How Steelcase Redesigned the 21st Century College Classroom

When it comes to creative office spaces, “collaboration” and “flexibility” are the bywords of the moment. Companies happily invest in modular furniture and open-plan layouts that make it easier for workers to actually, well, work together. So wouldn’t it be natural for college campuses nationwide -- the feeders of tomorrow’s office workers -- to create like-minded classrooms? The truth is, most college classrooms look shockingly similar to those that our parents and grandparents were educated in. You know exactly what we’re talking about: those cavernous lecture halls, with podiums fronting endless rows of one-arm tablet desks. “That model has existed forever,” says Elise Valoe, senior design researcher for Steelcase, and has created a real mismatch between the skills employers want and how students actually learn. “Instead of students doing rote memorization of facts,” she goes on, “there’s a new demand for students to be critical thinkers, have great communication skills and collaborate.” Pedagogies have changed, but classrooms haven’t. Steelcase’s tech-enabled “LearnLabs” are trying to change that. Though better known for designing office furniture, the Grand Rapids-based manufacturer says it’s been experimenting with higher education for about a decade, ever since terms like “knowledge economy” and “creative class” started rolling off people’s tongues. For Steelcase, the dearth of attention paid to 21st century college students and their learning styles is a ripe business opportunity. What does a typical LearnLab look like? Instead of rows of desks, you’ve got tables angled around the space, where small groups of students sit in ultra-flexible swivel chairs, while the instructor moves freely around the room. Suddenly, students have nowhere to hide; they can’t even fall asleep (the horror!). But the space is also designed to hold their attention. Tables have “huddle boards” -- little, mobile whiteboards for small group work that can later be shared with the entire class. Multiple projection screens on each wall, sports bar-like, keep students stimulated by giving everyone a front-row advantage. Maybe the most impressive innovation of all here are the media:scape tables, designed jointly with IDEO. The tables let students project content directly from their laptops to overhead projectors with just a flip of a switch. “We know the concept improves learning, it meets the needs of the students and instructors and it helps outcomes, grades and attendance. Now we’re measuring how much,” says Valoe.

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One school to see positive results is Arizona State University. There, chemistry students used a LearnLab as a studio of sorts to build Lego models for understanding chemical reactions and make spectroscopes out of cardboard and DVDs. All of that visual, hands-on work helped boost ASU’s chemistry class retention by 5 percent; grades are up 3 to 4 percent.

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Another school is Richland College in Dallas. Classes taught in one of its six LearnLabs saw a 10 percent jump in the average grades compared with those taught in traditional classrooms. Professor Ambronita Douzart conducted the case study in her undergraduate history course, comparing 23 students in a LearnLab to a seminar class of 79. In the LearnLabs, 65 percent got As and none failed, whereas in the traditional class less than half got As and 4 percent failed. Most educators would attribute that kind of grade differential to LearnLab’s smaller class size, but Douzart says there’s more to the story. “Students were more engaged [in the LearnLab] because of the design of the room and the collaborative setting,” she says. “They were able to not only listen but to interact more and ask more questions.” So why don’t we see LearnLabs everywhere? For starters, at $60,000 a pop, they’re expensive. And just enhancing a room with fancy flatscreens and cool tables won’t automatically boost student achievement. Instructors need to have adequate training, too, says Richland College Dean Roy Bond. “What we didn’t want to do was to build Learnlabs and leave it up to instructors,” he says. “With Steelcase’s help, we developed some training in the technology and cooperative learning for them. We don’t put anyone in a Learnlab who hasn’t had the training.” There are now more than 80 LearnLabs around the country. Many of them are at community colleges, where prepping students for the working world is a chief priority and educators are willing to try just about anything that’ll help to that end. Four-year universities -- especially ones focused on enrolling as many students per square foot as possible -- have been slow to embrace the LearningLab idea because it calls for smaller, collaborative group work (which presumably translates to a slimmer net income). University of Minnesota Education Professor Roger Johnson and his brother David, also a professor at Minnesota, have been studying collaborative learning for some four decades. “Students walk in to a classroom and can think one of three ways,” Roger Johnson says. “’Who do I have to beat in order to be successful? What do I have to do get an A and ignore everyone around me? Or: ‘Who can I expect to get support and feedback from?’” He says exhaustive research dating back to the 18th century is pretty convincing. “If you want more students to learn the material, you don’t keep them separate and apart. You build a cooperative relationships where they think, ‘We’re not done until everyone understands the material.’” Now, at long last, cooperative learning is primed for center stage. Steelcase says employers are driving some of the change because they’re desperate for workers with collaborative skills. So are college students who increasingly demand learning environments that’ll help them land jobs. (And as Steelcase tells it, the schools are actually listening.) That students would cotton to the particulars of the LearningLab makes perfect sense in the age of iPods and incessant text messaging. “Students are more social, more collaborative and more demanding,” Valoe says. “We’re seeing more students engaged in the learning process. Not only are they paying more attention, they’re learning by doing. There is more peer-to-peer teaching and a sense of community. If they’re having problems, they have friends who will help them, and that improves attendance and grades.” Finally, perhaps there’s another way to bolster education in the U.S. besides inflating grades. [Images courtesy of Steelcase]

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