Tips for Creating Inclusive Learning Spaces

min read
EDUCAUSE Exchange | Season 3, Episode 4

Beyond implementing reactive changes, how can institutional leaders think about the ongoing effort to create inclusive learning environments? In this episode, we explore how designers can keep evolving their perspectives to help students and faculty feel comfortable to learn and engage.

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Gerry Bayne: Welcome to EDUCAUSE Exchange, where we focus on an important topic from the higher ed IT community and hear advice, anecdotes, best practices, and more. Making students and faculty feel comfortable culturally, cognitively, physiologically in the spaces in which they learn and teach is one of the most important aspects for student success. In this episode, we'll hear a few ideas on how to think about the strategies for inclusive learning spaces.

Kyle Bowen: I think actually the principle consideration around an inclusive learning space is to realize that it's not a one-time thing, that it's not a design and done type of proposition, that it's a ongoing commitment to being inclusive.

Gerry Bayne: That's Kyle Bowen, deputy CIO at Arizona State University. He says that the conversation around learning spaces is never complete. It's an ongoing dialogue between students, faculty, and designers that's renewed every semester.

Kyle Bowen: And that involves an iterative process of design and to see how those designs are having desired impacts and making changes over time. And so as we've started to engage in that work of rebuilding or redesigning, rethinking what those classroom spaces look like, it's with that in mind. This is an ongoing activity that we can continue to explore into the future.

Gerry Bayne: And that conversation begins with the bar you set when answering the question...

Allison Hall: What is inclusive learning space? Is it just meeting the specifications? And it's really just so multilayered from not only the design and the furniture in the room, but also the cultural considerations, the artwork, the design, the aesthetics of the space. Are we meeting all those layers of inclusivity or are we just stopping at a certain point?

Gerry Bayne: Allison Hall is Senior Director of Learning Experience, also at ASU.

Allison Hall: So representation matters. And so when you walk into a building or a series of learning spaces and you're only seeing maybe one culture represented, and is it the culture of that learning population and that community, does it have roots in something that those students understand and identify with, can be an important aspect of feeling included in that space.

Mark McCallister: One of the things that is really important is that students feel like when they walk into or log into these spaces that they belong there, that they can feel a sense of connection to the space and the people that are around them in that space, and that it really becomes a comfortable place for them to engage in these higher level learning activities.

Gerry Bayne: Mark McCallister is Director of Academic Technology at the University of Florida.

Mark McCallister: I think it's really important for us to think about both online and physical environments in the same kinds of conversations. Obviously, you don't need to worry about the furniture in an online learning environment, but there are analogous kinds of things. We talk about the tools that people use to communicate in online learning environments. Does it allow students to communicate with each other and with the faculty instructors in the room effectively, or are students fighting with an echo in the room or a technology that makes it so they have to keep reiterating their point or whatever in an online learning environment to get their communication across? So I think the same kinds of thinking and being very cognizant of the fact that students are, often when they're in an on-campus course, they are also simultaneously participating in that course in online ways and making sure that we're thinking about the fact that they're sort of simultaneously in both those worlds.

Kyle Bowen: When you look at a space, who was this designed for or was it designed for generally nobody specific at all? And that has its own set of challenges with it as well. So I think that's part of what we have to weigh out as we get into this, is what are the actual real world experiences? What does it feel like to be in one of these learning spaces?

Mark McCallister: If we have an approach that people come in to the space and they look around and they say, "Well, this doesn't appeal to me. I don't really want to be here," that is going to be something that's going to be difficult for them to overcome in terms of their feelings of connection to the space and their feelings of connection to that course and the students that are in the room.

Kyle Bowen: For some students, flexibility comes at a cost. They need the room to be set a particular way so that it's predictable. And so what we find are is that a student may come into the classroom and wait for class to start because they're not quite sure where to go, or they may need help finding that right space inside of the classroom. So one of the things we're doing now is beginning to design spaces that have those within the classroom seats that don't move. While the classroom may be flexible, there are always seats that don't move so that people have a starting place to work from. And so that's why I say it's an ongoing process because even as we continually innovate in terms of the pedagogy, in terms of what we can do inside of the space, we also then have to reconsider what are the impacts on inclusivity as part of that change.

Mark McCallister: There's a variety of things that you do to make sure that we and the support staffs are also actively soliciting information, whether that may be through surveys, focus groups, and oftentimes just doing some simple data analysis of, "Hey, what rooms are we getting a lot of complaints from? Do we have a lot of technology issues in a room, or is it just this room is next to a construction site this year and it's impacting the learning that's happening there. So what other kinds of things can we do to identify what's actually affecting students and what can we do to support a more inclusive environment for the students that are in the room?"

I think listening to faculty, listening to students, asking questions in a variety of formats and just observing what's happening, what people are struggling with, always used to say, I can tell a lot about the user interface of a Navy control system in a classroom just by sitting in the back of the room and watching the facial expression of the instructor while they're trying to get the projector to turn on. If they're fighting with it and they're looking angry, then you probably have a user interface problem.

Allison Hall: People and their perceptions of space and how they're using space are continuously changing over time, and so the more we have those conversations, every time there's something, another layer is revealed, another way to make the space more inclusive comes out and is more clear. And some of them might be subject specific or use case specific, but some of them branch across all learning spaces, and so every conversation is just a gift.

Gerry Bayne: If you would like to explore a wealth of resources for thinking about inclusive learning spaces, visit the EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System Resource page. There, you'll find articles and research across a wide spectrum of higher education to support multiple learning modes. You can find that page by visiting That's I'm Gerry Bayne for EDUCAUSE. Thanks for listening.


This episode features:

Kyle Bowen
Deputy CIO
Arizona State University

Mark McCallister
Director of Academic Technology
University of Florida

Allison Hall
Senior Director, Learning Experience
Arizona State Universityy

Recommended Resource

EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System Resource