Smart Classroom Technologies

3 Ways Mobile Technology Is Transforming Learning Spaces

To support creativity and collaborative learning with digital tools, schools are creating flexible environments that give students ownership of the space and their learning.

Learning Spaces

From the outside, Barrow Elementary School in Athens, GA, looks like any traditional school building built in the 1920s. Inside, it looks completely different. Instead of desks arranged in tidy rows, the classrooms have tables that can be reconfigured in seconds by the students themselves, depending on what an assignment calls for. There are spaces where students can work together in teams, and comfortable chairs for individual study. Nooks tucked off hallways enable teachers and students to gather in small groups, and wireless access points allow them to use portable digital devices anywhere in the building.

According to Philip Lanoue, the superintendent of Clarke County School District, where Barrow is located, “Our goal is that, when you walk into our buildings, you’re inspired to learn.” Barrow Elementary is among a dozen schools in Clarke County — and one of a growing number of schools nationwide — that have been designed or retrofitted to support new ways of learning.

The traditional classroom setup, with rows of desks facing forward, worked just fine when lecturing was the predominant form of instruction. But as more schools have shifted from a teacher-centric to a student-centric approach to learning, the design of K-12 learning spaces is evolving as well. 

“New kinds of learning require different approaches to classroom design,” said Leslie Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit One-to-One Institute, which advises schools on how to use technology to transform instruction.

Aided by mobile technologies, students are more able to work together in groups to solve problems or challenges, Wilson said. They’re also working independently with adaptive online software that tailors the lessons to meet their needs. They’re making movie trailers, designing photo books or creating other artifacts to demonstrate their learning. And the environments in which they do these tasks must be flexible enough to support this more active, collaborative style of learning — with students freed from desks and teachers untethered from the front of the room.

For this reason, many schools have begun integrating furniture that students and teachers can move around easily and put together in various configurations to accommodate different groupings. What’s more, many of these new desks, chairs and tables are ergonomically designed for greater comfort, “so that young people can get up and move around,” Wilson said. She noted: “Students aren’t stationary any more.”

Enabling Learning Anywhere
In Clarke County, district leaders are very deliberate about the design of their learning spaces. Lanoue said, “In every school project, we create a building design team composed of community members, parents, teachers, school leaders and the architect who facilitates the process, along with a member of the district building team.” 

Each of the district’s buildings has a different design based on a set of common principles, such as the use of agile, student-friendly learning spaces throughout the structure and support for wireless and digital learning environments. For instance, the hallways and common spaces at Barrow and several of the district’s other schools include flat-screen TVs, flexible furniture or simply comfortable places for students to sit and do work. “For us, learning can occur anywhere,” Lanoue said.

Supported by these more flexible learning environments, “our teachers have been able to design lessons to take full advantage of engaging students individually, in groups or as a whole class,” he explained. “Our ability to use furniture to transform class settings and configurations quickly and easily promotes greater student collaboration, which creates a 21st century learning environment. Students can finally learn in spaces that are more aligned to how we want students to engage while they are in school.”

5 Tips for Redesigning K-12 Classrooms

Want to rethink the design of learning spaces in your schools, but you’re not sure where to begin? Here are five suggestions.

1) Visit other schools.
Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of the One-to-One Institute, recommends visiting other schools to gather ideas for what is possible. “Touch it, see, it and visualize it,” she said. “You’ve got to see the space in your mind in order to create it.” 

2) Ask students what they want.
“Kids like being able to have a choice in where and how they learn,” said elementary school teacher Erin Klein. She had several conversations with her students about the type of learning environment they wanted, then set about creating it in her classroom.

3) Focus on the learning goals.
“Build learning spaces based on what you want kids to be able to do,” Wilson said. For instance, if you want students to be able to create artifacts using technology, you’ll need a space for creating — complete with the tools they will need to do this work. 

4) Pay attention to small details.
Focus not just on the arrangement of spaces, but also what’s on the walls, Klein advised. She cited research from Carnegie Mellon University that suggests how easily distracted students can become by stimuli that turn their attention away from the content.

5) Consider power supplies.
“Make sure you have enough power outlets to support recharging,” Wilson said. Some furniture manufacturers build power supplies directly into student seating, while Steelcase has introduced a new power distribution kit, called Thread, that runs power beneath a classroom carpet to anywhere in the room.

And the spaces themselves often are incorporated into the learning process — from maps of Georgia embedded in hallway floors, to exposed rainwater collection systems or imprints of native animals in concrete. “Our spaces themselves spark conversations,” Lanoue said.

Redesigning K-12 learning spaces can have a significant effect on student behavior, said Lennie Scott-Webber, director of education environments at Steelcase Education. “If you walk into a classroom and all the desks are arranged in rows, you are being conditioned for a certain behavior,” she said. This type of setup implies to students that they should stay in their seats and listen quietly to the lesson. By contrast, a classroom environment that is more open and inviting “gives students permission to act differently.”

Greg Green has seen this phenomenon firsthand as principal of Clintondale High School near Detroit, where the classrooms have been designed with active digital learning in mind. As in Clarke County, Clintondale students can reconfigure their desks quickly to support either whole-class or small-group instruction — and there are soft, comfortable seating options that allow students to work individually as well. Green said the design of the learning space plays a key role in setting up students for success. Aligning classroom design with the learning activities that will take place there “is something that school leaders haven’t thought about a lot in the past,” he said. “But that’s changing.” 

Unleashing Creativity
Thoughtfully designed learning environments can help unleash students’ creativity, as organizers of the Convergence Academies project in Chicago have found. In 2013, the Center for Community Arts Partnerships at Columbia College Chicago received a $3 million federal grant to establish a 21st century instructional model that integrates digital media and technology within two Chicago public schools, Morrill Math and Science School and Tilden Career Community Academy. As part of the project, organizers created a “digital atelier” (workshop) within each school.

The project’s co-director Mindy Faber said, “We wanted it to be a space powered by creativity and play, making a new kind of learning possible.” Faber and her colleagues enlisted the help of Archeworks, a nonprofit architectural firm, to design the ateliers with input from both students and teachers. “We asked kids about their hopes and dreams for the space,” Faber said. “We also developed a toolkit so other schools could build similar spaces.” The result, she said, is a “physical manifestation of connected learning” that is inspired by the “maker” culture.

One of the challenges that designers faced was resolving the tension between what students wanted and what their teachers wanted from the space. Teachers who were used to a traditional classroom layout favored a more structured learning environment, where they could see all students as the teenagers worked on their computers. Students, on the other hand, wanted spaces for collaboration — and also some private areas for doing independent work.

As a compromise, designers of the space divided it into two parts. One side looks more like a traditional computer lab, but with soft seating and tables for collaboration. The other side is a more informal space where students can lounge and quietly explore technology on their own. The furniture includes comfortable seating options, tables on casters that can be moved around easily, and electrical outlets built into all seating units so that students can plug in their digital devices. During the day, the space is used for project-based learning; after school, students can hang out and learn digital skills with the help of “atelaristas” who are adult mentors such as digital artists and filmmakers.

Researchers from the University of Illinois-Chicago are studying how the design of these informal learning spaces has affected student behavior, and early results suggest that students have benefited academically and beyond. Both schools have moved off the probation list since the digital ateliers opened, and students have enhanced their digital skills. Perhaps more importantly for these teens from low-income families, they now have “places where they can relax, develop caring relationships with adults, and explore their own identities,” Faber said.

Freeing Teachers and Students to Customize Their Classrooms
In many classrooms, new designs come with new furniture. Clarke County district leaders have incorporated furniture from manufacturers Smith System, Scholarcraft, and Mediatechnologies in their flexible learning environments. Clintondale High School worked with Steelcase to reconfigure its classrooms for 21st century instruction. The Convergence Academies in Chicago are using furniture from Bretford.

But educators don’t have to invest in high-end furniture to remodel their classrooms. According to  elementary school teacher Erin Klein, who studied interior design in college before becoming a teacher in Bloomfield Hills, MI, even small steps can make a big difference. Klein drew upon her design experience when rethinking her own classroom space. She started by rearranging students’ desks in different configurations, then realized that traditional desks were cumbersome and took up a lot of space. So she got rid of the desks altogether and brought in various seating options that she bought at discount stores. A breakfast nook table now serves as a space in which students can collaborate, while smaller tables can be moved around the room as needed. Klein also brought in some rocking chairs for students to sit with a book or a tablet.

“In design, you consult with the client to understand his or her needs,” she said. “Well, in education, our clients are the students. So I asked students what they wanted from the space, and I learned that variety was the key. Some students would prefer to sit, while others wanted a place to lie down. Just like with instruction, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to classroom design.”

Klein found that behavior in her classroom improved when she made these simple changes. Because her students were more comfortable in their new environment, they were more engaged in their work. And because they felt like the space was “theirs,” she said, they took more ownership of their learning. Inspired by this success, Klein has created, a website where educators can showcase their own redesigned classrooms and to learn from others. She also presents at ed tech conferences on the topic of learning space redesign.

“Children are comfortable researching with their devices,” she said. “When you set up spaces that allow them to do this, it makes differentiating instruction so much easier. And when you have more creative options for students to gather and have deep, meaningful conversations, I think you’re going to be really surprised by what your students are capable of.”