April 24, 2017

Is the classroom model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

© University of Science and Arts Oklahoma

© University of Science and Arts Oklahoma

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’

What is to be covered in Chapter 6

This may change as I get into the writing but my plan at the moment is to cover the following topics:

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • Competency-based learning,
  • Communities of practice (inc. cMOOCs)
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

In this post I introduce the concept of a design model and discuss the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. My next post, which follows almost immediately, does the same for the ADDIE model.

Purpose of the chapter

At the end of this chapter the reader should be able to:

  1. Describe key models or approaches to the design of teaching and learning
  2. Analyse each model in terms of its value for teaching in a digital age
  3. Decide which model or combination of models will fit best with their own teaching
  4. Use the model as a basis for designing their own teaching

What is a design model?

By a design model, I mean the organized steps taken to convert a desired learning environment into teaching and learning activities. Project management is a typical example of a design model, in that it presents a framework for taking a plan or goal and turning it into action. In project management, there are certain steps to be followed which are relatively independent of whatever project is being implemented.

However, there are many different kinds of approaches to design implementation besides project management. I intend to examine several of the most common design models that can be used in teaching, and in particular to examine them for their suitability for teaching in a digital age.

The classroom design model

Classroom old 2

Some design models are so embedded in tradition and convention that we are often like fish in water – we just accept that this is the environment in which we have to live and breath. The classroom model is a very good example of this. In a classroom based model, learners are organised in classes that meet on a regular basis at the same place at certain times of the day for a given length of time over a given period (a term or semester).

This is a design decision that was taken more than 150 years ago. It was embedded in the social, economic and political context of the 19th century. This context included:

  • the industrialization of society which provided ‘models’ for organizing both work and labour, such as factories and mass production
  • the movement of people from rural to urban occupations and communities, with increased density resulting in larger institutions
  • the move to mass education to meet the needs of industrial employers and an increasingly large and complex range of state-managed activities, such as government, health and education
  • voter enfranchisement and hence the need for a better educated voting public
  • over time, demand for more equality, resulting in universal access to education.

The large urban school, college or university, organized by age stratification, learners in groups, and regulated units of time was an excellent fit for such a society. In effect, we still have a predominantly factory model of educational design, which in large part remains our default design model even today.

However, over the span of 150 years, our society has slowly changed. Many of these factors or conditions no longer exist, while others persist, but often in a less dominant way than in the past. Thus we still have factories and large industries, but we also have many more small companies, greater social and geographical mobility, and above all a massive development of new technologies that allow both work and education to be organized in different ways. This is not to say that the classroom design model is inflexible. Teachers for many years have used a wide variety of teaching approaches within this overall model.

I don’t want to devote much space to the classroom design model, as we are all so familiar with it, and there is so much invested in the ‘default’ model that it is impractical to rip everything up and start with something completely different. Nevertheless, we have at least the seeds of change already showing. ‘Flipped’ classrooms where students get lectures on video and come to class for discussion and the re-design of large lecture classes are moves to modify the default model, while fully online programs and MOOCs are a manifestation of more radical change by offering education at any time and any place.

The real danger though is that we fail to grasp the opportunities that are now available to us, because we are so comfortable and familiar with the classroom design model. Even worse is trying to force the old default model on to new developments, when what is needed is a totally different approach if we are to meet the needs of a digital age. I give two examples below of forcing new technologies into the old classroom design model.

Old wine in new bottles: classroom-type online learning

When commercial movies were first produced, they were basically a transfer of previous music hall and vaudeville acts to the movie screen. Then along came D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’, which transformed the design of movies, by introducing techniques that were unique to cinema at the time, such as panoramic long shots, panning shots, realistic battle scenes, and what are now known as special effects.

Learning management systems

Most learning management systems, such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Moodle, are in fact a replication of a classroom design model. They have weekly units or modules, the instructor selects and presents the material to all students in the class at the same time, a large class enrollment can be organized into smaller sections with their own instructors, there are opportunities for (online) discussion, students work through the materials at roughly the same pace, and assessment is by end-of-course tests or essays.

The main design differences are that the content is primarily text based rather than oral, the online discussion is asynchronous rather than synchronous, and the course content is available at any time from anywhere with an Internet connection. These are important differences, and skilled teachers and instructors can modify or adapt LMSs to meet different teaching or learning requirements (as they can in physical classrooms), but the basic organizing framework of the LMS remains the same as for a physical classroom.

Nevertheless, the LMS is still an advance over online designs that merely put lectures on the Internet or load up pdf copies of Powerpoint lecture notes, as is still the case unfortunately in many online programs. Good online design should take account of the special requirements of online learners, so the design needs to be different from that of a classroom model.

Lecture capture

This technology, which automatically records a classroom lecture, was originally designed to enhance the classroom model by making lectures available for repeat viewings online at any time for students regularly attending classes – in other words, a form of homework. Flipped classrooms are an attempt to exploit more fully this potential, but the biggest impact has been the use of lecture capture for ‘instructionist’ massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity and edX. However, even this type of MOOC is really a basic classroom design model. The main differences are that the classroom is open to anyone (but then in principle so are many university lectures), and MOOCs are available to unlimited numbers at a distance. These are important differences again, but the design of the teaching – lectures delivered in chunks – has not changed markedly.

‘Instructionist’ MOOCs have resulted in some important design changes to the classroom model, such as using computer-marked assignments to test students or give feedback, and the use of peer review (both often used also in physical classroom design of course), but the predominant design model of instructionist MOOCs is that of an admittedly massive classroom.

The limitations of the classroom design model

Old wine can still be good wine, whether the bottle is new or not. What matters is whether classroom design meets the changing needs of a digital age. Just adding technology to the mix, or delivering the same design online, does not automatically result in meeting changing needs. It is important then to look at the design that makes the most of the educational affordances of new technologies, because unless the design changes significantly to take full advantage of the potential of the technology, the outcome is likely to be inferior to that of the physical classroom model which it is attempting to imitate.

The second danger of just adding new technology to the classroom design is that we may just be increasing cost, both in terms of technology and the time of instructors, without changing outcomes. Thus even if the new technology, such as lecture capture and computer-based multiple-choice questions organised in a MOOC, result in helping more students memorise better or learn more content, for example, this may not be sufficient to meet the higher level skills needed in a digital age.

Education is no exception to the phenomenon of new technologies being used at first merely to reproduce earlier design models before they find their unique potential. However, changes to the basic design model are needed if the demands of a digital age and the full potential of new technology are to be exploited in education.

Over to you

1. Do I manage to make clear what I mean by design ‘models’? If not, how can this be made clearer – or is the concept not helpful in the first place?

2. Do you agree that the classroom design model is a product of the 19th century and needs to changed for teaching in a digital age? Or is there still enough flexibility in the classroom model for our times?

3. To what extent do you feel you have to teach in a certain way because of the classroom model – or are you able to work flexibly within this model?

4. Do you agree that LMSs are basically a classroom model delivered online, or are they a unique design model in themselves. If so, what makes them unique?

What’s next?

My next post looks at the appropriateness of the ADDIE model for teaching in a digital age.

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.


Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?


  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?


  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.

How online learning is going to affect classroom design

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?

The beginning of the end of the lecture hall?

The conference in Orlando

University Business is a magazine that focuses on equipment and facilities, including IT and AV systems. UB thus has its pulse on key technology trends and developments in universities, many of which have important implications also for teaching and learning. Every year it runs an annual national conference and I attended this year’s conference in Orlando, Florida.

Redesigning classrooms for 21st century learning

It was an interesting conference, with several excellent speakers. One message became clear. In the words of Mark Valenti of the Sextant Group in UB’s June edition of its magazine:

we’re basically seeing  the beginning of the end of the lecture hall.’

In essence, new technology, hybrid learning and the need to engage students and develop core ’21st century skills’ are leading some institutional leaders to rethink the classroom and the way it’s used – and about time.

One of the best presentations I have seen for some time at a large conference was given by Tawnya Means and Jason Meneely of the University of Florida, where several departments have redesigned their class space to enable both formal and informal active group learning.  Small, mobile tables with ports for a range of mobile devices, and software that enables both instructor and student control over screen sharing and projection are used to support case-based, problem-based, project-based and collaborative learning.

Meneely quoted Winston Churchill who said: ‘We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.’ Meneeely claims that when faculty are presented with such use of space, they naturally adopt these more active learning approaches.

You can find details of one of their new classroom designs, the Innovation coLab, by clicking the link. Another redesign was to convert an old kitchen and classroom into an open cafeteria-based group learning area, with a breakout area for individual study, thus allowing students to seemlessly combine socializing, group study and independent study within the same overall space.

One thing that strikes me is how similar is the pedagogy for these more interactive classrooms to the constructivist small, group-based learning I was using as an elementary school teacher in Britain in the 1960s – plus ça change….

It is significant that both Means and Meneely come from design backgrounds, with Tawnya as the Director for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Assessment, and Jason as an instructor of interior design. There were presentations at the conference and articles in the June magazine edition that indicate that other institutions, including the University of Kentucky and Queensland University of Technology are rethinking the structure and layout of the classroom. In addition some other institutions, such as the University of Central Florida, have been doing this for years.

Roles for lectures in a hybrid world

I think it is premature to write off the lecture hall or even lectures. They have their value, but as with many technology developments, they will not disappear but find their niche within a richer pedagogical context. Some of the roles I see for lectures in a technologically-rich teaching environment are:

  • a lecture at the beginning of a course to set the tone and build a sense of community,
  • a lecture at the end of a course to pull things together, to provide a synthesis, or a sense of completion or to ask: where now?
  • a lecture in the middle as a check on where students are, what are the ‘sticking points’, and a realignment of expectations or resetting of students’ focus
  • a lecture for a research professor to synthesize/summarize his/her findings or the field in which they are researching
  • special occasions, such as analyzing a dramatic current event in terms of theories or principles studied in a course: why, how, what next, etc.
  • distinguished visitors who have something extra to add to a course or program.

I am sure that you can think of many others. (If so please hare them).

However, I think the ‘default’ mode of the lecture in terms of delivering the main course content as being the standard form of teaching will slowly disappear, as we apply more active learning principles and the power of technology to our classroom teaching.

One also has to ask for how long MOOCs can rely on the standard video-taped lecture as the core of their teaching, once more active learning penetrates the ivy covered walls.

For new, more interactive classroom designs to become more widespread though, we need to start building some good design models for hybrid learning, and especially for what we do in class when students can also study online. At least two universities in Florida, the University of Florida at Gainsville and UCF in Orlando, are showing the way.

Your homework

Do you have other examples of new classroom designs for hybrid learning that go beyond the flipped classroom, based on new hardware and software in the classroom? If so, please share.


Williams, L. (2013) AV Trends: Hrdware and Sofware for Sharing Screens University Business, June

Orlando sunset