Shape shifters: tech and the learning space

Technology is increasingly determining the geography of the classroom; Simon Fry investigates how today’s learning spaces got their shapes

As learning continues its evolution from blackboards and books to screens and devices, so too the environment in which the student sits continues its metamorphosis. Across the UK and beyond, increased use of technology requires a variety of spaces wherein educators can teach their students most effectively or students can learn by themselves in private, often outside teaching hours.

Related news: NMITE wins 2019 Employer Recognition Scheme silver award 

Government-backed groundbreaker

government-backed groundbreaker

Hereford’s New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering (NMITE) is working towards transforming engineering higher education. Since September 2018, NMITE has worked with nearly 40 young people to help co-design and co-create the future learner experience. As soon as the approval processes have been completed, NMITE looks forward to opening its doors to its first cohort of students.

NMITE’s teaching approach will be based on studio-based learning; its first building, a 3,250 square-metre site, is currently being equipped to provide teaching and learning spaces including studios, workshops and breakout areas. “The design of the spaces has been influenced by the use of devices offering flexibility and making it easier to blend content and set down the learning path for diverse audiences,” said Martha Guerrero, full professor, digital and partnership lead at NMITE. The major change at NMITE is the relationship between learners and educators and how they interact in and with the learning spaces, be it studio, classroom, lab or workshop. “It won’t be just about using wifi or Bluetooth or providing sockets for charging devices or power to boards, screens and printers.”   

Today’s learners are more relaxed than previous generations. Not only will they sit and attend a seminar but now they are more likely to sit on sofas or on the floor while interacting with their devices, even finding quiet corners when looking for some privacy.
– Martha Guerrero, NMITE

The use of portable devices is influencing the position students take while learning, according to Guerrero: “Today’s learners are more relaxed than previous generations. Not only will they sit and attend a seminar but now they are more likely to sit on sofas or on the floor while interacting with their devices, even finding quiet corners when looking for some privacy.” NMITE’s learning spaces are being designed to fulfil all learners’ needs; quiet spaces, collaboration spaces, inspirational spaces and spaces for one-to-one meetings, group meetings and seminars.

The fact that devices are portable has positive and potentially negative consequences for lecturers and tutors at NMITE. “We will have more freedom to teach in flexible and creative ways and will be able to choose the time we want to upload information or mark. We can even join discussion groups remotely. However, the drawbacks are that sometimes learners want real-time feedback, even over the weekends, or become digitally distracted during lectures.”

Teaching taken everywhere

The DfE’s strategy outlines ways in which industry and education can work together to address the UK’s most pressing educational challenges

In April 2019, the UK government produced a strategy to realise the potential of technology in education, aiming to lessen teacher workload, foster efficiencies and drive improvements in education for students and teachers. An increase in data-driven edtech will expand across the UK’s education spectrum with the introduction of full fibre broadband by 2033. Technologies such as after-school and adult learning apps, virtual learning environments and online degrees will change formal higher education and transform the traditional career path. Personalisation, adaptive learning, video content, gamification and immersion technology are also changing the way people learn, and in turn, how people are being taught.

Mounting solutions provider Unicol strives to enhance this freedom to engage with technology. Many Unicol designs feature an element of customisation such as the inclusion of PC, switchgear, connectivity devices, visualiser and video conference (VC) codec and camera. “When technology is mobile, almost anywhere becomes a classroom,” says Rachel Hunt, Unicol’s marketing director. “With portable devices the teaching environment could be in a corridor, atrium or just a ‘space’. The constraining factors are an electricity supply and the mobility of the screen support.”

In higher education, collaboration within groups and technology is highly regarded. Furniture such as tables designed for collaboration broadens users’ ability to interact and use a range of technology. Within the lecture theatre’s confines, teaching-aid desks make for lectures with the content and sound expected of tech-savvy students.

Alfresco engagement

alfresco engagement
Personal devices mean pupils are no longer tethered to desks

At Ashford School in Kent, children from Years 3–11 each have a device, allowing for mobility and access to information anywhere.

“We are no longer restricted to ICT rooms for our students to engage with technology,” said Neelam Parmar, director of educational technology, digital learning and innovation.

I am beginning to see a crisis of classroom management when portable devices are introduced because portable devices take away the inherent control of ‘sit down and be quiet’.
– Dr Angelina Dayton, The VR Lady

Having one-to-one devices has given the school the flexibility it requires. Students are able to move around, switch groups, carry on with differentiated tasks and continue where they last left off. “We have used our devices in outdoor augmented reality projects,” says Parmar. “At Ashford, the cloud (office 365 suite of tools), iSams, Showbie and Seesaw are key pieces of technology for teachers. Working in the cloud is a game-changer for teachers and students. School-based materials and resources are now available anytime, any place and via any device. This is where it’s made its greatest impact.”

Movement requires mobility

movement requires mobility
Tech such as VR requires students to be able to move around freely

Dr Angelina Dayton, The VR Lady, has brought technology to teaching in Cherokee Nation, a sovereign tribal government within the US state of Oklahoma. Dr Dayton says: “I have introduced virtual reality to over 50 schools within Cherokee Nation. In doing so, I have piloted the experience in many classrooms. Most notable is the transformation of space within the classroom. Student movement in headsets is not conducive to sitting at a desk, even for stationary experiences.”

Dayton has found that when there is a need for full body movement in virtual reality, desks and chairs are often moved, or the students themselves are relocated to larger areas to allow for movement. “Portable devices such as iPads and virtual reality headsets allow for a child to move as children are naturally inclined to do,” she says.

However, there are also challenges that come with more flexible environments. For instance, the physical freedom required for children to use such technology may also erode an educator’s ability to keep their attention. “Before the advent of Western schooling and the industrialised model of classroom management, learning took place experientially,” says Dayton.

“I often witness the use of desks as a means of control used by novice teachers. However, I am beginning to see a crisis of classroom management when portable devices are introduced because portable devices take away the inherent control of ‘sit down and be quiet’.”

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The physical educational environment has been transformed almost beyond recognition through the introduction of technology. Classrooms with rows of desks have given way to sofas, breakout spaces, outdoor learning and virtual reality. Children and students can learn anywhere at any time. Schools and universities will need to meet the expectations of present and future generations, meaning learning spaces will continue to evolve.