Teaching in Flexible Learning Spaces
While the 2020-21 academic year required flexibility in pedagogies and teaching practices, the same flexibility continues as instructors prepare to return to more in-person engagement with their students. Flexible learning spaces–spaces that allow for a range of teaching methods and classroom configurations–encourage adaptable pedagogies and approaches to teaching and learning. While these spaces may vary in nature, this resource offers some best practices that can be applied regardless of space.
Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Teaching in Flexible Learning Spaces. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/teaching-with-technology/teaching-online/flexible-spaces/
Flexible Learning Spaces
How can learning spaces bring students and faculty together, ensuring that the environment promotes, rather than constrains, learning? (Oblinger, 2006, p. 1.2).
Research shows that the physical environment can have a significant impact on teaching and learning. To Donna Huse, this “physical context of learning” consists of a range of elements including “the provision, location, and arrangement of furniture” and other learning resources, “the location of bodies and [their] relationship to each other,” and even the postures of instructors and students alike and the possibilities each has for movement and choice (p. 290). Through the sum and interaction of these elements, classrooms, like any physical space, shape behaviors at both physical and symbolic levels. For example, purpose-built lecture halls and Active Learning Classrooms both suggest and facilitate specific behaviors, actions, and relationships through their physical designs–though the desired learning outcomes for each may diverge. Torin Monahan (2002) uses the term built pedagogy to describe these “architectural embodiments of educational philosophies,” and research has consistently shown that “learning is optimized when the physical environment aligns with pedagogy and curriculum” (Weinstein, 1981).
Flexible learning spaces can be especially helpful in ensuring this link between classroom environments and instructors’ pedagogical goals. In their study of an Active Learning Classroom space, Melissa Rands and Ann Gansemer-Topf (2017) found that “the flexible classroom space facilitated the use of various student engagement techniques” while also “inspir[ing] instructors and students with an array of pedagogical choices” (31). While instructors may often think about their pedagogies as shaping the space (e.g.: we might ask students to assemble in small groups or in a circle), research suggests that the space itself has just as much of an impact on the pedagogical choices they make. Flexible learning spaces are thus important resources to consider–and engage–as teaching and learning shifts to new spaces on campus.
What & Why
“Spaces that are flexible, accommodating different approaches and uses, improve the odds for effective learning” (Oblinger, 2006)
Flexibility in learning spaces can be both physical (e.g.: reconfigurable room design, moveable furniture, portable technology) and abstract (e.g.: a space that can respond to changes in “demographic shifts, community needs, or policy mandates”) (Monahan, 2002, p. 1); and whether designed intentionally or not, they offer a number of benefits to both students and instructors. As Lomas and Oblinger (2006) write, “Flexibility … fosters different teaching and learning styles. Not all faculty can–or should–use the same instructional style. Pedagogies should be tailored to the subject, the learners, and the intended outcomes. Student needs and learning preferences vary as well. Spaces that are flexible, accommodating different approaches and uses, improve the odds for effective learning” (p. 5.9). Therefore, in allowing for different styles and approaches to teaching and learning in a single space, flexible learning spaces also invite exploration and discovery. These affordances converge to help “[create] a community of learners, [help] students work at their optimal level of challenge, and [encourage] students to learn holistically,” (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017, p. 29-31). Nevertheless, while they offer a host of benefits, flexible learning spaces likewise require additional thought to be successful and effective sites of learning (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017).
As Monahan (2002) explains, “generic spaces without any overt indicators for specific use require extra effort, pedagogical or otherwise, to achieve the tone or rhythm of specific uses. Individuals must invest more energy to work within these spaces, because the spaces do little work on their own” (p.2). For example, such generic spaces might require the shifting of furniture or other resources and the need to signal and/or establish norms and expectations to achieve desired learning outcomes. Both of these activities require time and forethought for successful implementation (Monahan, 2002). While the benefit of a flexible learning space is its adaptability, that same affordance requires additional attention for effective learning to happen.
It’s important to remember that people, both students and instructors, share a need for spaces that are coherent, legible, and consistent, and that spaces experienced as such can support a number of positive outcomes, including place attachment (Graetz & Golliber, 2002). In particular, research has shown that students will often “associate what they learn with where they learned it” (Gee, 2006, p. 10.5). Thus, it is unsurprising that people will often “seek out familiar places or create places with familiar attributes” (Gee, 2006, p. 10.9). At the scale of the classroom learning space, this need most commonly manifests as students choosing the same location, or even chair, for each class meeting. For instructors, this need may manifest as requiring consistent and predictable resources and inhabiting the space in a similar way in each class meeting, both in service of teaching goals. So while there is great benefit in learning space flexibility and adaptability, those same spaces require a level of consistency and stability (in resources, design, etc.) for students to learn most effectively. There are a number of considerations that can help make teaching and learning in these spaces more effective.
Physical & Material Space
Can everyone see and hear each other? Can everyone access and engage with required learning materials? Is it possible to move around in the space? Is it possible to move and reconfigure furniture as needed?
While the above research makes clear that learning space locations should remain as consistent as possible, inside of those spaces instructors have a lot of options when it comes to configuring the physical space. Indeed, one of the major benefits of flexible learning spaces are their adaptable physical resources which allow for multiple possibilities for supporting “learning behaviors and pedagogical practices for student engagement” (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017, p. 31). Research has shown in particular that “flexibility and openness [are] key attributes in promoting a community of learners, and allowing students to learn holistically” because they allow for multiple and creative opportunities for engagement in line with pedagogical goals (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017, p. 31).
Indeed, many of today’s classes require some level of collaboration and interaction amongst students and instructors. This means learning spaces need to accommodate for active engagement with and among students.
Space for people: Learning spaces “provide environments for people” (Brown & Long, 2006, p. 9.1, emphasis in original); as such, they need to be designed with people in mind.
- Seating: At a minimum, students and instructors need seating, which should also “take into account different body sizes and the long periods of time” that people will spend in the space (Van Note Chism, 2006, p. 2.6).
- Remote students: Students logging into class virtually also need a seat at the proverbial (and physical) table. In other words, the monitor or screen through which they see and can be seen by class needs to be positioned in a way that ensures they can see, hear, and engage meaningfully with the rest of the class.
- Teaching styles: Instructors should consider how their teaching goals and style will translate into the space they occupy. Different teaching styles–team-based approaches, seminar style discussions, lecture–will all be aided most effectively by different classroom arrangements and thus require flexibility across rooms.
Space for students’ learning materials and other belongings: A learning space is more than just the people in the room; instructors and students bring a range of belongings to the learning space, much of which is used to enhance the learning experience. Consideration must be given to the expectations of what people bring, and how that fits into the physical and pedagogical space instructors create.
- Teaching surfaces and materials: Though it is generally safe to assume that, at minimum, instructors need a place to put a computer or notes, beyond that, the teaching surfaces and materials required for a given class may depend upon an instructor’s pedagogical style. In a lecture-based classroom, it may be necessary to have a podium. Additionally, some instructors may wish to show or provide students with different course materials, in print or digital formats. Each of these suggest different spatial needs. Lastly, instructors require space for personal belongings, as well as laptops and other teaching aid devices.
- Learning surfaces: Like instructors, students also require surfaces in the classroom. At a minimum, students need a place for their course materials (e.g.: tablet, laptop, notebook, course texts, etc.). These minimum requirements can change depending on course expectations.
- Outlets: Because of the ubiquity of technology in the classroom, it is essential that instructors and students have access to outlets for their devices. Availability (or lack) of outlets can pattern furniture arrangement in ways that are either conducive to desired learning goals–or not.
Additional space considerations:
- Social Distancing: In the post-pandemic classroom, it’s important that there be adequate space for social distancing. At the same time, small group activities remain an essential part of the learning process. Thus, a room should allow for both social distancing and interactive engagement.
- Accessibility: As with any room, flexible learning spaces must also be assessed for their accessibility. Can all students access the space, and move freely within the space? Are course materials accessible both visually and aurally? Can the students and instructor see and hear each other easily? If not, what kinds of devices will be provided?
- Moveability: As previously discussed, different teaching and learning styles require different scales of moveability; in other words, instructors and/or students may want or need to move around the room in service of pedagogical goals. Does the space allow for adaptable and flexible pedagogies?
How will you share information and materials with students? How will students engage and participate during class time? What technologies will students be expected to bring to class, and how does the physical class space support that?
As with perhaps any learning space, one of the key considerations in flexible learning spaces is technology. Research shows that “audiovisual tools [help] students process information, [offer] multiple opportunities to revisit content in different modes, and [allow] for instructors to assess students’ understanding and for students to monitor their own learning” (Rands & Gansemer-Topf, 2017, 31). As such, it is essential that the classroom space supports a variety of audiovisual tools for student engagement.
Additionally, it is critical that flexible learning spaces can support hybrid/HyFlex course designs, where any number of students have access to the in-person class session over Zoom. In these instances, the classroom space needs to support the audio and visual needs of both in-class and remote students. The following sections highlight some of the specific considerations needed to best support a hybrid/HyFlex learning environment, as well as some of the more general concerns specific to audio and visual aids.
Are there nearby areas or spaces that might cause aural distraction? Given the size of a space, is there a prominent echo? (How) can voices carry throughout the space?
In any class, it is important that students and instructors are able to hear each other. The size and layout of a space can greatly impact this for a number of reasons.
- Minimize distractions: Visit your learning space ahead of your first class session. If there are noticeable noise distractions, consider how you might work with the arrangement of the furniture to help mitigate additional background noise or possibile visual distractions. Repositioning or re-orienting furniture and other resources could be one such intervention; additionally, room dividers (if present) can also help to block out background noise or visual distractions.
- Equip the classroom: Microphones can help enhance audio, especially in larger spaces. Microphones also aid accessibility in hybrid/HyFlex learning spaces, where there is an additional layer of distance for remote students. Similarly, speakers can better enable face-to-face students to hear from their remote peers, and also help ensure that all students can hear any sort of audio played (e.g.: videos, podcasts, etc.).
- Repeat students’ comments and questions: If teaching in a hybrid/HyFlex environment, it can be helpful to repeat face-to-face students’ comments or questions for remote students; this can be a role that students play, or one you choose to do yourself. Additionally, you may wish to verbalize questions or comments submitted using the chat feature. Check-in with your students throughout the semester to see how the audio/visual settings are working, and make changes over time as needed.
What kinds of visual aids will students need access to (e.g.: PowerPoint slides, images, documents, printed handouts, etc.)? Will you use a whiteboard or blackboard during class time? Will you ask students to collaborate in shared writing spaces (e.g.: on a whiteboard, using online collaborative documents, etc.)?
In addition to quality audio, it is critical that visual aids are likewise accessible and effective for all learners. Students need to be able to access relevant course content throughout the class. There are a number of ways that visual aids may be mobilized in a flexible learning space:
- High-Tech Options: In-class computers and projectors allow for sharing slides, photos, videos, collaborative documents, etc.
- Hybrid/HyFlex: For any hybrid/HyFlex class, a projector, screen, and in-class camera(s) are essential. Together, these allow for remote students to be active and engaged members of live class sessions. Additionally, instructors in this class modality may wish for their in-person students to have personal devices (e.g.: laptops, tablets, etc.) for breakout room activities with remote students. Thus, access to plugs (for charging devices) is likewise necessary.
- Low-Tech Options: There are also low-tech classroom tools, like whiteboards or blackboards, or even poster papers or printed materials. These tools allow instructors to visually demonstrate discussion and/or problem-solving, as well as jot down key concepts; they are likewise valuable for students to use when sharing back after group activities and exercises. If using options like these, it is essential that they are positioned or shared in such a way that all students–even those who may be joining in via Zoom–are able to see them clearly.
- Portability: Another consideration in flexible learning spaces is the portability of visual aids. This might include individual, portable whiteboards for students to work on individually or collaboratively. Additionally, portability might also mean considering the devices students bring with them to class (e.g.: laptops, tablets, etc.). In these instances, it’s important to not only set clear expectations for students, but to also consider student’s access to plugs for charging their devices and how these will factor into the class itself.
Expectations for Students
How will students engage with course materials, each other, and you, the instructor? What kinds of class activities will students be expected to participate in? How will you communicate these expectations to your students?
As with any course, it’s important to pre-plan, establish clear expectations, and to share those explicitly with students. It is also helpful to consider how the learning space itself can both support and constrain these expectations. Some recommendations include:
- If you want all students to bring devices to class (which is recommended for engagement in a hybrid/HyFlex course), you’ll want to assess how the learning space can facilitate and support that expectation. Are there enough outlets for your students? Does the space have a strong wifi connection? Are there adequate spaces for these materials?
- If all students will be collectively looking at materials in class, consider how you will share these materials. Does the room have a projector and large enough screen for all students to see? Will students need to bring individual devices to access materials electronically or will they be provided with printed materials? If you expect students to share devices or hard-copy materials, how can this be done safely?
- If you are teaching in a hybrid/HyFlex modality, consider how you might ask students to engage with provided technologies and to arrange themselves in the room so that remote students can see and hear their classmates. How will students–remote and in person–engage with each other? Where are the microphones, speakers, and cameras distributed throughout the space?
- If you want to use small group or team-based strategies, consider how the furniture and other resources in the room can help. Are the tables and chairs moveable? Can they be arranged in a way to promote safe and effective small group interactions?
Regardless of what such expectations end up looking like in your context, it’s important that they are shared with your students. Additionally, you may even partner with and include your students when making decisions about how to use a flexible learning space. Students can also be an important source of feedback for what’s working, what’s not, and how to identify and implement different solutions. After all, “learners have a legitimate perspective on what works–and what doesn’t. Finding meaningful ways to involve students in planning and evaluating space design is an effective way to ensure that space catalyzes learning” (Lomas & Oblinger, 2006, p. 5.10). Students’ inclusion in the classroom design process can ultimately impact, and enhance, their learning experience.
Strategies for Teaching in a Flexible Learning Space
While the previous section offered some important considerations for how to make a flexible learning space work most effectively, this section offers strategies for teaching in flexible learning spaces. We encourage instructors to recognize and celebrate their role as stewards of the space by actively shaping the space to meet their needs and the needs of their students (Doorley & Witthoft, 2012).
As with any new classroom environment, it’s important to plan ahead before the first class session. Visit the space to see how it is laid out, as well as what kinds of furniture and technology will be made available. While not an exact replication of the learning space, you may also be able to access photos of the space online. It’s important to note limitations of the photos available, including the extent to which they represent the exact arrangement or provision of resources, or representing the space for different use (e.g., as an event space).
Design your class sessions and determine your technological expectations with the space in mind: is the furniture moveable for in the moment rearranging? Are there enough accessible outlets if students are asked to bring devices? Where will you position yourself during class time so that all students can see and hear you? If you’re teaching a hybrid/HyFlex course, be sure to take note of the technology in the room: where are the cameras, monitors, and microphones? This will help you prepare for positioning in the classroom that invites in both in-person and remote learners.
During class is the optimal time to leverage the physical and pedagogical affordances of the flexible learning space. Depending on the specifics of the room design, you may find that small groups, team-building, or dyad learning strategies are more easily arranged. This arrangement creates an opportunity to try out new pedagogical strategies or in-class activities that may have been limited by a more traditional classroom design. For more about active learning in the classroom, see Active Learning: The Learner’s Perspective.
Flexible learning spaces also create an opportunity to talk with students about their learning environments during class. As you hear students’ feedback and learn more about their experiences, make changes over time to better align classroom resources and design with learner needs and your own pedagogical goals (Meyer et al., 2014). This practice can have a number of associated benefits. For one, leveraging flexible spaces can promote postural variation, which can aid comfort, attention, and learning. Additionally, as Monahan (2002) writes, “A design that motivate[s] students to actively re-structure educational space and practice would serve a dual-function of teaching students design awareness and design abilities in the broadest sense. Students would learn to participate in designing the (learning) structures that shape their own lives” (p. 7, emphasis added). Partnering with your students and having conversations about how the class itself is laid out can greatly impact students’ learning, while also helping to develop their skills around articulating the “structures that shape their lives.”
As is true for any class space, learning can extend beyond the physical classroom. Consider how you might leverage your online, asynchronous spaces (like CourseWorks) in support of your pedagogical goals. This might be a space where students continue to collaborate and work in small groups, or you might ask students to participate individually on discussion boards. No matter how you choose to leverage this space, consider it an extension of the flexible learning space; at the same time, your online, asynchronous space can open up new opportunities for learning. Lastly, it’s important to partner with your students and get feedback on what’s working (and not working) in the class. This can be done through informal check-ins, during office hours, or with a more formalized course survey. For ideas on how to solicit and make sense of student feedback, see the CTL’s Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback resource.
Resources & References
- Active Learning: The Learner’s Perspective
- Collaborative Learning Online
- Community Building in Online and Hybrid (HyFlex) Courses
- Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback
- Five Tips for Hybrid/HyFlex Teaching with All Learners in Mind
- Hybrid/HyFlex Teaching & Learning
- Learning Through Synchronous and Asynchronous Discussion
- Supporting HyFlex / Hybrid Courses: A Resource for Course and Teaching Assistants
Doorley, S. & Witthoft, S. (2012). Make Space: How to Set the Stage for Creative Collaboration. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Gee, L. (2006) Human-centered design guidelines. In D.G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning spaces (pp.10.1-10.13). EDUCAUSE.
Graetz, K. A. & Goliber, M. J. (2002). Designing collaborative learning places: Psychological foundations and new frontiers. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 92, 13-22.
Lomas, C. & Oblinger, D. G. (2006) Student practices and their impact on learning spaces. In
D.G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning spaces (pp. 5.1-5.11). EDUCAUSE.
Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Monahan, T. (2002) Flexible space & built pedagogy: Emerging IT embodiments. Inventio, 4(1),1-19.
Oblinger, D.G. (2006) Space as a change agent. In D.G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning spaces (pp.1.1-1.4). EDUCAUSE.
Van Note Chism, N. (2006). Challenging traditional assumptions and rethinking learning spaces. In D.G. Oblinger (Ed.), Learning spaces (pp. 2.1-2.12). EDUCAUSE.
Weinstein, C.S. (1981). Classroom design as an external condition for learning. Educational Technology, 21, 12-19.
The CTL researches and experiments.
The Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning provides an array of resources and tools for instructional activities.