Reflections on the PKAL Learning Spaces Colloquium

I just participated in a colloquium for a new initiative by Project Kaleidoscope to understand learning spaces – what best-practices are known and what is unknown. The event consisted of presentations on current thinking / examples as well as breakout sessions to identify the future questions that the initiative might answer. It was a terrific success which generated worthy questions and showcased great case studies and resources.

The twitter stream is here (mostly my tweets) and below are some reflections on the colloquium overall – ensure success by beginning with the end in mind, create models and prototypes of the future to quickly explore possibilities, put existing learning theory into practice, and use our current moment of crisis to rethink old models.

Begin with end in mind

There was a lot of discussion about starting projects by creating a picture of success at the end and then working backwards to innovate, build consensus, and be successful in creating and supporting effective learning spaces. Bellman’s Theory was referenced as proof for this as were several strategies for working this way: developing “use cases” with future occupants, creating personas for users and “day in the life” narratives for how they’ll work in the future, and identifying the behaviors of lead users who represent the mainstream in the future.

Models and Prototypes

With broad acceptance of beginning at the end, the discussions often turned to how to go about envisioning the end – how to see a future that’s different from the present. Models and prototypes surfaced as key components of what might be called an “envisioning toolkit” (more on this soon). There seemed to be a real need for quick and dirty quantitative models that can sketch out different scenarios and their implications in terms of people, time, space, and cost – for example, the mix of spaces needed assuming a change in curriculum or to connect space models with business models. The other aspect was prototyping the solutions with pilots, with guidance as to what makes a good one, implementation tips, evaluation methods etc.

Work from existing research

Over the course of a few days, several authoritative publications on learning were mentioned (e.g.: John Bransford’s How People Learn) as were specific projects showcasing proven ways to better support learning such as lecture halls with two rows of students per tier, enabling small group discussion (in use at Grinnell, Notre Dame, and Beloit). So, the conclusion from the group was that the task at hand is to make current research on learning, organizational behavior, organizational culture, leadership, and planning/design methodologies more accessible and actionable so that it can be put into practice, rather than conduct much more research.

Now is the time for rethinking old models

To echo a sentiment heard often recently (but perhaps not often enough?), a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Higher education is faced with tremendous challenges for the future. Rising costs affect access and affordability and institutions are increasing leveraged. Aging infrastructure creates a backlog of operational costs and operational budgets are typical separated from capital budgets. The quality of education is threatened by increasing class sizes and emphasis on throughput. At this moment, it makes little sense to think about the future as a scaled-up or slightly improved version of the present. Instead, we should be asking fundamental questions like should a class happening in a classroom be the measurable unit of education? Given widespread underutilization / oversupply of space and sustainability imperatives, shouldn’t renovating existing spaces be the default rather than building new ones? When we do have to build, shouldn’t we be building the smallest building we can stand and then using it more intensively and investing in the versatility and support of the spaces? Shouldn’t we look to innovate in the design of our schedules, partnerships, and services as much as in our spaces?