Welcome to our new series

Montgomery Sisam has been designing educational spaces for nearly two decades now. Along the way, we’ve witnessed a lot of change.

In the early 2000s, the Western world reached a critical crossroads in education. Consistently poor standardized test scores, escalating drop-out rates, and the realities of a changing workforce forced educators to rethink their entire pedagogical model. The paradigm shifted from teaching to learning.

Instead of focusing on passive instruction, twenty first century education, as it was called, favoured collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. It positioned the teacher as guide rather than tutor. And it was spurred on, of course, by the evolution and proliferation of technology.

Today, architects must design with increasing creativity and innovation. We are designing for a media-rich world. And we are designing not just for today, but for decades – even centuries – to come.

In the forthcoming series, we explore how architects are responding to the rapidly changing demands of 21st century learning. Drawing on recently built learning environments, from elementary schools to institutions of higher learning, we share the lessons we’ve learned and pose some questions for the future of educational design.

Balancing physical and digital infrastructure

With an influx of digital natives, technology has become the linchpin of our contemporary pedagogical landscape.  However, integrating our physical and digital infrastructure is still in its infancy. The ubiquity of both mobile technology and livestream functions has ushered in a distressing trend towards more siloed and independent forms of learning that conflict with the principles championed for 21st century education.

The Global Classroom at Durham College’s new Centre for Collaborative Education (CFCE) is one of the most recent examples of an educational space that first, recognizes this reality and second, strives to radically transform how students engage with technology, with information, with their peers, and with the world.

Fitted with an impressive and fully-integrated complement of tele-technology, the Global Classroom was first conceived to host the Global Class – an interactive course about humanity and the planet structured around real-time, face-to-face dialogue between students and guests from around the world. It has since been adopted for its media applications by a growing number of other Durham College programs.

The ICT set up – a panoramic LED screen along one wall, an array of satellite screen around the others, and series of cameras and microphones throughout – provides a visually stimulating environment that enriches the educational experience for students and instructors alike.

As a media-rich environment, once that combines a simplicity of form with an intricacy of function, the CFCE offers three key lessons about designing educational spaces for the 21st century.

Designing media-rich spaces is ultimately about:

  • appealing to our humanity;
  • creating opportunities for critical engagement; and
  • nurturing global citizenship.

Lesson #1: Media-rich spaces must appeal to our humanity

The lives of children, youth and young adults are increasingly being lived and chronicled on line. Yet, we know they crave emotional connection and physical contact. Moreover, they thrive in bright, airy, beautiful spaces.

The Global Classroom is a large open space with clear structural spans and a high curved ceiling. Located on the ground floor, it features a large expanse of windows that look out into the new quad, providing stimulating views and ample daylighting. Multiple revolving doors open onto the CFCE’s main multi-level atrium. These doors are often left open to allow programming to spill out into the atrium and engage passers-by.

With its casual array of couches, tables and chairs instead of raked seating, the Global Classroom is more like an oversized living room than a traditional lecture hall.

From its open space structure and multiple windows and doors, to its comfortable non-traditional furniture, the Global Classroom is, first and foremost, an accessible, inviting space that appeals to our human sensibilities.

The physical qualities of the space blend seamlessly with the CFCE’s many high-tech features, creating a positive, invigorating environment for both body and mind.

Lesson #2: Media-rich spaces need to create opportunities for critical engagement

Like other technology-enhanced learning environments, the Global Classroom uses digital infrastructure to support differentiated learning. It also seeks to meet, head-on, the growing cohort of students whose predilection for the digital world often undermines their ability to be creative, exercise critical thinking, and engage in meaningful communication and collaboration.

The LED screen, together with the many satellite screens, microphones, and moveable furnishings, improves classroom management, encourages smaller break-out activities, and fosters more collaborative forms of problem-solving. Every student becomes an active, accountable agent in their learning process.

But it’s not just about the students. The Global Classroom is also about engaging instructors. The large LED screen, with its cinematic qualities, prompts instructors to communicate more dynamically.

While faculty often respond to new teaching methods – and new digital platforms, especially – with doubt, uncertainty and resistance, Durham College has invested considerable time and effort into the change management process. The College has created an intuitive digital platform with robust ICT support; it provides regular training opportunities, ongoing peer mentorship and support; and it offers an extensive digital resource database.

Lesson #3: Media-rich spaces must nurture global citizenship

Global citizenship is an imperative of 21st century education.

The Global Classroom is a leader in this charge. It recognizes that we cannot solve global problems in local forums. Nor, in an increasingly global world, can we limit our focus to local problems only.

Leveraging, as it does, progressive tele-communication technologies and video-conferencing capabilities, the Global Classroom brings together students and industry leaders from around the world.

Here, learning is no longer constrained by the walls of the building, let alone the boundaries of the campus. Knowledge sharing and discovery happen simultaneously within the classroom and across continents – it happens at a ‘glocal’ scale.

The opportunity for architects

The Global Classroom demonstrates that media-rich learning environments, when well designed and richly programmed, can humanize technology, expand students’ perceptual field, deepen their capacity for connection, and enhance opportunities for intellectual exchange.

For architects, the Global Classroom highlights the opportunity we have to work with educators to create spaces that not only encourage thoughtful, purposeful interactions with technology, but that also foster a tolerant, kind and freethinking society.

 The Global Class was launched by Lon Appleby, a Professor of General Studies at Durham College in Oshawa, Ontario. Its pioneering curricular model and digital platform has now been replicated at 54 partner institutions around the world and counting. Our thanks to Lon and his team for their insight and continued support.