Collaborative Learning Spaces at Missouri University of Science and Technology

min read

By Angie Hammons and Lauren Brady Oswald

  • Collaborative learning spaces support students’ expectations of higher education by giving them better access to their instructors and each other.
  • These spaces provide the technology and tools needed for complex assignments, research, and academic work.
  • Begin by asking the right questions, considering nontraditional solutions, and lining up necessary resources.
  • Follow-up by assessing how well the new space meets faculty and students’ needs.

Transcript of Collaborative Learning Spaces at Missouri University of Science and Technology

Slide 1

Title Slide

Slide 2 — Why Collaborative Work Spaces?

Gone are the days when teachers lecture and students act as passive bystanders. Both in and out of the classroom, instruction and assignments are becoming more collaborative. Students are more collaborative by nature. High schools are preparing students to work in collaborative groups. Social networking and the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere has brought students to campus expecting the same things. Academic institutions have simply borrowed a concept that has already been implemented effectively in the corporate world — creating working spaces that accommodate group work that isn’t just the traditional classroom.

The ability to do problem solving is an important concept that we need to teach our students because that’s what they do in the corporate world.  When they’re sitting in collaborative groups, they have the opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other, complete tasks, and work together effectively. That’s the same idea that we need to be teaching them as they’re going through college. These spaces not only give students better access to their instructors and each other, but they bring the technology and tools needed to accomplish tasks, complex assignments, research academic work, right to the students’ fingertips. To accomplish this, intentional design of all spaces on campus is important. No longer are classrooms the only learning space on campus; learning takes place anywhere and everywhere, and you need to be just as intentional with all spaces on campus.

Slide 3 — Evaluating Campus Needs: Asking the Right Questions

When we begin the design of a space, one of the first stages is data collection. In order to get a better understanding of the space in question we meet with faculty, staff, and students to find out not only what their expectations are for the new space but also to gain insight into aspects of their current usage of similar spaces.

Slide 4 — Creating a Suitable Location

While we are rarely given the perfect set of conditions for a room remodel candidate, there are certain updates to the existing space that can greatly influence the impact of the area. Ideally, an informal learning space would be located close to restrooms and near the building entrances but away from heavy traffic flow and other distractions. The perfect space would be built from the inside out and be open and inviting with adequate floor, ceiling, and wall surfaces. However, this is not often the case. There are certain things we are unable to change within the scope of most projects like the physical location and shape of the room. Occasionally room remodel candidates fail to be chosen due to inadequacies in these factors. Once a suitable location is chosen, we focus on the aspects we can feasibly change, like the lighting, surfaces, layout, furniture, and impact of the room. It is important to decide early on if a battle against inadequate facilities is worth the fight. If a fresh coat of paint and new furniture is all the room needs, then the space is a likely candidate for remodel. On the other hand, if the room's physical needs outweigh the potential impact, it may be better to move on and consider other locations.

Slide 5 — Exploring Solutions

The Educational Technology team at Missouri S&T looks to a variety of resources when designing collaborative learning spaces.

First and foremost, the team looks at proven, successful models from other academic institutions and the corporate world, often taking the time to talk to individuals from these organizations about what works and what doesn’t, what they like and don’t like.

Second, the team conducts extensive surveys of students and faculty to determine what their needs are and what features would make them more apt to use a learning space. Do they want Wi-Fi access? Do they want big-cushioned chairs? Asking these types of questions helps us refine our ideas and our eventual design.

Most of these types of learning spaces on the Missouri S&T campus are associated with a particular academic department, so the department faculty is naturally involved in each step of the planning process. It’s important, if classes are going to be taught in any given room, that the space is suitable for faculty teaching styles and learning objectives.

There are really, three main questions to consider when planning a space:

  1. What is the impact on students and the campus community?
    • What hardware and software is available?
    • Are students going to be using the available hardware and software on a regular basis for their academic work? Is it something that they need for their academic work?
    • What will the hours of operation be for the learning space?
    • Will the lab be available to everyone or only to students from a particular department? If it will only serve one department, that may change the software and hardware from general tools to specific, specialized programs and technology.
  2. How does the space fit into the overall network of classrooms and labs on campus?
    • Can this space take the place of another space on campus?
    • Can this space be combined with another space on campus?
    • Does the requested equipment/software meet the minimum standards for our campus?
      • Will it require new expertise/training by support personnel?
      • Are there software “packages” already created for requested software?
  3. Are the manpower and support model in place to keep the space running well?
    • “Support model” really means who will do what, when will they do it, and who will foot the bill to keep the space maintained.
    • It’s important to have a clear understanding of which individuals are responsible for upkeep and monitoring of the space’s condition. Will it be someone from IT, a faculty member, a grad assistant, or some other campus designate?
    • Regular maintenance windows need to be established during off-peak hours. Obviously you don’t want IT to come into a space during a class time to install the computers and completely disrupt the class.
    • “Support model” also entails instructor training before classes start. Instructors need to have a very basic understanding of how the technology works before attempting to use the space for a class. Techno-hiccups can be embarrassing for instructors and counterproductive to learning. These problems can also be avoided with a small investment of time on the front end.

Slide 6 — Nontraditional Design Solutions

Now more than ever, the physical and virtual needs of instructors and students are changing at a rapid pace. Classes are often taught online and onsite simultaneously, and collaboration and experiential learning are becoming more of a focus than recitation. In order to design a space that is most efficient for use by a range of group sizes and learning styles, we find it best to use furniture that can be easily rearranged. No longer do we assume that all student seats should face the front of a classroom. Instead we aim to outfit lightweight chairs and desks with casters for quick rearrangement.

In addition to flexible furniture, we find that a home-like study area in informal spaces is inviting for students. The use of comfortable furniture, artwork, indirect task lighting, and a color range outside of the traditional neutral classroom colors allow us to draw students into our informal spaces. In addressing concerns that a nontraditional room may become “outdated” as trends change, we limit trendy colors and styles to media that are easy to change. Compared to furniture upholstery, floor coverings, and structure of the room; paint colors and schemes, inexpensive artwork, and room layout are less expensive to update. Wall paint in particular is quite inexpensive in comparison to the strong impact it has on the mood and perceived age of a space.

Before starting my latest room, I [Lauren] had the opportunity to observe one of our most recent learning space renovations on campus. This new learning space had been designed with casual seating, a home-like environment, a bold color scheme, and fewer computers than the adjacent computer labs. When we visited the site, each seat was occupied. Instead of using the computers in the adjacent labs, students were sitting in the hallway with their laptops waiting for an open seat. They had devised a system to keep track of who had been waiting the longest, and those students would get first choice of seats as they became available. If you looked in the two computer labs right next door, they were mostly empty. What draws students to this space? Is it the color, the furniture, or simply the fact that it is new? We expect to do further research on what aspects of the renovations have the most significant impact and the longest-lasting effect in comparison to the cost of implementation.

Slide 7 — Coordinating Campus Resources

Not only do collaborative learning spaces meet the needs of faculty and students, but it is important that the university has the resources to implement the design and maintain it once it is completed. Design ideas were compared against campus IT standards to ensure that the university had the proper resources to support any technology used in the space. The campus building and maintenance department was brought in early in the project to ensure that maintenance technicians, electricians, and carpenters understood the design and were able to implement it as specified. Coordinating scheduling with the scheduling entity on campus is important to ensure that there are no conflicts.

Adding, upgrading or redesigning a learning space doesn’t mean that space is done. Ongoing budget costs are a major consideration as you “complete” a room. These costs could include support in man hours, software licensing, infrastructure maintenance on campus and even building maintenance schedules.

Slide 8 — Considerations During Construction: IT and Building Services

Coordinating resources inside Information Technology can be challenging. There are many considerations from the very beginning. Our campus has software and hardware standards that must be met in order to function within our campus network. We strive continually to be looking at the newest technology but always remember that it has to be something that we can support over the long term. One area that needs to be part of the initial planning is Networking. The installation of networking infrastructure in a space can sometimes be overlooked, and this will cause many delays in a project. Scheduling the installation and set-up of any room are major components in creating a learning space. It is vitally important to have appropriate labor available when setting up a room. Without it, you will struggle to be ready on time.

Never assume that other groups on campus aren’t as incredibly busy as you are. Building Services will have many projects going on around campus. Early in the design process, begin working with Building Services to get estimates and get on their schedule. They are also a great source of information on various aspects of building code and utilization.

We were in the process of putting in a new learning space. We had estimated for putting networking in the room, but forgot to coordinate with Networking in our department to ensure that they would have it on their work schedule. When we asked them to help with the room installation, we found out there was a need for new infrastructure in that building that wasn’t estimated for. This delayed the room installation for several weeks as we worked through quotes and scheduling problems.

Slide 9 — Implementing the Design: Physical Transformation

Once the design has been approved and supplies have been ordered we begin implementation. If implementation occurs during the academic semester, it often presents more scheduling nuances than the project would face if it were scheduled between semesters. Implementing the design requires more than just the physical setup of the room. We also coordinate training to ease the transition for faculty, staff, and students affected by the change.

After the implementation of furniture in our Engineering Management informal learning space, our designer fielded questions from faculty, staff, and students as they visited the newly redesigned room. Several faculty expressed concern and disappointment at the removal of two-thirds of the computers that had previously been in the room (only 5 of the original 16 computers remained.) We explained the trend toward laptops and the student demand for “empty table space.” As we talked, several students entered the space and walked past the computers to the tables and got out their laptops to work at the tables. The faculty were quite impressed at our ability to read that trend.

Slide 10 — Implementing the Design: Integrating Technology

In order to have an effective design, you don’t just walk away once everything is installed. Training and working with stakeholders should be part of the design process. Users and potential users can be intimidated by large amounts of change. Holding sessions where the technology is demonstrated and users can play with it go a long way to helping the instructors feel comfortable in front of their students. This is also a good time to make sure that all stakeholders understand what has been accomplished and to evaluate the design. You should:

  1. Demonstrate the hardware installed in the room.
  2. Demonstrate any special software such as synchronized or Smartboard software.
  3. Schedule individual meetings so faculty have a chance to try and explore options in the room before classes begin. This gives instructors a chance to see how the technology supports their pedagogical style and adjust their teaching style if they need to.

Slide 11 — Post-Project Evaluation

Once an informal learning space project is completed we look for effective ways to assess how well the needs have been met. We have yet to find the one metric or set of metrics that will tell us whether a room is successful or not. Because each project affects many design aspects of the room, and because the needs of the students and the space change over time, we’ve adopted an approach of continuous improvement. That is, at the outset we expect to make small, incremental changes over time to fit these changing needs. Some of the small, low-cost changes with high impact that can be made include changing the wall color or artwork or rearranging the layout.

To analyze how well the needs are being met, we’ve employed a few techniques used in the field of environmental psychology. Like the concept of informal learning spaces, the field of environmental psychology is relatively new. To discover whether a space is the “right fit,” our team goes to the room, observes the behaviors and interactions of the students, and asks them questions about the space.

Informal learning spaces are important to have on campus. Students today bring their own technology to campus. In our case, the computer labs where much of the group study was happening were crammed full of computers, leaving little space for their own laptops, or even to set a book or tablet. We needed to find a middle ground between a room full of computers and one that provided some campus technology but accommodated students’ personal technology. We are finding that informal spaces invite students to stay engaged with learning on campus grounds, which in turn helps with student retention, student safety, increasing their time on task, and building allegiance to the institution as alumni.

Slide 12 — Student Impressions of These Spaces

Student A: I like the learning spaces on campus because the environment is kind of nice. The people are more friendly and I think it’s because the desks or the workstations aren’t as linear so you can just talk to anyone in the room.

Student B: I really like the learning spaces on campus because they’re really open and it is nice to work with other people in the group. It’s not as just a single — one — person. You aren’t just sitting in front of a monitor and that’s all you’re doing. You can talk to people. There are big whiteboards for to you to use to help, like if you have a question about a problem you can usually get someone else in the room to help you with it.

Student A: And I like to take my laptop down there because they have power outlets in the floor so I don’t have to sit along the wall. I can sit in a recliner down there, and I can just sit and work on my laptop, which is nice.

Slide 13 — Missouri S&T Contributors

About Missouri S&T

Angie Hammons ([email protected]) is Educational Technology Project Coordination, Educational Technology, at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Lauren Brady Oswald ([email protected]) is IT Space Coordinator and Learning Space Designer at Missouri University of Science and Technology.