The Yardstick of Planning Physical Environments for Learning

How is the planning of physical environments for learning influenced by the broader institutional context and culture?

How does the linear process of planning new spaces mesh with the iterative and cyclical reform initiatives focusing on student success, faculty careers, programs and pedagogies, and community outreach that are an integral part of academic life today? 

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As the roundtables proceeded, a “yardstick” became a useful metaphorical tool for exploring questions about questions to ask—why, when, and by whom—when focusing on the future of planning learning spaces. Consider that a yardstick might represent a 36” planning timeline for a broad range of ongoing, campus-wide strategic initiatives. Consider how it helps to visualize how the linear planning process so familiar to architects connects to the iterative and cyclical nature of academic strategic planning.

Different approaches to integrating a 3” facilities planning timeline for moving from programming through construction were put forth in the roundtables. Collectively they illustrate the complexity of connecting major institutional initiatives and the essential need to do so. Thinking of the early adoption curve from dissemination research, one team at the University of Illinois at Chicago LSC Roundtable put the facilities planning timeline 3” near the two-thirds mark of the yardstick. From:

Dave Broz, Principal and Education Practice Leader – Gensler
Wendy Jeanes, Assistant Director, Campus Learning Environments - University of Illinois at Chicago
Julie Johnston, Director of Learning Spaces - Indiana University

Any space that is built is not perfect. It is based on vision established at least five years back, executed while the world continues to change. It should not be expected that spaces will remain static. Thus incorporating time and budget for that continual change into the timeline is imperative, as is a process for ongoing feedback about what works and why, a process for continual fine-tuning of the space as programs and people keep evolving. In considering this planning from an institutional perspective, we also explored how the intentional monitoring the evolution of a particular facilities project can inform the planning of new spaces—perhaps even spawn new spaces as the campus community becomes aware of best practices, what works.

This is where we thought about the dissemination research as informing planning — beginning with a team of individuals recognized as reflective pioneers in thinking about new pedagogies and programs, research on how learning happens, strategic initiatives campus-wide. Focus on this group first and you begin to go up the curve; you are building a culture ready for change when it comes.

An example from Julie Johnston, Indiana University: I was asked to give a specific example of how this works, so here is my story:

At Indiana University, we are involved in an active learning initiative called MOSAIC. There were lots of little pieces to this puzzle along the way before the campus-wide initiative was announced to the community last fall.

First, there had to be a vision and that vision had to be shared with upper level administration. At that point, our vision was really very muddy (nothing’s perfect), except that we knew we needed some type of learning spaces. We knew we needed some kind of transformative initiative event. We had been doing ‘sandbox’ spaces along the way, but then this huge, beautiful space became available—an old swimming pool. Now it is our collaborative learning studio. If you Google ‘collaborative learning studio’ our space at IU is always that first that comes up. It is just one of those spaces that everyone loves.

Well, it wasn’t what you might call transformative, but what we were about was creating the ‘buzz.’ So everyone takes tours. The President takes those tours. The CIO takes tours. This is where, all of a sudden, faculty want to teach in those spaces.

This did not happen by chance. It did not fail because we put the right faculty into the spaces. We gathered feedback. We circled around; we researched it and published our research.

But it’s OK to fail. So we took some of the areas that did not work so well, and redid them, knowing what made a room succeed. And all along the way we had more events, more events, and more—leading up to a major initiative. It was first these small transformations and then a bigger one and then a whole commitment to an entire building. The leadership is with all of us talking about the same shared vision language. There is also a commitment for $800,000 to support technologies and other tools to enhance active learning.

But, as with every change management undertaking, there has to be an even bigger catalyst. For us it is the announcement of an active learning initiative through which we will train our faculty as we build active learning classrooms across campus. The whole ‘why’ we do this is to improve the learning experience of our students.