May 14, 2019

Transforming Your Classrooms In Five (Not So) Easy Steps

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

One faculty member can’t teach the way she wants because her studio class is scheduled in a seminar room. Another can’t have his students interact in small groups because the room is too densely packed with seats. You have large lecture halls that either sit empty much of the day or are filled with students toward the back of the room that could be much better engaged online. The new, interactive classroom you just built is frustrating your faculty because they didn’t get the training they need, and the typical classrooms are confusing because there is no standard A/V setup. Students are failing your introductory courses and limiting their path to success. These are just some of the problems we hear from campuses. They boil down to this: there is a mismatch between the learning experiences you want to create and the type, size, location, and technology of the portfolio of classrooms you provide.

This is a big problem and you are not alone. As of about 10 years ago, there were about 208 million square feet of classrooms at four-year public and non-profit colleges and universities.1

brightspot’s student experience snapshot data shows that only 62% of students view their interactions in the classroom positively.

The National Survey of Student Engagement measures the time students spend on activities that correlate with student success and by its measure, only 40% of students are engaged nationally. Typically, institutions aim for classrooms utilization of 65% of 45 hours per week or about 29 hours per week – this decreases to 50% utilization if you assume a 60 week of say 9am to 9am and decreases further to 37.5% utilization if you account for three lost months of summer.

Not only is the classroom experience and utilization subpar, but the rise of fully-online courses and hybrid courses that blend online and face-to-face interaction demand a fresh look at the classrooms on your campus. If you conservatively assume that classrooms cost $17 per square foot to build and operate annually,2 then we are not using that $3.56 billion annual investment wisely. In this post, we’ll outline the five steps to transform your portfolio of classrooms so that students can be more actively engaged. This leads to greater student success and allows institutions to make better use of their space in achieving their educational mission. This kind of transformation isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

University of South Carolina Moore School of Business (Image Credit: Rafael Viñoly Architects)

First, a quick note on terminology. Astute observers of higher education trends and champions of active learning – where students are actively engaged in constructing and applying knowledge rather than passively absorbing – will note that “classroom” has become an outdated term in the most forward-thinking circles. “Learning space” is a better term because rather than harken back to a lecture hall and a didactic mode, it conjures images of students working terms with an instructor facilitating their learning through a mix of lectures, activities, discussions, and projects – individually and in groups. But since 99% of the population uses the term classroom, we’ll go with that.

George Mason University Innovation Hall (Image Credit: VMDO)

1. Design Learning Experiences to Establish Your Vision
To transform your portfolio of classrooms, you need to start with a vision for what your ideal learning experiences will be in the future. Of course, there is no one ideal as it varies from discipline to discipline and level to level. There are key questions that institutions must answer to provide a sense of direction and make decisions about their classroom spaces, the furniture and technology within them, and the ways faculty teach in them. These include: What is the right mix of abstract vs. applied learning? What is the right balance of on-campus vs. online learning? What’s the goal in terms of lecture-based instruction vs. active learning? What is the ratio of classes taught by full-time faculty vs. adjunct instructors? What is the target student-to-faculty ratio? What are the target class sizes, for instance, is there a cap on how many large classes a student should take?

2. Assess Your Classroom Portfolio – Physically and Programmatically
Informed by your vision for what you want the learning experience to be, you can then assess the current state of your classroom portfolio. Start by analyzing your current inventory of spaces by basics like size, type, seating density, and location. Then add layers to this analysis including using a tool like the Learning Space Rating System as a rubric to assess quality as well as utilization data pulled from the scheduling system. Combine these quantitative data with qualitative data from conversations with faculty, students, and staff in interviews, observations, focus groups, and surveys. Pull this all together and look at it through the lens of your vision; where are you delivering and where are you falling short? For instance, it may be that you aspire to enable active learning in all your classrooms but most rooms are so densely packed with chairs in order to hit throughput needs within your scheduling window that there’s no room for faculty to do anything but lecture.

3. Forecast Future Needs: Courses and Classrooms
With the vision and current state assessment complete, you can then forecast future needs. The core of this activity is to distill two sets of types: “course types” that describe the activities going on in the room and “room types” that describe the configuration of the space, furniture, and technology to support those activities. These types ensure that you don’t end up assigning studio art to a seminar room, but they also serve as useful units for forecasting future needs. First, you forecast the future number and size of each course type. Then you relate the room types to the course type; for instance, an introductory physics course can go in a 100 seat lecture hall or a SCALE-UP classroom. Putting these together, you then have the future portfolio of classrooms needed. In our experience, gaining buy-in to these two types is the hard part and will require several iterations and meetings with facilities, technology, registrar, and leaders across various schools. Running the numbers is the easy part.

Existing vs. Utilization Classroom Analysis

4. Perform a Gap Analysis: Your Current Portfolio vs. Future Needs
Next, perform a gap analysis comparing the current portfolio with your future needs. This will determine how many of what type of room is needed and how your space needs to transform, based on a variety of factors. Some rooms will be the right size but poor quality. Others will be the right size but the wrong layout. Others might be the right size and layout but in the wrong location (i.e., too far from the students and faculty with demand for it). So, you’ll need to look across all of this and prioritize which gaps to address and come up with a kind of “playbook” of different interventions, ideally each with a ballpark cost. These might include options like: leave alone, lightly renovate, heavily renovate, combine with the adjacent room, divide in half, relocate function elsewhere, or decommission entirely.

5. Create an Implementation Plan
You can never snap your fingers and renovate your entire portfolio of classrooms overnight or even over the summer; funding comes in waves and generally, you need to keep teaching in some percentage of your space to keep operating. So, you need a phased implementation plan based on your budget, schedule, coordination with other projects, and consideration of potential disruption. As you execute the plan, you’ll need to assess effectiveness on a regular rhythm such as annually to enable learning from one phase to the next. As you do this, consider the technology support for the classroom so you are thinking about space, support services, and staffing simultaneously – what makes or breaks the use of a high-tech room might very well be the proximity and responsiveness of your support team. Finally, you also can’t change the learning experience overnight and need to integrate organizational change management into your planning and implementation processes, including communications about what’s happening, when, and why; faculty development in new teaching techniques and tools; and training on the rooms’ uses, configurations, and technology.

Service Center Canvas for Instructional Technology Support

Recommendations for Getting Started

Good luck as you follow this roadmap to transform your classrooms. We have a few suggestions to help you make the most of this process based on our experience with these kinds of projects.

  1. Form committees that include the right mix of people in the process, including academic leaders, a mix of faculty, a mix of students, and staff from the registrar’s office, facilities, and the center for teaching and learning (e.g., instructional designers).
  2. Expect that the average space per seat will go up so there will be a loss in the number of seats that you’ll need to account for with a mix of strategies including increasing utilization, decreasing classroom contact hours (e.g, through blended courses), moving to fully-online courses, or adding space as a last resort.
  3. Take this opportunity to move large lecture courses more than about 300 people into a more effective online mode. This will create much better connection between faculty and student than there can be from the front of the room to the back row 100+ feet away.
  4. Make the hard choices to take the worst offender classrooms offline, even if they can’t be renovated as classrooms in the future; for instance, because of their tiers. It’s now or never!
  5. Use this opportunity to shift the balance more toward central classroom control. This typically enables higher utilization, greater consistency, better furniture, and updated technology while still providing booking priority (but not ownership) to specific departments.

Good luck as you move ahead. Following these five steps and putting these recommendations to work will help you fix the mismatch between the learning experiences you want to create and the type, size, location, and technology of the portfolio of classrooms you provide. While it may not all be easy, it will be worth it. In the end, you can expect increased student success and engagement, higher occupancy and utilization, and a more strategic use of your places, programs, and people.


Endnote 1: This is based on the Society of College and University Planners (SCUP) Campus Facility Index 2007 which calculated an average of 13.2 NASF per student for public institutions and 19.1 NASF per student for private non-profit institutions, times enrollment of 160 million students and 47 million students, respectively, using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

Endnote 2: This assumes $200 per square foot, annualized over a 20-year lifespan, plus $7 per square in annual operating cost using NACUBO data.

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