Innovative & Collaborative Learning Environments

Long gone are the days of small wooden desks designed for right-handed students, all facing ahead to the instructor who is lecturing on a particular subject.

The modern-day classrooms in many private universities and colleges are following the trend of collaborative learning through specialized furniture and space layout. In a 2013 survey of employers commissioned by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, more than 90 percent agreed that all students should have educational experiences that teach them how to solve problems with people whose views are different from their own.

Business leaders clearly believe that having employees that are adept at teamwork will assist them in succeeding in a volatile and competitive global economy.

Getting Creative about Functional Space

There are many types of functional space layouts available for private university settings. It’s possible to get creative in the arrangement for different group needs.

What is definitely needed in the 21st century is the ability to connect with others through mobile technology. To reach these tech-savvy students, outlets need to be plentiful-in floors and walls, as well as in the furniture.

For instance, a table designed for collaborating around a screen or monitor will allow learners to harness the power of technology, while sharing the ideas of each team member.

Active and Reflective Learners

Angie Schuch, Director of Marketing at National Office Furniture, believes that collaboration classrooms encourage students to become active and reflective learners. She stated that this pedagogy is associated with discussions or debates that might start as a whole group activity and then break into teams for discussion and evaluations.

Schuch added, “It encourages digital age literacy skills such as communication, collaboration, and team work, and it provides students a social context where they can engage in problem based activities and simulations.”

Additionally, Schuch recommends flexible furniture such as reconfigurable tables and stacking chairs. She offered, “Oftentimes, students are motivated by being given the choice of where to work in the classroom, with a variety of furniture types to choose from, so it’s important to provide a diversity of spaces for a diversity of learners and diversity of content.”

One of her favorite projects was the Student Athlete Center at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. This building is home to the Academic Success Center which was developed to accommodate the hectic schedules of student athletes providing them a convenient space to study or meet with a tutor. She concludes, “There is a tremendous amount of collaborative learning happening in this space.”

Technology Rich Environments

Ashley Scott, Content Coordinator for Spectrum Industries, believes that traditional classrooms have become technology rich collaborative environments where students are creating, problem solving, and working together. She recommends flexible tables that connect students to technology, explaining that tech-integrated furniture which is mobile is able to be configured to benefit any collaborative space.

Scott states, “The use of technology in higher education classrooms has changed the way in which students complete assignments, conduct research, and collaborate within groups.”

Experiential Flexibility

Jeffrey Korber, President of SMARTdesks, bases his recommendations for products on a careful analysis of the specific goals of the educators’ plans for what will be taught, how it will be taught, and the experience that will be created for giving students maximum engagement with the subject matter and the act of collaboration.

He explains, “Flexibility in collaborative environments implies a multi-use lesson plan, meaning small groups of four to six will be collaborating, using a mix of technology supports. Presentation of the consensus may drive a reconfiguration of the seating arrangement, such as closed group of four to a space-wide inclusion of all.”

Korber suggests another approach is to let the arrangement of displays for data visualization drive the physical arrangement. This was the case with his company’s work with the University of Notre Dame, Mendoza College of Business. “For this installation,” he elaborated, “the plan for the screens came first, based on the flexibility of how the screens would be viewed in the space at any given time.”

The experiences planned for the space included full focus on the professor, with the professor being able to control how any screen in the space appears on the large laser projector screens for all to see. There is a “full breakout” mode where the huddle groups are working simultaneously on their collaboration activities. Additionally, there is an independent study mode, where individuals or groups may use the space between classes to prepare material.

Flexible Ergonomic Seating

One of the other goals for collaborative learning is dynamic seating. Designers of ergonomic chairs believe that traditional chairs encourage poor sitting, which leads to back pain, which leads to students not being at their best for concentration.

Barbara Bluestone, Chief Ergomaniac with ErgoErgo states, “We’re learning that flexible seating helps build collaborative environments in university settings. When students can easily move their seating into small groups, they work together more effectively.”

Bluestone adds that they can fluidly group and re-group, allowing for sharing and cross-pollination of ideas. She thinks that results are even better when they can sit actively. She explains, “In fact, research shows that because learning and movement are processed with the same part of the brain, we actually think better when we move. Active sitting encourages better posture, leading to greater alertness.” One of Bluestone’s projects was for Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, where seating was in classrooms, breakout areas, and maker spaces such as art studios.

Marta Meverden, Marketing & Communications Manager for CF Group, believes that a key element when furnishing shared spaces of learning is posture. She said, “Today’s students want choices in how they sit when they lounge, work in task mode, or perch at standing height.”

Meverden believes that giving the students freedom to sit how they are most comfortable and to change positions throughout the day is a way for them to learn and interact with one another. For instance, she likes stand-up height areas to allow students to meet and hold conversations eye-to-eye. A couple of her favorite projects have been for University of Findlay and St. Louis University.

“We understand,” she concluded, “that students today require the flexibility to split into small groups, or to find a quiet place to work alone. Providing furniture that is durable yet reconfigurable aids in flexing the space to meet group needs.”

About the Author
Sheila Wagner has spent the last several years working as a professional editor and recently became the staff writer for Private University Products and News. Wagner can be reached at