Learning Spaces | Q & A

Transforming Learning Spaces With (or Without) Technology: 7 Questions With Robert Dillon


Robert Dillon, director of innovative learning in the School District of Universal City, MO.

When he introduces himself as Bob Dylan, people invariably recite song lyrics back to him.

“The answer my friend is blowing in the wind…”
“How does it feel/ To be without a home/ Like a complete unknown/ Like a rolling stone…”
“I’m going back to New York City/ I do believe I’ve had enough…”

But Robert Dillon is not that Bob Dylan. He’s the director of innovative learning in the School District of Universal City, about eight miles west of downtown St. Louis.

Dillon is a an expert in K–12 learning spaces, and loves to explore the intersections of technology and learning space design. Over the past 20 years, he has served as a teacher, principal and director of technology and innovation. He has also written four books on best practices in learning.

Dillon spoke with THE Journal about changing learning spaces to meet the needs of today’s students, and what role technology plays in that process.

THE Journal: What do you do, and how long have you done it?

Robert Dillon: I’m director of innovative learning for Universal City. I also do a bunch of district-level consulting. I just started here in August. I was at a different school district before.

I work with the superintendent [and her staff] on technology and curriculum. I keep them thinking about things beyond today’s to-do list. I’m helping to rebrand the district and make sure our technology is aligned with that.

THE Journal: Have you been a teacher? What kind?

Dillon: I taught high school English for three years. I was a middle school principal for 15 years. And I was a director of technology for three years — and now this role. I cross the lines now.

I’m really looking at re-designing learning spaces as a way to get to best instructional practices and create places where kids want to be.

THE Journal: Do you think the traditional model of five or six rows with five or six desks per row is outdated, or not conducive to constructive, progressive learning?

Dillon: Everybody knows this. Rows and desks limit collaboration. The old format calls upon kids to not move around, which we know is not healthy for the mind and brain. It’s really about compliance and control.

For most people, we need different types of seating options to meet different types of kids. Folks all around the country are trying to explore different arrangements. All of those are pieces to the puzzle.

In a deeper sense, we need to be building the capacity in teachers and make them feel like designers. We need to help them see that they can be flexible to design and rethink their classrooms. It’s really a mindset shift and ability to be flexible and agile, and get to a place where we give teachers choice and voice.

THE Journal: What do you think of voice amplification in the classroom and other technologies like that? 

If we look at the learning space itself, technology only gets 25 to 30 percent of the focus that it could. There’s empirical evidence — there’s still research to be done — but there’s definitely research that shows that the impact of light and color, the impact of sound, the impact of visual noise can affect students’ learning.

There’s emerging research that different types of furniture can have an effect too. We need to think about mind-brain education,[which] helps to facilitate better learning for kids.

THE Journal: What do you think about all the technological gadgets companies are trying to get into the classroom, such as VR, AR, mixed reality and mobile apps?

Dillon: Twenty-five of any solution isn’t the key to the classroom. It’s about a variety of options, so kids on different days can try different things. It’s about what they’re learning and how they’re feeling. Five of our larger learning spaces here in Universal City are larger, and can be used as a library or multi-purpose room. We’re bringing those ideas across to the classroom.

I think more broadly, beyond just what we’re doing here, we’re growing the conversation around the country: Learning spaces matter, and we’re trying to figure all this out. We’re trying to bring this together with technology.

I want to hear more about learning space design; and we should balance the conversation between classroom design and technology. We should explore the actual physical kind of classroom design and the technology available to students, and where those two intersect.

THE Journal: Can you give me a concrete example of how you're doing this in your district?

Dillon: We have a robotics team that has been working out of an old traditional computer lab. And they’ve made it work, the robotics team, and created platforms for what they want and what they’re supposed to do. That kind of tired computer space is not even coming close to help them realize what they can do.

We need writeable surfaces, so we can leave things up on the wall. All of this is contributing to a greater sense of learning. Then we’re also using technology that really wasn’t as mobile as it needs to be to be truly effective.

THE Journal: Is there a gap between the haves and the have nots, and between boys and girls, when it comes to innovating learning spaces?

Dillon: I’m a first generation college kid. I’m deeply passionate about serving kids and looking for that first opportunity. Educational equity, access and opportunity have always been at the forefront in my mind. As we redesign learning spaces, that will be another gap. If only the rich schools can only do new learning spaces, then what’s the point?

I have a couple of daughters, 12 and 9 years old. They’re coming through the public school system. I want them to really enjoy the learning that they’re doing. I want them to think, “We love our classrooms. We love instructional design, technology and learning.”

Find out more about Robert Dillon at his website.


About the Author

Richard Chang is associate editor of THE Journal. He can be reached at [email protected].