Steelcase Node Classroom
Steelcase Node Classroom Design (© Steelcase, 2013)

I have an unusual occupation. A couple of weeks ago I attended a meeting in an office furniture warehouse in a small industrial park in Vancouver. The purpose of the meeting? To explore how online learning is going to change the design of campus classrooms.

The meeting was called by Steelcase, a leading American manufacturer of office and educational furniture. It came as a bit of a shock to me to realise that this large American manufacturer was not only conducting impressive research into learning environments, but is way ahead of many of our post-secondary institutions in thinking through the implications of online learning for classroom design. Don’t take my word for it: go to their educational research website, and in particular look at two of their reports: Active Learning Spaces and 360°: Rethinking Higher Education Spaces.

Designing active learning spaces

In Active Learning Spaces, Steelcase reports:

Formal learning spaces have remained the same for centuries: a rectangular box filled with rows of desks facing the instructor and writing board….As a result, today’s students and teachers suffer because these outmoded spaces inadequately support the integration of the three key elements of a successful learning environment: pedagogy, technology and space.

Change begins with pedagogy. Teachers and teaching methods are diverse and evolving.  From one class to the next, sometimes during the same class period, classrooms need change. Thus, they should fluidly adapt to different teaching and learning preferences. Instructors should be supported to develop new teaching strategies that support these new needs.

Technology needs careful integration. Students today are digital natives, comfortable using technology to display, share and present information. Vertical surfaces to display content, multiple projection surfaces and whiteboards in various configurations are all important classroom considerations. 

Space impacts learning. More than three-quarters of classes include class discussions and nearly 60 percent of all classes include small group learning, and those percentages are continuing to grow. Interactive pedagogies require learning spaces where everyone can see the content and can see and interact with others. Every seat can and should be the best seat in the room. As more schools adopt constructivist pedagogies, the “sage on the stage” is giving way to the “guide on the side.” These spaces need to support the pedagogies and technology in the room to allow instructors who move among teams to provide real-time feedback, assessment, direction and support students in peer-to-peer learning. Pedagogy, technology and space, when carefully considered and integrated, define the new active learning ecosystem. 

For some of us, this is nothing new. I was teaching this way in a primary/elementary school in Britain in the 1960s. What is new is the addition of (modern) technology to the mix. With students now doing an increasing amount of their work online (and often outside the classroom), the classroom needs to take into account this fact. This means opportunities for accessing, working on, sharing and demonstrating knowledge both within and outside the classroom. Thus if the classroom is organized into ‘clusters’ of furniture and equipment to support small group work, these clusters will also require power so students can plug in their devices,wireless Internet access, and the ability to transmit work to shared screens around the room (i.e. a class Intranet). Students also need quiet places or breakout spaces where they can work individually as well as in groups.

This still assumes that students are learning in relatively small classes. However, we are seeing an increased move to redesign large lecture classes by moving them towards hybrid designs such as flipped classrooms. Given the current financial context, I don’t think we should assume that the classroom time for these redesigned large lectures classes will be spent in small groups in individual classrooms (there are probably not enough small classrooms to accommodate these classes which often have several thousand students). We may need larger spaces which can be organized into smaller working groups then easily reconvened into a large, single group. What the space for these large classes certainly should NOT be is the raked rows of benches that now are now the norm in most large lecture theatres.

What about faculty space?

Steelcase is also doing research on appropriate spaces for faculty. For instance, if a university or department is planning a learning commons or common area for students, why not locate faculty offices in the same general area rather than in a separate building? Indeed, a case could be made for integrating faculty office space with more open teaching areas.

The cost of change

You can see why a company such as Steelcase is interested in these developments. There is a tremendous commercial opportunity for selling new and better forms of classroom furniture that meets these needs.

However, that is the problem. Universities and colleges simply do not have the money to move quickly towards new classroom designs, and even if they did, they should do some careful thinking first about what kind of campus will be needed over the next 20 years, given the rapid moves to hybrid and online learning, and how much they need to invest in physical infrastructure when students can do much of their studies online.

Nevertheless, there are several opportunities for at least setting priorities for innovation in classroom design:

  • where new campuses or major buildings are being built or renewed
  • where large first and second year classes are being redesigned: maybe a prototype classroom design could be tried for one of these large lecture redesigns and tested; if successful the model could be added slowly to other large lecture classes
  • where a department or program is being redesigned to integrate online learning and classroom teaching in a major way; they would receive priority for funding a new classroom design
  • all major new purchases of classroom furniture to replace old or worn out equipment should first be subject to a review of classroom designs.


The important point here is that investment in new or adapted physical classroom space should be driven by decisions to change pedagogy/teaching methods. This will mean bringing together academics, IT support staff, instructional designers and staff from facilities, as well as architects and furniture suppliers.

Second, I strongly believe in the statement that we shape our environments, and our environments shape us. Providing instructors with a flexible, well-designed learning environment is likely to encourage major changes in their teaching; stuffing them into rectangular boxes with rows of desks will do the opposite.

What is clear is that institutions now need to do some some hard thinking about online learning, its likely impact on campus teaching, and above all what kind of campus experience we want students to have when they can do much of their studying online. It is this thinking that should shape their investment in desks and chairs.

See also: The beginning of the end of the lecture hall?


If you have been involved in any new designs for classrooms or learning spaces, please share your experiences. In particular:

  • to what extent was online learning a factor in the (re)design?
  • to what extent were instructors or instructional designers involved in the (re)design? Did this make a difference or were their views ignored?
  • are instructors making full or best use of the (re)design? If not, why not? If so, how?


  1. Actually there has been quite a lot of work on this topic and lots of experimentation with new campus buildings, particularly in the the UK where JISC published a booklet with some examples of some attempts to re-imagine teaching and learning spaces in 2007.

    Some of this has been followed up on in more recent projects, but you are right about financial constraints. There are also some issues in many institutions with who has the power to make determinations about the configuration of buildings and rooms and often it is not the pedagogical innovators!

  2. Tony,

    Great post, thanks. I couldn’t make the same meeting, but heard back from others who were there.

    Regarding your questions, in a previous life, I worked quite a bit on designing new spaces at the University of Edinburgh. In particular, who was involved in the redesign, we found a very productive triumvirate by combining the following groups in the conception, design and implementation:

    1. Instructors who were interested in using (this) new spaces, for academic and pedagogical input
    2. Learning technology people, for technology and pedagogical input
    3. Buildings and ops people, for technology and infrastructure input.

    Some of this got written up as a case study of a JISC funded project:

    The three-way input really was critical to the designs that we ended up with. Maybe that’s why we got three-cornered ‘plectrum’-style tables?

  3. Hi Tony,

    Yes the topic of architecture and interior design is of huge interest, not surprisingly to makers of office furniture as well. Around 2004-6 I was a member of the NEW WOW (New Ways of Working) that held regular high-level 2 day meetings around Silicon Valley for their members from various industries: Steelcase and other office furniture companies, the US government office procurers, the Calgary whiteboard guy, Stanford U profs, start ups, etc.etc.

    There was a lot of brainstorming about the offices of the future, often hilarious scenarios proposed by guys when imagining walls, ceilings and floors that would be computer and videoconferencing screens.

    Some things never change! 🙂

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