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Business Officer Magazine

Designed With Interaction in Mind

The popularity of prototype classrooms that facilitate more flexible learning has prompted Estrella Mountain Community College to adopt and expand its learning studio model.

By Heather Weber

Over the past nine years, Estrella Mountain Community College, which enrolls more than 14,000 students each year and serves the communities in western metropolitan Phoenix, has shifted its organizational culture, making learning studios the only accepted way to design and remodel classroom settings.

Our initiative started in the summer of 2005, when the college formally partnered with Herman Miller and Goodmans Interior Structures to create two prototype classrooms specifically designed to promote and support faculty and student engagement. In 2006, we had the opportunity to build on this prototype when the college received some district funding. With the success of these two initiatives—and survey feedback regarding the functionality of the learning spaces—the college's senior leaders have adopted longer-range plans that include classrooms based on these creative design characteristics.

Factoring in User Feedback

From the outset, administrators, students, faculty, and staff offered their input on the kinds of specific elements that would create a dynamic classroom. To ensure that all stakeholders had a voice, we held meetings, formed focus groups, and conducted surveys to discuss instructional pedagogy, delivery strategies, and design elements that would allow faculty members to customize the learning environment to support active and collaborative teaching strategies.

An institutional consensus for classroom design emerged focused on the following characteristics:

  • Integrated media/technology capabilities that include "smart" instructor podiums with embedded media and lighting controls, individual laptops for students, wireless projection from student and instructor devices, and multiple projection surfaces.
  • Flexible and comfortable furniture. For example, chairs and tables with wheels can easily be moved to a variety of group settings.
  • Wireless access for laptops would allow for replacement of desktop computers and provide uninterrupted sightlines. Faculty believe that wireless capability and proper wire management systems would encourage mobility and collaboration among students.
  • The use of color on the walls and in the furniture to promote a more visually pleasing learning environment.

Working with corporate partners, we examined a wide range of business-oriented furnishings and interiors that could meet the requests from the initial data collection. After examining all learning environment aspects, including furniture, technology, color, and arrangements, we created two classrooms designed specifically to support small-group dynamics, peer review, and collaborative learning.

Dubbed "learning studios," the two transformed classrooms officially opened to faculty and learners in fall 2005.

Prototypes Set Patterns, Price Issues

Based on what we learned from this process, we began construction on a new classroom facility as part of a districtwide voter-approved general obligation bond program. A member of a large community college district, Estrella Mountain received $71 million of the districtwide $951 million budget, for a 10-year building program for construction, capital, and land.

The resulting building, Ocotillo Hall, opened in 2006 and includes 22 learning studios. Based on the feedback from our prototypes, we made the following modifications:

  • Increased each classroom from 800 square feet to approximately 1,000 square feet.
  • Added more whiteboards.
  • Included student storage spaces.
  • Created a custom faculty workstation.

The cost of providing 32 laptops per classroom initially proved a challenge. Because this was our first attempt at a meaningful scale-up of the prototypes, we weren't sure whether we needed one laptop per student for every class, and didn't want to spend a large amount of capital money if we didn't have to.

As a result, we implemented for the 22 new learning studios the three levels of technology outlined in the figure.  

FIGURE: Technology Cost Options

Equipment/FeatureLevel ILevel IILevel III
Projector (accessible wirelessly) X X X
Instructor computer X X X
One wireless computer per table (8 wireless computers per studio)   X  
1 wireless computer per student (32 wireless computers per studio)     X

As faculty continued to adapt to the learning studio environments, the requests for technology required us to eventually move all learning studios to the top two levels.

Evaluating Evolving Design

With the opening of the 2006 classroom complex, we continued to examine, assess, and learn how spatial relationships, ergonomic design, and seamless access to technology can support student engagement in the instructional environment.

Compare and contrast. In 2006, we contracted for a study of faculty and students to evaluate and compare the effects of the 22 new learning studio environments to those available in the traditional classroom settings. The survey included faculty and students who had experienced both learning studio and traditional classroom environments. We received responses from 9 residential faculty, 14 adjunct faculty, and 344 students.

While the quantitative data did not reflect a significant difference, qualitative data indicated a preference for the learning studio setting. Principle findings included the following:

  • Learning studios reduce passivity and more readily elicit active involvement.
  • The learning studio environment and tools improved the learning experience by ensuring more flexibility, mobility, and accountability in class.
  • Faculty found a benefit in the ability to customize the space to their individual teaching styles.

Next-generation input. Another qualitative study in 2007 explored our millennial students' and faculty's perceptions of learning studios. Key findings from this research, which was conducted by Linda L. Garcia as part of a University of Texas at Austin doctoral dissertation, indicated that:

  • Learning studios increase faculty member access to students.
  • Whiteboard space in learning studios increases collaboration.
  • Colored walls create a positive atmosphere for students.
  • Constant lectures are not suited for learning studios.

Actions Speak Louder

More telling than the survey data is steadily increasing demand by faculty members to teach in these new spaces. Prompted by the obvious classroom preference and the various survey data indicators, our college administration adopted an overall strategic plan to continue collegewide implementation of learning studios. Consequently, Estrella Mountain has recently followed the flexible classroom format in several ways: remodeling existing general-purpose classroom spaces into learning studios; opening a new classroom building containing nine new learning studios and three learning labs; and undergoing a major expansion and renovation of an existing building that included the addition of 12 new learning studios.

HEATHER WEBER is dean of occupational education, Estrella Mountain Community College, Avondale, Arizona.