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High-Tech, High-Touch

September 01, 2019 - 5 minute read

Rooms in motion: A variety of furniture types and potential configurations open up new possibilities for teaching.

In Beta 101 and several other classrooms on campus, chairs and tables are on wheels, students plug their laptops into TV monitors to share ideas in real-time, and each class period looks different in its set-up than the one before it. 

The classroom of the future has arrived at Concordia, and it is more interactive, mobile and decentralized than in the past. 

There’s a shift happening from teacher centered classrooms to student-centered classrooms where the teacher is facilitating the learning and personalizing it to the students,” says Tim Schumacher, assistant professor of educational technology. 

In CUI’s School of Education, future teachers are learning to navigate this shift in philosophy by training in physical spaces that resemble classrooms they will find in today’s public and private school classrooms, and even in corporate America. 

“The world of education has changed dramatically in the last fifteen years,” says Ron LaMotte, co-director of Concordia’s MAED in administration program. LaMotte worked for 42 years in K-12 public schools as a teacher and administrator, and has taught 14 years at CUI. 

Rooms in motion: A variety of furniture types and potential configurations open up new possibilities for teaching.

“Fifteen years ago, students came to school to get information and go out and use it,” LaMotte says. “Now they come to school to learn how to apply the knowledge they have access to. Rather than disseminating information, the teacher becomes the facilitator, teaching students to think critically about ‘Is it true? Is it applicable? What does it mean to me and the world around me? How do I communicate well and collaborate with classmates to accomplish something valuable?’ To do that, you can’t use a static lecture-style classroom.” 

In other words, the days of rows of desks, a teacher standing at a lectern using a white board and an overhead projector are over. 

“To facilitate learning, classrooms have to be redesigned,” LaMotte says. 

This fact hit home in 2017 when CUI formed a dean’s advisory council to bring education experts together to share ideas for building better programs in the School of Education. One of LaMotte’s former colleagues, Michael Morrison, the chief technology officer for Laguna Beach USD, is a nationally recognized pioneer in building flexible learning spaces. He served on CUI’s council and shared how flexible learning spaces positively affect students’ grades and behavior. 

The council decided to tour a local public school to see firsthand the transformation that was occurring. There they saw groupings of students using rolling desks and swiveling tables, standing at work stations, using technology in greater ways, and spending much more time collaborating. 

“Everyone was engaged in meaningful learning,” LaMotte says. “You didn’t have a teacher in front and kids in the back, checked out. We walked out of there exhilarated that this was something new and different. That was the catalyst for us moving forward. We were convinced this is the way things are going and how we should do business as educators.” 

Back at Concordia’s campus, they realized that the main classroom in the School of Education was dark, somewhat old, with yellow walls, bad acoustics and 32 metal-wood desk-chair combinations lined up in rows. Up front was a white board and a large podium. 

“Our students were learning to teach in the classroom of the 1940s” says LaMotte. “It was the opposite environment of what we wanted to try to accomplish.” 

Rooms in motion: A variety of furniture types and potential configurations open up new possibilities for teaching.

So they took one room, Beta 101, and transformed it into a pilot classroom. Steelcase Corp, an office furniture manufacturer which creates furniture for flexible learning spaces, sponsored the project and used it as a lab to improve their products, even bringing people to campus to view the redesigned classroom. 

“We tore it down to the walls, covered the windows to eliminate excess light, dropped the ceiling from twenty feet to twelve feet to eliminate the distracting echo, and got rid of the podium as the control center,” says Schumacher. “One of the flexible learning strategies is to eliminate a sense of the front and back of the classroom. If we can change the furnishings so there is no front and back, and everyone is equally able to participate, then we have made progress.” 

All desks and chairs were put on wheels, making it easy to arrange according to what the teacher wants to accomplish that day or in that portion of the lesson. 

Sara Morgan, an instructor in CUI’s credential program with a background in public school special education, has taught several courses in the pilot flexible classroom. 

“I used to go in early to move heavy desks into the formation I wanted for that class period,” she says, “and I generally didn’t rearrange the room in the middle of a lesson because it was too difficult. Now there’s so much opportunity for variety in instruction style.” 

Morgan moves students around frequently to model a variety of teaching strategies. She often starts class with everyone facing the front, then has them break off into different arrangements. 

“That transition time is important,” she says. “Easy re-sets from one activity to another build a sense of progression through the lesson.” 

She also has her students demonstrate how they will use the space to teach their future students. 

Other important changes to the classroom included adding power and connection ports to the middle of the room for charging tablets and laptops, and for allowing students to plug into the main projector. Two new flat-panel screens on different walls ensure that every student, no matter which way they face, can see what is on the screen. The teacher can use a microphone so everyone hears clearly. Social-media-style software allows in-class presentations and real-time exchange of ideas. 

Even classroom colors have been shown to make a difference in learning receptivity. Gone are stark white walls; in are pale blue or green walls which create a calmer learning space and are easier on the eyes. 

Since transforming Beta 101, several more classrooms in the School of Education have been upgraded and retrofitted in the same way. The Borland-Manske Center, too, has incorporated flexible learning concepts in its classrooms. One new problem has been created: classes often leave a mess behind. 

“We haven’t had trouble getting people to move furniture, because it’s on wheels, but we have had to ask them to please leave it in some kind of neutral order,” says Schumacher. 

But everyone involved believes the change will prepare CUI graduates better as teachers. “We are training teachers to be effective using this type of pedagogy,” says LaMotte. “It will attract students to our program.”

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