Tablet Arm Chairs and the Cost of Flexibility

Recently, a creative solution to the problem of the tablet-arm chair was unveiled by Steelcase and IDEO (FastCompany article here). The design is quite elegant and solves several important problems: storage is provided under the chair, wheels are added which facilitate gathering (and re-gathering) for group discussions and projects, and the size of the work surface has been increased significantly.

This innovation raises two larger questions though:

  1. Should we be focusing our efforts more so on phasing out tablet arm chairs to adopt moveable tables and chairs as the standard as some institutions are (i.e.: Virginia Tech)?
  2. How are we providing the additional space per student which is required to use moveable furniture as it was intended, enabling multiple configurations within the classroom?

The first question is a matter of acknowledging that students need more space to spread out and use a laptop AND a notebook, at least for the foreseeable future (witness any MBA class and you’ll see a laptop on a counter for notes / spreadsheets and a printed case book awkwardly sitting in a lap). It also means recognizing that a surface shared among students promotes their collaboration (a classroom at Cornell studied this not too long ago, and shared surfaces won out).

The second question deals with accepting that enabling students to spread out and providing the space to be able to move furnishings around so as to work in rows, or clusters, or a circle/square arrangement all takes more space – up to twice as much as you move from 15 – 18sqft per seat to 25-35 sqft per seat. The bottom line is that the flexibility to do different things in a space (as a piece of furniture on wheels is intended), costs space.

So, addressing either question means providing more space per seat. How can schools and universities afford to provide this additional space? There are typically three options debated:

  1. Acknowledge that the quality of the learning experience is paramount and invest in it accordingly – an increasingly difficult proposition in the face of dwindling budgets and when the quantity of seats within classrooms (which translates into more revenue and throughput) has trumped quality for so long
  2. Make up for the additional space by adjusting the time in the space, changing the course schedule so that the more generous, versatile spaces can be better utilized – booked for longer blocks of time but less frequently
  3. Convert other spaces to compensate for the additional spaces needed – for instance, this could mean accepting that above a certain class size (250? 350? 500?) there is no point in physically being in an auditorium and students would be better off watching the lecture with a small group of peers, being able to pause, discuss, and replay the content at their own pace rather than sitting over a hundred feet from their instructor.

There are no easy answers to this. No question that the tablet arm chair and the educational model that it suggests (but doesn’t dictate) have been improved with this recent design, but we need to face the larger questions sooner rather than later. The solution is likely to be a mix of these strategies (or others), and the quicker we can acknowledge that the latter two are viable, the quicker we can move toward providing a better learning experience for students, one that aligns both the business model and the educational model of their institution.

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Image credits – top: Photograph of 1920s NYC High School – courtesy of Ira Fink. Middle: DEGW diagram of space per seat allocations, from Learning Landscape Master Plan at the University of Buffalo