Improved Classrooms The Benefits of Redesigned Learning SpacesTrends are powerful—we anticipate them, we monitor them, and we use them to make proactive decisions. This is especially true for tech trends in higher education, as they influence teaching and learning experiences on college and university campuses across the globe.

Earlier this year, the New Media Consortium (NMC), in conjunction with the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, released its 13th annual trend appraisal, titled NMC Horizon Report: 2016 Higher Education Edition. The report looks ahead over the next five years and identifies the trends and technological developments that will drive educational change. One of those mid-term impact trends—that is, one we can expect to see within the next three to five years—is redesigning learning spaces.

In today’s digital landscape, reenergizing how and where students learn is crucial for educational institutions that want to stay ahead of the game. Redesigning learning spaces, then, is a logical first step, and a hot trend to watch. What’s more, teachers must learn how to adapt to these new spaces—particularly open learning spaces, which are becoming more and more popular in higher education development.

A New Kind of Learning Environment

Unlike the more authoritarian classrooms of the past, open learning typically refers to “a style of teaching involving flexibility of space, student choice of activity, richness of learning materials, integration of curriculum areas, and more individual or small-group rather than large-group instruction.”

Designers take many factors into consideration when creating an open college or university learning environment, and today’s technology plays a major role in those decisions. A case study of a school from the Bendigo Education Plan (BEP) in Australia revealed a need for greater teacher adaptability in response to the flexibility of an open learning environment.

Here’s what’s coming down the pike for students, and how educators are adjusting to the changes.

Smarter Classrooms

For students: More institutions are employing audiovisual systems in learning spaces to boost the potential for collaboration and add flexibility for students and faculty. To support the AV advances and handle multiple device usage—especially in this bring-your-own- device culture—we can expect universities to upgrade wireless bandwidth capacities to handle the demands of smarter, more connected rooms.

For teachers: Bucking the “silence your cell phone” trend, teachers are adapting to the shift toward smart learning by not only allowing students to bring devices to class but encouraging them to do so. In this way, teachers are relinquishing some of their authority to allow students to discover solutions for themselves.

New Research Hubs

For students: The research process isn’t the same as it was decades ago, thanks to mobile technology and the Internet, and traditional libraries are beginning to change as a result. The NMC study notes a controversial upswing of the removal of serial journals and books from libraries. Instead of shelving, those spaces are being replaced with study nooks, collaborative areas, and online research or e-book access points.

For teachers: Experienced teachers who expect students to use sources they can flip through find the move toward fully online research jarring. But modern educators understand today’s students do the bulk of their research online, and must, therefore, accommodate that approach.

A Focus on Collaboration

For students: By design, videoconferencing technologies enable collaboration. Learning environments of the near future will share this collaborative focus by making physical spaces more informal, student-centered, and project-focused. This approach could soon grow to include the technology and equipment to allow students to create and model objects as they work together on tasks.

For teachers: Teachers are adapting to a collaborative focus by moving away from lecture-based instruction and toward hands-on education. Now, classrooms more closely resemble the workplace, where co-workers are committed to solving problems together. The increased interaction and negotiation between teachers and students leads to a genuine partnership in education rather than a hierarchical power structure.

Spaces for Distance Learners

For students: Just as there are spaces dedicated to student-to-student collaboration, there will soon be more spaces built specifically for distance learners. These rooms will feature acoustic panels and ceiling microphones to boost audio quality, plus movable furniture for optimal visual communication. This blending of physical and virtual learning spaces will benefit students on and off campus, since those located in varying locations participate in real-time discussions.

For teachers: Teachers who have successfully implemented distance learning in their classrooms demonstrate flexibility and willingness to adapt tried-and-true teaching styles to make the most of the available technology and meet the needs of students near and far. Educators must also possess patience and a sense of humor, as there will surely be technical hiccups and bumps along the way.

Here’s how one teacher in the BEP case study described the impact of open space in education:

“Before, it used to be one size fits all: we know what we’re doing and the kids are just going to learn it. Now there’s the constant questioning and how can we change what we’re doing to meet the needs of the kids.”

What’s Next?

There’s one key finding worth calling out from NMC’s research—and ironically, it’s a challenge rather than a trend.

The report acknowledges a number of barriers blocking mainstream adoption of technology in higher education environments. One such barrier, “improving digital literacy,” stands out as one especially relevant to this industry. Not only are we redesigning learning spaces by making them more technologically capable, but we’re also redefining what it’s like to learn and grow professionally in this digital age.

Difficulty-wise, how do you think NMC rates the problem of “improving digital literacy” in Ed Tech? The report notes it as a “solvable challenge,” what do you think?

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