Scaling up: Learning space design to support large (inter)active workshops

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the way space is used in education, forcing educators to innovatively support learning in a range of hybrid spaces that seek greater integration of the physical and virtual, or bring the relational more fully into online settings. Supporting this range of modes at scale presents challenges in terms of equity and quality in active learning.

In the Business School at the University of Sydney, we’re delivering the Connected Learning at Scale (CLaS) project to transform the learning experience in large units by implementing innovations that support three key pedagogical principles: active information engagement, connected participation, and authentic assessment and feed-forward.

Through our learning spaces pilot we are focusing on the second of these principles – exploring how learning spaces actually support (inter)active learning and connected participation at scale. We take an activity-centred approach to analysis and design (Goodyear, Carvalho & Yeoman, 2021) and the questions we’re asking include:

  • What kinds of spaces do we need to support (inter)active learning at scale?
  • How can current spaces be transformed to support emerging needs?
  • How can technology be integrated to best support this kind of learning?
  • What re-usable patterns for quality learning within these spaces can be shared?

Experimenting in ‘sandpit’ spaces

The current pilot builds on the learning from two earlier experimental learning spaces in the Business School’s Abercrombie Building.

Starting small…

In 2018, the uniform furnishings of a 30-seat seminar room (Rm 2280) were removed to make way for flexible furniture with the potential to support various forms of collaborative and active learning. The space became a ‘living, learning laboratory’ where teachers, students and researchers explored connections between the physical learning environment and the learning activity it accommodated through observation, experimentation, and sharing.

Our aim was to establish if we could increase productive forms of movement, in support of a range of valued task types (Law, Herrara, Chan & Pong, 2017), through the introduction of furnishings that would seat everyone concurrently but not uniformly. Selections were made to accommodate learning activity with seating on three levels, created with the introduction of seating at different heights. This Teaching@Sydney article illustrates how this set-up could be (re)configured to accommodate different group sizes, visual orientations, and zones of activity over time.

Reconfigured 30-seat space to support active and collaborative learning (Rm 2280)

An ethnographic study (Yeoman & Wilson, 2019) was carried out in this room over a semester, and it revealed a qualitative shift in learning activity facilitated by improved eye-contact and increased fluidity of movement that supported a rich array of instructor-student and student-student interaction. It also revealed the value of empty or unconfigured space, into which students were free to move to accomplish all manner of tasks.

Doubling the form…

Confident the arrangement in the initial ‘sandpit’ positively impacted on student learning activity, the question then became: how would a similar arrangement work with a large class? Could we simply double the furniture in a bigger space? What would we need to add, or take away? And how could we maintain the benefits of the previous set-up in a larger room?

In furnishing the ‘blue room’ we doubled the existing set up and included other features such as double-sided writable surfaces that could also function as room dividers, and small round tables that could be used with ottomans or raised to support standing work at whiteboards or impromptu conversations in empty spaces.

Observations were carried out in the ‘blue room’ when it was in use, in the gaps between classes, and at the end of the day. Using time-lapse photography we captured patterns of movement over time, and photographic ‘footprints’ to record what remained when classes were no longer in session. This provided a rich visual repository from which we developed a strong sense of how these furnishings were used across a range of classes, and how they were being reconfigured between classes.

One thing we learnt very quickly was that flexible furniture at this scale has a tendency to ‘fly apart’ or dissipate, and this was in sharp contrast to the almost indestructible coherence of the same setting at the smaller scale. In addition, the ability to change the configuration of the space to suit different learning needs was central to our design. But, in this larger space, with a greater supply of pieces of the same size and shape it was possible to re-create more conventional set-ups, and whilst we happily anticipated re-configuration this was not what we hoped to promote. This reassertion of previous forms was carried out by a small minority of students and staff, and it meant we were always checking-in to reset the space for others to use as originally intended.

It also highlighted the need to reconsider timetabling processes to ensure a good alignment between the design of a space and the types of learning activity scheduled into it. But above all, it taught us to proceed with caution when it comes to flexible (moveable) furnishings; and to rethink the balance between what should be fixed and what should be free to move, in a room this size, with little to no down time in which a semblance of order can be re-established in the gaps between classes.

Scaling up further…

Another opportunity to experiment with learning space, in support of the goals of the CLaS project, led to the reconfiguration of a 90-seat room (60 with the Covid-19 requirement for social distancing). As the floorplate in the ‘red room’ (Rm 2100) had three graduated tiers, it offered an opportunity to explore how these in-built ‘zones’ could be designed to support different stages in a single period of (inter)active learning.

Drawing on previous work about active learning and making in the social sciences (Bryant, 2019), the reconfiguration involved replacing existing conventional furniture with suitable furniture sourced from the wider university. In addition, several portable whiteboards with acoustic panels were designed and purchased. The new furniture and whiteboards contributed to the zoning of the room and provided the additional benefit of acting as sound barriers between different groups. 

  • Launchpad: as illustrated in the left-hand picture, the first zone (the front of the room) was designed as a ‘launchpad’ for a class where mini-lectures, demos, or any other activity requiring a shared focus of attention could be held.
  • The huddle: the second zone was designed so that the whole group of 60 could be divided into two ‘tutorial groups’ each with one tutor to facilitate learning (with the option of sound partitions to be used where necessary).
  • Focus: the second and third zones could both be used to accommodate ‘students at work’ in groups. Each group has access to a shared computer screen and collaborative software tools. The third zone includes numerous writing surfaces and standing tables and is intended to support visual thinking, sketching, concept mapping etc.
  • Debrief: the room was designed so that students could return to zone 1 for a final debrief and wrap-up session at the conclusion of the tutorial/workshop.

While the above pattern had originally been conceived of by Peter Bryant (The University of Sydney Business School) and Wendy Sammels of the company Think Forward in relation to a much bigger space (400 students), it could not be tested due to Covid-19 restrictions. The thinking behind the 400-seat space was informed by the award winning LSE Centre Building project (in particular the Learning Commons), and the Hive Studio. However, the 90-seat space did give us the opportunity to implement some of what was learned at a more modest scale.

Additions to support hybrid learning

In 2021, when some students were learning on-campus and others remotely, we added new technology to both the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ rooms in the form of Microsoft Surface Hubs to support hybrid learning. These portable devices offered us the ability to combine video conferencing, collaboration, as well as digital whiteboard and presentation capabilities into one device and, most importantly, to provide a stronger connection between students in the room and students learning remotely.

Several classes used the Hubs as a video conferencing tool that allowed teaching staff to move more freely around the rooms whilst teaching instead of being stationed behind the main lectern area for the duration of the class. In addition, for classes with a large online cohort, the Hubs were used as a collaboration tool by students in the room to better engage with their online counterparts and conduct group work tasks in small groups. 

What’s next?

In the first semester of 2021 we conducted a pilot study in the ‘red room’. This involved testing a newly developed observational instrument that captures learning activity over time in this space, including levels of interaction and the movement of both teachers and students. The instrument and initial observational findings are the subject of an ongoing research project, and we look forward to sharing what we are learning – about how to effectively design learning spaces to support large interactive workshops – in the not-too-distant future!

Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

jessica tyrrell
Lecturer in Educational Development at University of Sydney

humble educator | radical creativity | critical curiosity

Published by Stephanie Wilson, jessica tyrrell, Pippa Yeoman and Craig Purcell

Stephanie is a Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director (CLaS) with the Business Co-design team at Sydney University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). She enjoys working with others to explore new approaches to learning and teaching inspired by design practice and the arts.

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