Creating Effective Environments for Collaborative Learning

I never try to teach my students anything, I only try to create an environment in which they can learn.”

— Albert Einstein

Although collaborative learning seems to be a relatively recent innovation, this interactive approach to learning was actually the norm centuries ago. In Ancient India, life and learning coexisted much like the student and his teacher, or guru, with every aspect of daily life presenting opportunities for learning. Likewise, scholars of Confucius, Muhammad and other well-known ancient teachers gathered as a group for a variety of interactive learning experiences.

Collaborative learning today encompasses educational methodologies and environments that enable groups of students to work together on a formal or impromptu basis. Effective collaborative learning environments provide students with practical problem-solving and communication skills that can be applied to their future careers, as much of today’s workforce works interactively in a team environment focusing on a shared goal. While collaborative learning can occur throughout a college campus, two specific areas that must be adapted to effectively support this “new” style of learning are the library and campus commons.

Yesterday’s Library is Today’s Learning Commons

Traditionally, the focus of the library has been rows of stacks filled with books. Occasionally, a comfortable chair was placed among the stacks and there may have been classroom areas with rows of seating, computer labs with desktops arranged in rows and the occasional small group space tucked in a corner. Upon entering this typically massive, centerpiece building, students were greeted by an often foreboding “command station” style circulation desk. Windows and outdoor exposure were kept to a minimum to protect the many books from fading and wear.

Enabling the library to effectively support collaborative learning requires a new vision to create an updated version of the ancient concept for life and learning to coexist. An open, flexible Learning Commons environment supports a variety of opportunities for student interaction, concept and idea sharing, team building and learning in. This first step in combining the functions of the traditional library, technology and other campus services is introducing new compact shelving systems that provide the necessary access to books, magazines and media while opening up space for other learning commons functions. Minimizing, relocating and /or removing the physical barriers of study carrels and books stacks allows for Wi-Fi connectivity and flexible group spaces.

Space flexibility is a key consideration for the reinvented library to serve as a campus hub for a wide range of group sizes. Small groups may need a quiet corner to briefly meet and discuss general topics or specific assignments, while a large group may require a dedicated break-out room or learning center to host more animated discussions and accommodate technology needs such as “smart” conference room tables incorporating power and laptop connections to a screen or SmartBoard. Giving students the opportunity to adapt spaces to meet specific needs is critical to an environment that supports formal group initiatives as well as impromptu discussions. Flexible spaces with moving partitions, portable technology and mobile tables and chairs can help to meet these diverse needs. Laptop and desktop computer bars, can supplement WiFi access to the library catalog, Internet and campus network, while integrating an iPod dock in reading areas reflects another level of evolution from the library of yesterday to today’s media centers.

Converting the library to a media center requires open floor plans, windows/daylighting and varied learning commons spaces, perhaps even replacing the circulation desk with a WiFi enabled coffee shop as the first impression space. Even with today’s e-readers and on-line resources, books remain an important component, and the media center facility must provide ways for faculty and staff to utilize available printed and technology resources seamlessly. Likewise, while technology is to some extent the foundation of collaborative learning, some of the most effective ways to promote collaborative learning do not require technology. Sometimes a portable whiteboard or easel is an effective tool for group brainstorming or sketching out ideas. These systems also provide a back-up for those rare, but inevitable occasions when technology resources are down.

Converting the library to a learning commons requires acoustics considerations that may not have been needed in the traditionally much quieter space. Strategies can include removable walls or partitions and sound baffles, whether floating ceiling or wall mounted tiles to absorb sound. The addition of windows also provides opportunities to add curtains which can also help to absorb the sounds of many people working in the same open space.

Creating Spaces for Spontaneous Collaborative Learning Opportunities

Collaborative learning promotes opportunities to extend classroom teaching into social areas. So much of what is discussed in the classroom setting trickles out into conversations and group discussion in social settings. Varied study areas and other nooks and crannies further promote spontaneous teamwork and collaboration. Student housing, cafes, student centers and even the Quad area can function as locations for group sharing and informal learning.

Students will seek out these informal secondary spaces, which can be offshoots of larger collaborative learning spaces such as the media center, to meet and interact with one another. This could be a quiet location with minimal distractions or an overtly public space within the student center. For most students today, multi-tasking is a way of life and a noisy, campus hub area that may be perceived as too noisy may actually be a preferred learning space. Connecting to social networking websites to “bounce ideas” off classmates is just one type of learning experience that could take place. These informal areas need to prove the same flexibilities as the media center, but should provide an alternate scale, level of comfort and visual interest.

Dormitories and other housing should also include areas for groups of students to relax, meet in groups, interact and ultimately collaborate on projects. Again, the need for flexibility to adapt spaces to meet individual needs is key to the effectiveness of the space for learning. Technology is critical, as students inevitably have a laptop, smart phone and even a tablet. Beyond technology, considerations for natural daylight, comfortable furnishings, innovative building materials and a unique design will encourage students to utilize the spaces.

College students tend to be at the forefront of the latest trends. Designing campus common spaces to function as the “place to be” will help to promote impromptu discussions and informal learning spaces. The student commons and campus café can become magnet areas for students to congregate. Inevitably they become small group learning spaces as well.

Modest renovations to existing campus facilities can have a significant impact by providing varied learning spaces for students and faculty to utilize throughout the day and night. Creating intimate spaces, as well as much-needed large group spaces, gives everyone on campus multiple options for further collaborative learning experiences. By providing comfortable, state-of-the-art niches for students and faculty to use wherever people meet, the entire campus becomes a collaborative learning environment.

Erin Hoffman is a project manager, responsible for coordinating feasibility studies and subsequent design initiatives. She is a graduate architect with 17 years of experience focusing primarily on public schools and senior living.


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