07 November 2011

Learning Environments for the 21st Century

Award winning classroom in Tokyo.
Credit: ScarletGreen 
"Learning environments for the 21st century",  chapter 2 in a new book on educational facilities released by the OECD gives you a few glimpses into the historical evolution of the classroom and looks at what education will need by way of learning space in the 21st century.  Although it's about physical space, author Christian Kühn makes some points that can help digital learning designers answer questions like: how do you design the ideal learning environment, when we don't really know what that is yet?

The 3 most important things to learn in the 21st century...

Kühn suggests that the 21st century calls for a different kind of education to the factory-based rows of repetition schooling popularized by industrialization.  Education should prepare students for success in a much changed heterogenous, globalized society facing unprecedented economic and ecological crises.  He quotes a study published in 2003 by Rychen and Salganik which identifies 3 key qualifications for a successful life and well-functioning society: "Act autonomously", "interact in heterogeneous groups" and "use tools interactively".  He points out that "these qualifications go beyond knowledge and skills".

Designing the ideal learning environment -- when you don't know what that is...

The implication is that a learning environment designed for the simple transfer of knowledge from a teacher to passive students will be totally insufficient for the very new needs of the 21st century. He looks at some of the failed and successful attempts at innovative learning space design through the years and points out that the failed attempts didn't include users in the design process whereas the successes did.  He comes to the conclusion that our approach to design must acknowledge that we don't yet have established principles for what will work in the new millenium.

Of particular interest to the designer of digital learning spaces are the following quotations:

"Regarding learning environments as 'spaces for teams' may well turn out to be the major paradigm shift in the design of educational facilities today." (p. 22)

"For the time being, architects should refrain from the impulse to design the perfect learning environment but rather try to envision the infrastructure that enables effective learning environments to develop over time... 
Infrastructures, in this context, should be regarded as open systems, well connected to existing networks of learning, both virtual and physical, memorable spaces in their own right that are not derived from any one model of teaching and learning.  They should offer options to create micro-environments which are easily appropriated and controlled by their users, while at the same time give a feeling of connectedness to a greater whole." p. 23
Designing an Educational Design Research Studio

At the CoCo Research Centre we are currently designing an Educational Design Research Studio as part of the Laureate Fellowship project on Education, Design and Technology, and we have inevitably come to the same conclusion.  We don't actually know yet what an ideal space for collaborative design will be, and that is indeed, one of the things the project will investigate -- and yet we need a space with which to start.  Our strategy is to get as much user input at the beginning as possible, incorporate this into an initial design, and ensure that, with this initial design, we are creating an adaptable evolvable and customizable infrastructure that can be changed by its users in the process and over time. This should be a space that can be reworked, refined and evolve.

In the physical space it might be multifunction furniture, technology on wheels, and neutral visuals. So what would an adaptable and evolving space for learning online look like?  Customizable multi-touch interfaces? Personalized content delivery? Links with the physical through tangible interfaces?  I'm eager to know what others think...