ISTE 2016 Coverage

Extreme Makeover School Edition

Panelists and teachers discuss how we should be changing the design of classrooms.

There’s been a lot of talk already about how the traditional classroom setup — with tidy rows of desks facing forward to the teacher — doesn’t work as well as it used to in today’s classroom.

Since technology is allowing the paradigm to shift from instructor-centered learning to student-centered learning, the design of the classroom is in flux as well. So what should the learning space of the 21st century look like? This was the subject of several panels at ISTE 2016 in Denver this last week, including a session held Monday afternoon in the Colorado Convention Center’s Mile High Ballroom.

“Extreme Makeover School Edition: Innovative Learning Spaces” was organized by Dell, a gold sponsor of ISTE. The presenters were Erik Moore, executive director of academic computing at Adams 12 Five Star Schools in Thornton, CO; Kecia Ray, executive director at the Center for Digital Education and chair of the ISTE board of directors; and Lauren Hobbs, educational strategist for Dell who’s based in Tampa, FL. They were assisted by a Dell education strategy team that consisted of Adam Gary, Naomi Harm and Jeremiah Okal-Frink.

Setting an example, the room where this panel was taking place was arranged non-traditionally: Several tables were in the middle and attendees sat facing each other; chairs ran along the side of the hall; a couple of couch chairs dotted the environs; and a few standing stations with computers were set up near the back.

“New learning spaces should maximize community engagement,” said Ray, who’s an expert and leader in the field of ed tech. “You can have a central hub of inquiry, information research, experimentation and hands-on design time.”

Ray mentioned many environmental factors that can affect learning, such as lighting, temperature, the color palette, the seating arrangement, aesthetics and acoustics. She showed photographs of classrooms with bright and varied colors, as well as comfortable and relaxing seating arrangements.

Moore guided an avatar through virtual classrooms, adding and subtracting different elements that would be most conducive to study and learning. One of the assistants operated the avatar, making it jump and flip as one might do in a video game.

Moore said window tinting and lighting should be adjustable and were important elements in the classroom. He also suggested using microphones and cameras, as one might do on a TV or film set.

“For me, a classroom is really two things,” Moore said. “One, it has to be a highly transparent space to all the data, reducing the transactional distance. Then, it has to be a safe space. It’s kind of paradoxical.”

Hobbs, who travels from school to school and has aided in “connected learning experiences” for more than 75,000 kids, said it is critical to ask for student input.

“We asked kids, ‘How do you learn best?’ It was really neat to hear some of their answers. The teacher is no longer the holder of all knowledge. The teacher is partner in obtaining knowledge. Some of the kids like listening to music. Most like to learn in groups. Occasionally, we hear, ‘I really like to work alone.’ Design principles should reflect that students come first. Learners should have voice and choice. Positive relationships lead to positive outcomes. And we should be failing forward.”

Hobbs showed some slides of innovative classrooms, including one that looked more like a teacher’s break room with small, circular tables and orange chairs, and a garden setting that hardly looked like a classroom at all.

She said she has suggested to many instructors to get rid of the teacher’s desk altogether. Many have balked at that idea. “Where am I going to put all my stuff?” was a common response, Hobbs said.

“Getting rid of the teacher’s desk created a flexible learning environment,” she said.

The session then shifted to the attendees, most of whom were teachers. They were asked to come up with different ideas, as well as the biggest challenges to changing the traditional classroom.

The No. 1 challenge? Money, or lack thereof.

Hobbs suggested getting alumni from a school to sponsor a classroom. She also recommended coming up with a detailed plan, then implementing it step by step.

Hobbs pointed out that teachers should communicate closely with IT people, to ensure that any implementation of new technology would be consistent with a school’s capabilities.

“Always go back and ask students how they learn best, where and why,” she said.

Hobbs offered a website,, which provides examples of new, innovative classroom designs.

The presentation ended with a slide that provided almost a dozen different websites where one can learn about classroom redesign, including Design Thinking For Educators and Edutopia Classroom Redesign Series.

Kelly Hillier, a third grade teacher from Ashville, NC, said she got a fair amount out of the session.

“It’s a lot of information, but at the same time, you can see what’s there, technology-wise, or extend what you already know,” she said. “I do want to change what my classroom looks like, a little at a time. It all comes down to money.”

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