Collaborative and flexible learning spaces

6 strategies Australian Universities are using to design and develop collaborative and flexible learning spaces.

Over the last decade learning spaces have evolved from traditional lecture style classrooms to technology-enabled environments that promote collaborative learning. But no matter what stage you are at, designing and developing learning spaces is an ever evolving journey – and one that never stops.

In order to keep up, universities must constantly look for new and innovative ways of teaching and focus on how to design environments that are flexible enough to accommodate and create a dynamic, flexible, technology-rich and collaborative style of learning.

With this in mind, we take a look at six key strategies universities across Australia are using to design and develop flexible and collaborative learning spaces to enhance the learning experience and improve learning outcomes.

1. Involve students in the design process

“One thing that is really important when it comes to learning space design, is to start with a blank sheet. Start by asking your students: what is missing? What could we do to make your learning experience better?

Some of the information we gleaned from this processes was the frustration they had with current things we were providing. Our aim was to keep the slate clean, so students could provide ideas that nobody had ever thought about.

Pascale Quester, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic), University of Adelaide

2. Promote collaborative engagement

“At Macquarie University we’re moving into agile and responsive spaces that are based on the needs of learners. This creates the opportunity for collaborative engagement not only amongst students, but also for the educators working with them. Encouraging collaboration allows for project-based learning to occur in an authentic space.

For example, instead of having rows of desk and the knowledge standing at the front of a classroom, spaces are being adapted to promote collaborative engagement and in response to the needs of the learner rather than the teacher.

The learning space is changing as we move away from large theatres and lecture rooms to designing  rooms and spaces focused around facilitating collaboration.”

Professor Iain Hay, Director Professional, Learning and Engagement, Macquarie University

3. Design with flexibility in mind

“The other aim we had was to ensure the spaces remained flexible.We have a lot of flat floor to enable furniture to be moved around and we survey extensively in the hub to see how we can improve it. Currently, we have a few desk machines still in the hub, but we also need to service students who come to learn with their own laptops and want access to specific software. So we are providing access to cloud based software so students can access anything they need in the learning hub.

Based on our surveys we found that we didn’t have enough projectrooms to facilitate this, so we are busily extending the hub to include more project rooms, as we have found students like to work in groups with all their machines wired to the same screen.                                                                          

Pascale Quester, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic), University of Adelaide

4. Stay ahead of the Curve – Implement new technologies 

“When it comes to collaborative learning spaces, technology needs to support them. For example, the use of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) in learning. New technologies like VR are about engagement beyond online learning. We have the opportunity to design spaces and learning experiences where students can access lectures in real-time, as well as being face-to-face. A real blended learning experience.

At Macquarie University, we’re also looking at ways of designing a virtual classroom. This involves the design of a school classroom but providing different scenarios to the students through VR. For example, it might involve an activity where students are viewing particular situations and then they are asked to respond what they would do in this context. It is quite exciting and this is an example of using technology more broadly in the classroom to support a high level of engagement.                                                                                                                                       Professor Iain Hay, Director Professional, Learning and Engagement, Macquarie University

5. Keep it personalised -Let student shape their own learning experiences                                              

“This is a big conversation in Charles Sturt University at the moment. Some students are telling us they just want to get the content, do the assessments, get the degree and leave when it comes to learning. Whereas other students are telling us they want to be collaborative, interact with peers and co-construct knowledge in an active, vibrant learning community. We’re currently in a transition period where we are giving students choices to shape the type of learning experience they want. It is also important to provide opportunities for students to work with small groups. Some of our subjects have 500 students in them which can be very alienating. We’re trying to work our how we break down our learning community in smaller groups. Some areas we are considering are: what is the best learning community size? How do we create communities within a community? How can we foster good interaction between students? This is where the understanding of the teacher presence to manage additional online tools and discussion toolsis very important.”

Julie Lindsay, Quality Learning and Teacher Leader (Online), Charles Sturt University

6. Bring the teachers on the journey

“At Macquarie University we are testing a peer review process in relation to learning and teaching. We are supporting each other in communities of practice to reflect and develop our own pedagogies in these new spaces. For example, questioning whether or not we actually have to have lectures and looking at other ways of approaching learning. We are being quite reflexive about this and we want to reflect and develop actions. We are also asking students how they see improvement on what we are doing. We use this feedback as a baseline about our own pedagogy around delivering content but at the same time looking at how we can facilitate collaboration and creatively. It is also about taking our own staff on the journey from moving from a traditional transmission of knowledge to a more dynamic use of space as pedagogy.”

Professor Iain Hay, Director Professional, Learning and Engagement, Macquarie University

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