“I’m the sage on the stage, and I hold the keys to knowledge.” That’s the message lecture-based teaching can send, said Jason Meneely, associate professor in the Department of Interior Design at the University of Florida.

At UF, many faculty members want to teach in different ways, he said. But lecture halls where the chairs are bolted to the floor facing forward can make options other than lecturing difficult. For example, group work means either that some students are turning around in their seats or students are sitting in groups in the aisles.

If the spaces your institution offers limit professors’ ability to teach, consider whether it’s time to create alternatives.

UF has added two spaces that enable much greater flexibility for faculty members who want their classes to include high levels of student interaction and incorporate technology. In the media:scape LearnLab, located in the College of Design, Construction and Planning, students sit together at tables. They have access to monitors, floor-to-ceiling magnetic whiteboards, short-throw projectors, and an interactive whiteboard. media:scape LearnLab is a package designed by Steelcase available for higher education institutions.

The furniture is fixed in place but allows a lot of flexibility, Meneely said. The tables are oriented on a diagonal so that it’s easy to see what’s happening all over the room, he added.

Meneely designed the second environment, the AHA! Colab, using Steelcase products. The space is located in front of the third-floor elevator doors in the College of Journalism and Communications. When it is not being used as a classroom, it serves as a break and study space.

It includes seating at tables for 30 students in the open area, plus there are four enclosed spaces with seating for six to eight people. The smaller rooms can be used for student collaborations during class or as conference rooms for department or student meetings. Plus, AHA! offers magnetic whiteboards and short-throw projectors.

And the space includes a kitchen with a coffee vending machine.

The tables move, but usually the middle of the space is kept open so that people can move around, Meneely said. The walls between the smaller rooms and the main one are glass so that people in the various areas have a visual connection even when they are engaged in different activities.

When AHA! is not being used as a classroom, it has the feel of a coffee shop, Meneely said. It fills with students as soon as classes end, he added.

Student groups can reserve space through an online system. And two of the smaller rooms are left unlocked so that students can use them when no one is in them.

The LearnLab and AHA! spaces enable the following transformations in the classroom, according to Meneely:

  • Breaking down the hierarchical separation between teachers and students. Rather than being passive recipients of knowledge, students are active problem solvers. They can write and draw on the whiteboard walls. And rather than the teacher controlling the technology, say by presenting a PowerPoint or projecting images, both the professor and the students use technology to problem solve and share ideas.
  • Encouraging collaboration. In design, Meneely’s field, classes are often structured around students seeking an answer to a particular problem. A lecture might be incorporated to give students information they need to solve the problem. But collaborating on an answer is key.
  • Assisting connections between students and between students and faculty members. Because the AHA! space doubles as a common area and has a kitchen, students and professors linger after the official class time ends. The interactions echo what happens around the water cooler at a business, Meneely said.

Since the rooms have been in use, some faculty members prefer not to teach anywhere else. And watching videos of the activity in them without the sound on makes apparent the energy and movement they inspire, Meneely said.

Technology enhances learning

Bringing technology into the classroom can enable students to work together in new ways. Meneely offered the following tips for making the most of technology in a classroom space.

  • Short-throw projectors. These mount on the wall above the marker board, and the steep angle of the projection means that glare is minimal, Meneely said. He likes that students and professors can mark directly onto the projection with whiteboard markers. “It’s a barrier-free way of rapidly engaging,” he said. The limitation of this technology compared with a smartboard is that the markings aren’t completed online and saved for remote or later consideration. But students all have smartphones and can take photos of the work if they want to move the interaction online, Meneely said.
  • Power outlets. Many common spaces at colleges and universities don’t get used as much as they could because access to power is not sufficient, Meneely said. “The more power you can get, the better,” he said.
  • There are many options for making power available. Outlets can be recessed in the floor, on the wall, on power poles extended from the ceiling, on columns, or on partitions, Meneely said.

Consider these tips for creating new learning spaces

If space and money are tight on your campus, creating innovative learning spaces might not seem feasible. But the following tips could help you get started:

  • Think about multiple uses for the space. Many institutions create common spaces where students can study and socialize, but they don’t often integrate those with classrooms, Meneely said. UF’s AHA! Colab serves as a classroom and a study lounge. Plus, since it has a kitchen, it can be used for events such as banquets.
  • Factor students’ reactions to space into decision making. Many officials think about what a space will cost, Meneely said. But they don’t always think about how attractive, collaborative spaces might help convince students the institution or department is right for them, he said. And boosting student engagement through active learning can help them persist, he added.
  • Evaluate how instructors will use computers. UF did not invest in computer equipment for either its media:scape LearnLab or its AHA! Colab. “It makes more sense to invest in space that supports technology rather than technology that is going to be outdated,” Meneely said. At UF, students bring their own computers that they can connect to monitors to work together. Not having to update computer equipment increases the longevity of the investment, Meneely said.
  • Realize that space shapes culture. Classrooms that make it easy for students to work together and common spaces in departments encourage collaboration, Meneely said. And in collaborative learning spaces, students can’t pull out their laptops to update their Facebook statuses during class. “It’s not an environment where they can hide,” Meneely said.

Email Jason Meneely at jmeneely@ufl.edu. To learn more about Steelcase’s solutions for higher education, go to www.steelcase.com/en/products/category/educational/higher-education/pages/overview.aspx.