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The cost of “modern learning environments” (MLEs)

Posted on: April 16, 2015

The moderator at this week’s #asiaED slow chat posted this question:

I had to respond with:

I had to because MLEs are not confined to the classroom.

Kids and adults alike learn while they are in the loo, travelling on public transport, or waiting in a queue. They study or even have remedial tuition at McDonald’s and Starbucks.

One way to rethink the design of classrooms is to make them look more like home or cafes.

In 2009, my former workplace, the National Institute of Education, Singapore, took the initiative to convert all the tutorial rooms on the ground floor to “collaborative classrooms”. There were almost 70 of such rooms and several other special rooms on other floors.

I shared a few photos of these places with this message: MLEs can be designed to look like where the learners are already at. If learners are already comfortable in cafes and their living rooms, simulate that.

I also tried to warn that MLEs should not just be about transforming the physical space.

A redesigned classroom can be most impressive to visitors or administrators. But what good is that if teachers teach the same way and students do not learn any differently (e.g., not at all, only in isolation, sans Internet)?

The previous director of NIE provided some anecdotal evidence at a talk about two years ago. As he walked around campus, he could peek through the windows of our collaborative classrooms. He wondered out loud why tutors and professors still seemed to be standing in front. (Background: We had started a professional development programme on using such rooms effectively, but 1) it took time to reach almost 400 instructors), and 2) only the usual suspects and the already converted tended to show up.)

It is easy to paint walls, buy new furniture, and change layouts. These also cost a fair bit of money.

It is more difficult to change teacher mindsets and behaviour. But I rarely see such MLE change initiatives include rigorous professional development. The cost of not doing this is even higher, not because it is expensive but because you spend money to make changes to the outside (the classrooms) without tending to the insides (instructor beliefs and mindsets).

When there is superficial or no pedagogical change, the cost is high because it does little to benefit learners. This can happen when vendors sell only furniture and classroom layouts without considering professional development or student inputs.

Caveat emptor.

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