suitable furniture.)
      2. renovating (Heed the warning from people who have renovated their homes – you never know what you will find.)
      3. building new spaces (the ideal solution despite the disruption and cost).collaboration-space
  1. Understanding that flexible learning spaces (FLS) need to be built before blended learning is implemented.
    1. Leadership needs to recognize that flexible learning spaces need to be created while developing other components of blended learning.
    2. Ideally, the spaces should be built ready for use once the move to blended learning has started.
    3. Waiting until staff begin implementing blended learning before changing existing physical spaces or creating new flexible learning spaces can create problems. It can create frustration for staff who have put significant time and effort into creating resources to support blended learning, and who have invested time into professional development.
    4. Just because you create the spaces does not mean they will be used effectively for blended learning. However, if you don’t build them you are giving staff an excuse for not making progress. The spaces are just one part of the move to blended learning. Extensive support and professional development are also required.
  2. Financial commitment
    1. Creating flexible learning spaces to support blended learning costs money. The amount of money varies as noted above, but it must be sufficient to confirm to staff that the leadership is really committed to change.
    2. In other words, is the organization prepared to put their “money where their mouth is”?
  3. Design support
    1. Developing these types of spaces should not be ad hoc.
    2. There is research available in this area. It should be used.
        1. ArchitectureAU has a website that showcases innovative designs
        2. Western Sydney University also does work in this area
        3. Associate Professor Ken Fisher from the University of Melbourne is a leader in this field.
        4. No doubt there are leaders in this field in most countries. Some would be happy to provide advice.
    3. There are organizations that specialize in designing these spaces. Finding the “right” architects and specialist suppliers enhances the probability of success.Visits to schools or universities that have started down this path are useful.
  1. Professional development
    1. Staff should be supported in the transition to using these types of spaces.
    2. Having professional development on the effective implementation of blended learning using flexible learning spaces is vital.
    3. Find specialists who can model the use of these spaces. (There are some useful courses online that highlight schools and individuals who are successful in this area.)
  2. Timetabling
    1. Flexible learning spaces are “different”. In many cases, they are not “normal” rooms.
    2. If the flexible learning space is a teacher’s classroom and nobody else uses the room, this point may not apply. However, an organization committed to blended learning will probably also have other “non-classroom” spaces available.
    3. These spaces may be used by classes; however, they may also be “drop in centers”.
    4. Organizations need to have strategies in place to cope with all of these situations.

Once you have plotted your organization’s profile, you will have a better idea of the probability of success. The hypothetical organization on the graph below has some areas that need to be reviewed.

Graph 2 Peter West Flexible Learning Spaces

In the case of the authors’ school, the flexible learning spaces were built over a period of five years. They were also built while the online learning environment was being used to create rich courses with a range of resources, and while extensive professional development was happening.

Ideally, this development of a number of key facets in the move to blended learning should occur in a parallel fashion. While some people in the organization may not see the big picture, the leadership of the organization must be able to see how to get to the goal of blended learning even when others don’t. Once the goal has been reached, all will look back to see that the steps were “obvious”.

learning-spaces

This diagram shows the parallel development of some key components to prepare an organization for blended learning. The alternative is a staggered approach, which adds time and increases frustration.

Conclusion

Success will be determined by several factors; imagination, available space, enrollment projections and the related issue of finance, and the school’s willingness and ability to rethink its organizational design. It is sensible to assess financial capacity and available space first as this will determine whether your project will be a refurbishment, a renovation or a new build.  If no one has the imagination, then you won’t even realise you have a problem.  The toughest issue of course relates to changing pedagogy, which is a subject that has been and will be written about extensively for many years to come.

Effective flexible learning spaces are one key piece in the blended learning puzzle. It is best not to leave their design and implementation to chance.

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