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Learning Space Design Takes a Community: Guiding the FLEXspace Portal

A Q&A with FLEXspace pioneers and leaders

UB Faculty Collaboration

University of Buffalo Faculty Collaboration Studio. Photo by Meredith Forrest Kulwicki.

"We are a global community of people scattered across 64 countries dedicated to supporting faculty and students through better learning environments." — Lisa Stephens

In this virtual roundtable, CT talks with leaders who've helped shape FLEXspace — from its original vision, to its many new features and applications, to directions it may take in the near future and its growth as a research platform. Here's an opportunity to take a glimpse at how this unique community comes together to guide FLEXspace and inform its directions.

Mary Grush: FLEXspace is evolving as a platform for research in learning space design. Can it now be used not only to find examples of existing learning spaces — practical information to aid current project development — but also as a means to generate academic research on learning spaces?

Lisa Stephens: The applied research piece has always been the predominant use for FLEXspace, but we're excited to be developing new tools to support academic research about learning spaces. We have worked with many people across the country to examine how to leverage the portal to support empirical research, and we've already designed some of their suggested features into the latest version of FLEXspace — for example adding more fields to describe the learning impact from the faculty perspective, and toolkits to share instrument design and research protocols.

Still, we haven't had a chance yet to think through a more unified approach to research on learning spaces. I think though, that once EDUCAUSE's Learning Space Rating System is stitched in to it, that will really help drive additional interest in FLEXspace.

[Lisa Stephens is assistant dean of the University of Buffalo's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a senior strategist for SUNY Academic Innovation.]

Grush: What are some of the most useful aspects of FLEXspace?

Eric Dover: One of the things we find incredibly powerful about FLEXspace is how it can help ASU faculty, staff, and even students visualize different concepts in the spaces that we're looking at. If we don't only describe something, but also pull up and show some examples and options, it helps move us out of the art of the possible and into the art of the reality.

We can show examples of how other institutions have done what we want to do, and see what their projects look like as well as the outcomes from them. So just as a visualization tool we find FLEXspace very powerful.

[Eric Dover is an executive director over the Experience Center & Learning Space Operations at Arizona State University.]

Kyle Bowen: One of the big things we look at, at Penn State, is diversity. We think about all the different ways that faculty approach their teaching, rather than have faculty make compromises in their teaching or have them make their teaching fit a general purpose space. We ask: What are the ways we can design spaces that really make it possible for those faculty and for their students to teach and learn in the ways they want to? How can we support that?

We think about all the different ways that faculty approach their teaching, rather than have faculty make compromises in their teaching or have them make their teaching fit a general purpose space. — Kyle Bowen

So, for us, the excitement and interest around FLEXspace is that it illustrates a lot of these ideas — keeping in mind that we can't explore them all by ourselves. There are many other universities exploring ideas similar to our own, and using the FLEXspace portal we can see their work and what they are thinking about it.

In these spaces, there are very small, nuanced details — from the type of writeable surface that you use, to the power management you choose, to the production that goes on — and these details can make a huge difference in how people will approach teaching and learning inside that space.

By drawing together and seeing all those examples, we can advance our thinking as we move into designing spaces.

[Kyle Bowen is the director of innovation in teaching and learning with technology at Penn State University.]

Rebecca Frazee: I'd also mention here that there are many impressive new features in the latest version of FLEXspace. Although FLEXspace has been freely available to higher education and K12 for several years, we reached a huge milestone this summer when we launched all of the newly streamlined "FLEXspace 2.0" portal features, including galleries, toolkits, and collaborative idea boards.

We originally launched from a solid foundation of principles — to share multiple photos of learning spaces coupled to detailed attributes from the perspective of architects and designers, facilities planners, faculty and academic support professionals, and AV/IT integrators. But now, members can leverage or add their own research, planning guides, assessment tools, and other resources. Members can also organize their own personal "collections" of favorite or useful space examples and toolkit resources by creating "idea boards" that can be shared and co-edited with other collaborators.

We have started to create galleries to showcase member contributions and we're taking suggestions on what those galleries should be. Some members have suggested galleries of useful "hacks" and ideas that can save time. Why re-invent the wheel if one of your colleagues is willing to share a good idea?

[Rebecca Frazee is the FLEXspace manager and a San Diego State University faculty member in the Learning Design and Technology Program.]

Grush: How does the process of sorting out what you find on FLEXspace work? I'm sure it varies among campuses, but could we look at just one example?

Stacy Morrone: At IU we have an active learning initiative called Mosaic. As the name implies, we have a variety of different kinds of learning spaces. As part of the design symposia that we conduct with groups of faculty, we use examples from FLEXspace to help the faculty start thinking about their ideal learning spaces. We then share their designs with our university architects as examples of what our faculty want in active learning spaces.

There are many new features, but perhaps the most interesting change is the opportunity to build further upon the community that cares about learning spaces. — Stacy Morrone

[Stacy Morrone is associate VP for Learning Technologies at Indiana University and Professor of educational psychology and Dean of IT at IUPUI.]

Grush: Getting back to the idea of academic research, what is perhaps the strongest factor that's going to propel the use of FLEXspace as a research platform?

John Augeri: The biggest issue when you want to work on a learning space, is not creating the design itself, but determining what kinds of practices you are going to support. And for that, it's extremely precious to find people working on the same questions as you. You can identify the best practices when you have colleagues around the world who will share their experiences with you. And as Kyle has pointed out to me, FLEXspace is like a directory of potential collaborators.

It's interesting that with the previous version of FLEXspace, the perception was that the people using the platform were mostly practitioners. The practitioners still use the platform, but in the past couple of months, after the latest version of FLEXspace, we are seeing a shift to researchers.

[John Augeri is program director at Ile-de-France Digital University-Paris and currently invited researcher at Sophia University-Tokyo.]

Morrone: I'm seeing increasing numbers of faculty doing research on their teaching in Mosaic active learning spaces at IU. The faculty are hungry to collaborate with faculty at other institutions who are doing similar work. FLEXspace is opening the door more widely for those collaborations.

The new version of FLEXspace is easier to use, and there are many new features, but perhaps the most interesting change is the opportunity to build further upon the community that cares about learning spaces — both the people who equip those spaces, and the faculty who teach in the spaces.

Grush: It seems that for FLEXspace, growing the community is just as important, or even more important, than growing platform tools. What are some of the things that help build the FLEXspace community?

Dana Gierdowski: Connecting researchers to other researchers. If you have a project — maybe a research project based on an active learning classroom that you've piloted — we encourage you to upload it to FLEXspace. Chances are there is someone in another state, or even in another country, who is doing a similar project on their own campus — and they may be unsure where to start. Learning about your project could be a huge help to them.

Also, remember that technology and learning spaces can be very large capital investments for an institution. Having data and access to assessment instruments and methodologies can be really important for campus planners, IT professionals, and researchers as they make the case on their own campuses for renovating or adding new learning spaces. With FLEXspace, there is an opportunity to share case studies, ethnographic interviews, and empirical data with the community. Hearing the voices of faculty and students talking about their experiences of teaching and learning in those spaces and seeing the data can be a powerful tool to argue for these campus investments.

What inspires me the most is that FLEXspace is centered on the idea that together we are better. — Rebecca Frazee

In FLEXspace right now, we want to build up those stores of information-rich research that can help others who are taking on similar challenges. FLEXspace's Research and Evaluation Working Group is there to identify areas of research potential.

We know that FLEXspace users want not only to see photos of learning spaces, but to learn about the proof of concept — research data they can take to their dean, campus architect, or provost to demonstrate that these spaces are really useful to teachers and students.

So, we are building the shared research potential of FLEXspace. It's great to see how community-oriented the platform has become.

[Dana Gierdowski is a researcher for the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis & Research (ECAR).]

Grush: What's one of the most inspiring things you keep in mind as you work with FLEXspace?

Stephens: FLEXspace.org was designed by educators for educators. We're not a company, and we're not about making money. We are a global community of people scattered across 64 countries dedicated to supporting faculty and students through better learning environments, and we're very fortunate to be affiliated with institutions and sponsors that support this grand vision and investment for the greater good.

Frazee: What inspires me the most is that FLEXspace is centered on the idea that together we are better. I'm amazed by the many institutions, organizations, and people, like everyone quoted here, who are eager to contribute, support, and advocate for the FLEXspace cause, helping to enrich and extend everything we do.

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