Another dot in the blogosphere?

Classroom design matters

Posted on: August 29, 2018

Yesterday I tweeted this image of a new classroom.

First, some context. I visited the classrooms of a brand new building at a university campus. As there was very little foot traffic just after lunch, I decided to use the classroom like a student might.

I sat near the back where the door was and faced the instructor’s console. I worked in the room for an hour to let the experience soak in.

These rooms were already reviewed by critics and blatant design failures had been remedied. Or so they thought. I spotted some basics that were not addressed. I share a labelled version of the same photo I tweeted to highlight a few design mistakes.

Classroom critique.

A: The instructor’s console was awkwardly positioned

I get it — the console faced the glass wall so as to not replicate a lectern behind which an instructor might hide. I am for the idea of tutors learning how to be better facilitators instead of just deliverers of information.

I am not for a design that requires a facilitator to swivel 180 degrees to use the computer or visualiser and then turn back to face the class. A facilitator needs to constantly have eyes on his or her class to send and receive cues.

Even though such swivelling might be intermittent, a more involved presentation, e.g., the manipulation of a 3D object using the visualiser, will result having in the instructor’s back to the students.

Solutions: Swivel the console, not the instructor; provide professional development on facilitation strategies so that a properly-positioned console does not become a pedagogical crutch, fortress, or hideout.
B: Glass walls led to glare and buildup of heat

This was a corner classroom and three walls were almost entirely glass — the front (as shown), the left (not shown), and the back (where the door was).

Bright sunlight shone in from the front and left despite the leafy curtain.

I could not take the photo by panning from or to the left glass panel because the light was so bright. The glare might be reduced as the plants grow more thickly, but I cannot anticipate by how much.

Our Singapore sun is not forgiving. The glass walls created a greenhouse effect so that I started to sweat even though I was the only one in the room. Granted I had just facilitated a workshop elsewhere and was in a long-sleeved shirt. But imagine about 20 undergraduates in t-shirts and slippers getting a free sauna.

One solution: Provide pull-down shades to reduce the glare and heat.
C: Harsh and clinical lightning

Perhaps there was a green cast from the vegetation outside, so the room was equipped with bright white light.

I do not know if these were conventional fluorescent tubes or LEDs made to look like them. They cast a harsh light that reminded me of a hospital waiting room or the floor of a manufacturing plant.

As I write this, I am in a public library that has off-white lights to make the environment feel warm and welcoming. Visit any modern café and the lighting will be similar, if not warmer.

All three places have this in common — students studying — but only the latter two seem to leverage on psychology to make the user comfortable.

The positioning of the lights also created glare on the TV screens (E). If the students are sitting in the room with the TVs off, they will see the glare from the lights and the windows.

One solution: Opt for warmer white lights.
D: There were shared writing surfaces only on the right-side wall

The other walls were glass, so there were no boards on them. This meant that half the students did not have such surfaces. A facilitator would have to resort to using just half the classroom for board work.

I am all for using computers, mobile devices, and open online tools for cooperation, but some things are easier, faster, and more effective on a board.

One solution: Provide white boards on wheels for the other learning stations.
D and E: Peripheral boards and screens

The boards and TV were surfaces and screens for projecting media. These are fine for group-based cooperative activities.

However, they are terrible for whole-class presentations. Students are likely to look at the projections instead of the speaker.

I foresee students or the instructor using the board D as the main projection surface. When they do, they will have to position themselves awkwardly between the console (A) and the board, and/or walk distractingly between them.

Solutions: Provide a clear and logical primary projection surface. This might tempt instructors to keep lecturing, but that is what professional development sessions on alternative strategies are for.
F: Six seats per table

This was an example of a group table or learning station. In the relatively untouched rooms I visited earlier, I noticed that there were six seats around each table. This room had just been used and some seats were actually missing.

A designer probably thought that rounded triangle tables could comfortably seat two students on each side.

A better designer of cooperative work would realise that you need a small but odd-number of students for such work to be more efficient and effective. Groups larger than five make for slower progress; even-numbers leave no member to be a tie-breaker during decision-making.

One solution: Create seating for groups of five.

Closing thoughts
I will not share the other design faux pas that were part of the room prior to the initial round of criticisms. I will just point this out: It is far cheaper and more effective to hire a consultant to prevent these issues from seeing the light of day.

I hold my tongue when I use the rooms I am assigned for workshops. But when asked, I share mostly positive things and highlight one or two key corrections if I think my hosts can handle it.

The design of classrooms matters. While they affect budgets in the short-term, they affect learners and learning in the long run.

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