Designing the Next-Gen Learning Space

As teaching methods and practices have evolved over the years, so too have our classrooms. Learning has taken center stage, and with that change, we’ve seen the evolution of learning space design theory and practice. Two big questions emerge: why is the design of learning spaces so important? And what will it take to modernize classrooms for the next generation of learners?

In 2010, a group of forward-thinking individuals representing both institutions of higher learning as well as the architectural firms that work with these schools banded together to create the Learning Spaces Collaboratory (LSC). Its charge: to explore and arrive at a common vision and understanding of how modern learning spaces can be adapted and optimized for today’s students.

Arriving at a Shared Understanding

The fulcrum of the work done by the Collaboratory is what happens when representatives across these sectors meet in person to talk through best practices and lessons learned at periodic roundtable gatherings. One such event was held recently at Northwestern University to discuss two timely topics:

  1. Inclusive learning spaces: Identifying the principles and values around equity and inclusivity to engender in learning spaces and understand how those principles and values translate into key characteristics, features, and measures.
  2. Ecosystems for learning spaces: Seeking to understand the way stakeholders, planners, administrators, faculty, and students collaborate in planning, implementing, and providing continuing support for a campus-wide ecosystem of innovative spaces for learning.

Hosted by Bennett Goldberg, director of Northwestern’s Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching, and Peggy McCready, associate vice president, Northwestern Information Technology Services and Support, the duo led the roughly 50 attendees through a full day of discussions and exercises around these areas of interest. 

Features of Successful Learning Space Ecosystems

A highlight of the roundtable came just after lunch, when Victoria Getis, director of Northwestern Information Technology’s Teaching and Learning Technologies group, led the hosts and special guest Reed Stevens, a professor of learning sciences at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy, through a panel discussion. A summary of the discussion’s livelier points follows: 

Starting with the Future in Mind

How can you create a sense of community in a space? A consensus seemed to form around breaking through traditional silos by blending boundaries between spaces and using an emphasis on color-coding to designate intended use. The utilization of glass and natural light were also highlighted as ways to inspire a sense of “connectivity.” Larger spaces might be zoned into “neighborhoods” via these approaches rather than through building physical barriers.

What Does an Ideal Learning Space Look Like?

The new ideal seems to be building upon the adoption of active learning rooms to become something more, a “collision space,” a mélange of active learning, practice, and maker spaces where faculty and students feel comfortable meeting and working, somewhere they can be messy or relax. Stevens identified a process in which effective “collision” spaces are designed, starting with observing the learners who will occupy the space, then designing the space to support their work, and finally installing the technology to facilitate it.

McCready and Goldberg added to Stevens’ comments by indicating that the “ideal” learning space seems to be something that would be the center of a Venn diagram with the individual components being utility, inclusivity, and inspiration, but all of the panelists balked at identifying specific exemplars. Instead, they collectively highlighted the need for more of these spaces to come online so that valuable lessons can be learned and applied to future designs. McCready also emphasized that many takeaways can be gleaned from colleagues in K–12 schools.

A big ah-ha moment for the room came at the end of this section when William Rando, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Teaching, built off McCready’s K-12 comment, “We look to K–12 at universities because they think of themselves as schools first, while universities think of themselves as many things, including a school,” he said. “Until we, too, can think of ourselves as schools first, we’ll always be playing catchup.” Many heads nodded in agreement. Goldberg added that this is an opportunity for faculty, as many university faculty also do not think of themselves as teachers first, more researchers and scholars.

Some Challenges

Design and measurement are two significant challenges. For example, what does one consider when designing a library on a predominately-white campus to feel open and inclusive to non-white students? How can one design a nursing school to feel welcoming to men and women? Then, taking those questions a step further, how do you develop an evidence-based approach to establish success metrics? The one thing everyone agreed on was that these are tough questions that currently do not have clear answers.

Working to meet these challenges also has unintended side effects. For some institutions, adding collision spaces marks a serious departure from the past, and there is an intimidation factor for both faculty and students that must be overcome early to encourage their use.

What Happens If We Don’t Change?

The panelists all thought that creating an ecosystem to support this work—from classroom design to faculty and student feedback to technology support—is vital and necessary. McCready noted that even institutions slow to change understand that they must adapt.  

Stevens brought this home for everyone when he said, “Stadium seating does not reflect a contemporary understanding of learning. Good spaces enable students to ‘see’ what they want to do and encourage participation.” Later he added, “What’s the best way to use 30 people in a room? The danger of not adequately addressing these issues is a lot of wasted potential and a lot of wasted opportunity.”

McCready and Goldberg agreed, adding that the work must be done as a continuous cycle of improvement with established channels for providing feedback.

The Big Takeaway

There really isn’t a perfect formula to address the challenges of building inclusive learning spaces in a supportive university ecosystem… yet. Every institution has its own distinctive challenges, and some are doing better than others at finding solutions. But what the roundtable did confirm for all who attended is that steps forward, even baby steps, are a positive indicator that the conversation will one-day bear fruit for students regardless of their socio-economic background and previous academic experience.

Learn more about the Learning Spaces Collaboratory on their website:

Interested in how this discussion is playing out at Northwestern? The University-wide Learning and Technology ecosystem Advisory Committee is tackling these issues head-on. Find more information about the committee and their work: