How to Create a Flexible Learning Environment in Higher Ed

What Is a Flexible Learning Environment?

Flexible learning environments should enable students to do everything from studying solo to participating in a lively group discussion, sometimes within the same space and at the same time. That’s flexibility, after all, but what it looks like in practice can vary.

In almost any flexible learning environment, there will be opportunities for students to collaborate in small groups or, like in a traditional classroom, listen to a professor deliver a lecture. Because of the ubiquity of remote learning, there should also be opportunities for students to interact with members of their cohort who are not in the same physical space through video displays and collaboration tools.

Flexibility should extend to all types of instruction that can be delivered in that room, as well. This also takes different shapes. Some universities opt for rooms that can effectively accommodate in-person lectures, hybrid lessons and fully remote teaching in a single space; others, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) have created unique classroom “personas” for what they have identified as four different needs.

Still other universities have gotten even more creative, with one piling all the tools for flexible instruction onto a cart to roll from classroom to classroom, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE.

“The faculty can just plug it in and go,” she says. “Clearly, there are benefits to having more established technology that’s on the wall, but there are also benefits in having more modular options that allow flexibility, and the faculty can create what they want to based on the technology.”

WATCH: See how one university designed future-focused learning spaces.

How Are Flexible Learning Environments Constructed?

Designing a flexible learning space in higher education starts with the furniture. Students’ chairs can’t be bolted to the ground if they’re going to go from listening to a lecture to huddling with their classmates or burying their noses in textbooks.

Students in a flexible classroom are typically seated in pods and around tables, something that also allows the professor to flow through the space and work one-on-one with students as needed. It’s also the kind of setup that allows for personalized, adaptive learning if instructors choose to employ that method.

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