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home | Feature Articles | Designing the Perfect Classroom

Designing the Perfect Classroom

Designing the Perfect Classroom
Michael David Leiboff
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Having worked on planning literally hundreds of new classroom facilities projects, from K-12 through ivy league universities, one thing is clear to us here at MIE, and that is that developing a program of requirements or concept design for classrooms is always a moving target, and keeps darting here and there not only throughout the planning and implementation process, but well after the room(s) are complete and being used.


We've argued in these pages that focusing on equipment is counter productive in facilities design.  Infrastructure holds the promise of future flexibility and ultimately needs to drive the design. 


The hard part is to understand how a classroom, seminar room, lecture hall or auditorium will be used as a learning space, to understand the interpersonal dynamics that will occur, which informs what infrastructure should be provided.


Moreover, how will presentation techniques be used both to provide information and facilitate discussions?  Will students say put, or will they re-arrange themselves into work group?  What tools might students and teachers require?


And, just to make things a bit more confusing, in some spaces, the environment will be fairly consistent.  In others, a higher degree of flexibility is needed.


So, how do we create the perfect smart classroom?  By designing it to be flexible, embrace technology, and accommodate the needs of the moment.  The perfection is in a room's potential, not any given equipment fitup.  Implementing a great teaching space is knowing the range of capabilities that may reasonably be required.
start quoteWhile it is difficult to build the perfect classroom, a flexible classroom comes close.end quote


User agreement on those requirements in important, and a problem in and of itself.


Consensus among project stakeholders is usually difficult to achieve.  In many projects we've been involved in, we are sorry to say, it is virtually impossible.  Certainly, not all teachers use the same techniques in their classrooms.  Moreover, some teachers are more comfortable with using technology, while others are less so.  Therefore, one reason the concept design process may wander here and there may be due to lack of a clear consensus. 


Another reason is that new stake holders become involved in the design process over time. 


A third is that years can pass between the time a project is envisioned, and when it is actually built.  Ideas continue to evolve.  Technology changes and becomes more cost effective.  Finally the building gets built and new staff members become involved.  New sources of funding and grants continue to change the landscape as well.


And so it goes.  We're often asked how we can predict how to design tomorrow's classroom today.  Typically, the question refers to choosing equipment.  The key question should be, "How can we design a classroom at a time when the learning environment is rapidly evolving?"


In truth, the evolutionary nature of the classroom has as much to do with pedagogy as  changes in technology or equipment.  Also, the learning curve of a user community develops over time.  Those with less experience tend to change slowly.  In those school districts or institutions with a history of  rapid media enhancements move more quickly, there is a momentum to try new things.


Classrooms should be conceived as spaces that can, should, and inevitably must change (within certain parameters) over time.   In fact, the notion of classroom as sandbox, changing over the course of semester, a week, or even a throughout the day is one that is being increasingly adopted within the education community.


With change as a key driver, classroom design must be supported first and foremost by providing the appropriate range of infrastructure to accommodate a range of technologies and equipment over the life of the building.


A word of caution however; creating the most flexible room possible may limit how well a space can meet specific requirements.  More about this pitfall in a future article.


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