Article: A learning environment to support the joy of learning

Satu Aksovaara & Irmeli Maunonen-Eskelinen

JAMK University of Applied Sciences has developed a lounge-like learning environment, which is an inviting space with a colourful interior and high-technology equipment. The furniture can be quickly rearranged to suit each learning situation – even within a single lesson. The environment features ICT equipment with an emphasis on wireless solutions. Mobile solutions enable the integration of technology into a variety of learning situations. This article deals with the pedagogical starting points for the development work, supporting the implementation of the blended environment, using the constructed learning environment and supporting its use.

Increasing the joy of learning with a quickly adaptable learning environment

Technical development and the new learning solutions it enables have made information and communications technology a focal point of learning environment discussions. Various technologies, mobile equipment, cloud services and virtual learning environments are available, but will they change the daily reality of learning?

The harnessing of information and communications technology (ICT) as a tool to support learning has not significantly changed our physical learning environments. While we introduce technology to the classroom environment, our classrooms and teaching methods remain unchanged, with the furniture and its layout strongly supporting the conventional idea of teaching. In the worst case, the teacher stands in one corner of the classroom, behind a computer and a widescreen monitor, and the document to be followed is displayed in the other corner, dispersing the student’s attention. The quality of the physical environment influences the learning process and quality of learning much more than we think.

The concept of learning environment was introduced in Finland in the early 1990s. The idea of lifelong learning also started to gain ground at that time. The development work concentrated on on-the-job learning and the recognition of prior learning. The work produced, and is still producing, various tools expanding the learning environment outside educational institutions. Blended learning and ubiquitous society (ubiquitous ICT solutions) enable learning environments to be blended into a comprehensive solution that supports learning in a new way. When building this blended learning, we must look at the learning environment comprehensively, as a system consisting of various environments.

A learning environment is a learning setting consisting of the physical environment, psychological factors and social relationships (Finnish National Board of Education, 2004).

  • The physical environment refers to the buildings, premises, furniture and equipment used for the work. The physical environment also covers the technical learning environment, which refers to educational technology.
  • The psychological learning environment covers the cognitive environment, which means the information and skills to be learnt, and the emotional environment, which includes emotions and motivation.
  • The social learning environment includes the social network, structure and system, which are influenced by all the people involved in the learning situation and the interaction between them.

Methods and learning environment hand in hand

The learning environment can also be viewed from a pedagogical perspective. The pedagogical learning environment covers the pedagogical methods and practices used in learning and teaching (Silander & Ryymin, 2012).  The learning environment must enable the use of diverse studying and working methods. According to a recent study (Çubukçu, 2012), teachers regard the psycho-social dimension as the key factor in the learning environment. This may be because teachers are still unfamiliar with the significance of the physical environment, or feel that they have the least opportunity to influence the physical environment.

The planning of teaching is based on the learning objectives set. What type of competence is created through the learning process is the basis for selecting both the contents and the pedagogical approaches and methods used for learning the content. Teaching methods are used to develop key working life skills, including problem-solving, co-operation and collaboration, and learning to learn. This is why the choice of studying and working methods is important. The choice of teaching method is influenced by numerous factors (Figure 1). The learning environment is a key factor to be taken into account during planning in order for the environment to support the teaching method to be used. Changes in teaching methods and the related ICT set new challenges for the adaptability of the learning environment.

Figure 1. Factors influencing the choice of learning method

Learning environment and multiple channels

The planning of versatile studying and working methods revolves around the learner. The learning environment should be built taking into account the needs of various learners, enabling the use of multiple channels in learning situations. Familiarity with the group of students and the diversity of the blended learning environment provide “a whole new opportunity” for carrying out teaching (Cisco).

The use of multiple senses quickly establishes a permanent memory trace (Figure 2). The utilisation of multiple channels in teaching and learning supports various learning styles (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners) and enhances the creation of memory traces (Dominica, 2012).

Figure 2. Multiple channels: making use of sensory channels in teaching

Physical environment does matter

The significance of the physical learning environment for the learning outcome has been studied relatively little, and the studies have targeted the learning of children or young people. Brooks (2010) showed that the physical learning environment has a significant impact on learning outcomes. The study compared the learning outcome of students who studied in an active learning environment to that of students who studied in a conventional learning environment.  The learning outcome of students who studied in an active learning environment improved so much that they even exceeded their capabilities, which had been measured with a standardised test.  Thus, in the best case, the learning environment may help students surpass themselves.

Lei (2010) analysed the factors constituting the physical learning environment and described their significance for learning.  The physical learning environment consists of the following factors: 1) room size (large, small), 2) shape (square, oval, semicircle, etc.), 3) seating (close to/far from the teacher), 4) furniture (flexibly adaptable/fixed), 5) technology (placement of modern technology, availability), 6) lighting (low/high intensity, diverse lighting opportunities, natural/artificial light), 7) thermal conditions (hot/cool, frequency and duration of variation between extreme temperatures), 8) colours (intensity: light, bright, dark colours, multicoloured patterns) and 9) noise level (frequency, duration, intensity).

The room shape and furniture have an effect on how students experience the teacher-student relationship. For example, in long rooms where the teacher is expected to stand in front of the class, it is more difficult to establish eye contact, so students feel that their relationship with the teacher is distant.

Effects of the visual and auditory environment

The visual environment influences the perception of visual stimuli as well as the learning outcomes and learning attitudes.  Dim lighting calms down and relaxes the learner, whereas bright lighting supports an active approach. Lighting must be adjustable to suit the needs of various teaching methods.

Colours have been found to increase the efficiency of learning by 5–10%, to reduce absences and to support the moral dimension of those using the room. Colours can calm down, increase interest and affect emotions.  A positive classroom colour scheme reaches further than the individual classroom: it establishes a positive image of the entire campus as well as the culture and image of the educational institution.

The sonic environment is a very important factor in learning. Disturbing sounds make it more difficult to concentrate, and a high noise level prevents communication and impedes interaction.  Dockrell & Shield (2012) studied the impact of the sonic environment on children’s learning by making comparisons between a regular classroom environment and a classroom with a public address system. A favourable sonic environment has a positive effect on information processing speed and listening comprehension.  In a good acoustic environment, pupils gave a significantly higher number of correct answers to the teacher’s questions.

Educational institutions acquire new technology and expect it to solve some of the problems in the teaching and learning process. The use of new technology should not be brought to the fore in learning situations.  This may happen if the teacher does not master the technology used in the learning environment or if the equipment and software are too hard to use. The technical environment must be designed on the basis of pedagogy and user-friendliness.

According to Lei (2010), the physical learning environment has an influence on how students experience teaching. When no attention has been paid to the quality of the physical learning environment, students are more dissatisfied with the quality of teaching. More focus should be put on the development of learning environments to make them better support learning.

In the future, learning environments will expand, and adaptable ICT equipment will open new opportunities: hypermedia books, online materials, cloud services for collaboration, touch-screen equipment, mobile devices, interactive whiteboards, games and videos. ICT and the emerging BYOD concept (Bring Your Own Devices) challenge learning environments to develop comprehensively to support learning. New learning environments must quickly adapt to support pedagogical activities as teaching methods vary.

Building a versatile and inspiring learning space

JAMK University of Applied Sciences started developing its new learning environment based on the joy of learning and doing things together. Table 1 summarises factors in the physical environment of JAMK’s new learning space, highlighting a few pedagogical points of view.

Learning and work environments based on today’s ideas of learning differ from industrial society’s classrooms.  Lines of desks are replaced with comfortable learning spaces and environments where you can meet others (Mattila, 2012). The impetus behind revamping the conventional classroom was the modern idea of teaching and learning. The objective was to build an inspiring study environment that supports various learning styles, flexibly adapts to various learning situations, enables the use of various methods and employs ICT solutions to support the methods and learning. The use of technology integrated into the learning environment reduces the teacher’s overall workload and also saves the students’ time spent on producing output and sharing materials. The most significant goal of using ICT solutions is to enable students to participate in the teaching and commit them to it, reaching a level of deeper learning.

 

Table 1 summarises the key factors in building the new learning environment.

Factors of the learning environment Description Pedagogical viewpoint
Room size Approx. 100 m2 Sufficient space for using various working methods.
Room shape Square/rectangular Establishing good contact between all members of the group as well as small groups.
Furniture Chairs with castors, height-adjustable desks Furniture can be quickly adapted to various learning situations, taking into account various learning styles and enabling various forms of social interaction.
Lighting Floor lamps in the corners, dim light fixtures in the middle, ambient light source in the ceiling, natural light from one wall Many kinds of light are available; dim lighting is particularly suitable for reminiscing techniques and teaching methods that require calming down.
Colours White walls, wallpaper on two walls, spring green and black chairs, thick black plush carpets The contrasting colours provide energy. The nature pattern wallpaper creates a neutral, calm visual environment, establishing a psychological landscape together with natural sounds. The different-coloured chairs support the use of roles in, for example, group work (with the chairperson on the black chair).
Sound Group work spaces separated by curtains, five large and soft carpets, soft textile-covered chairs and a PA system Facilitates small group work and absorbs noise; background music and natural sounds.
Technology Wireless Internet connection, also open to participants (BYOD), WLAN (for remote data connections)Interactive whiteboard, Promethean4 displays (55″)

iPad cart with 16 iPads

5 AppleTVs

Wireless sound system

Projectors for work on the wall (pilot phase)

Students can make versatile use of various applications in their work, and there are opportunities to work independently at both an individual and group level. Various phases of the learning process as well as the materials used and produced can be saved and shared immediately.

The new space has been made a lounge-like, inviting environment that can be quickly adapted to various learning situations. The room makes a positive impression directly upon entry with its soft chairs and carpets, dim light fixtures, curtain solutions for small group work, picture wallpaper, fresh-coloured furniture and integration of ICT equipment into the interiors. The teaching space also enables the versatile use of the various surfaces, including the floor and the walls. The furniture can be rolled where it is needed or put aside to make room for other kinds of work. Easy to move and modify, the furniture makes it possible to switch between various forms of social interaction during the work, helping to retain the energy in the learning situations.

Immediate student feedback has been very positive. Students think that the environment has had a significant influence on collaborative learning.

Support for teachers

Support is required for using new learning spaces and making full use of their properties. Both teachers and students may become stuck in their ways where procedures and working methods are concerned, despite the new opportunities offered by the learning environment. The new learning environment challenges its users to become involved in pedagogical development.

To support the use of the new learning space, pedagogically designed layout solutions have been created for teachers, with different furniture layouts to support each teaching method. During the development process, we noticed that it was necessary to produce layout drawings depicting different forms of social interaction for various learning situations, so that teachers learn to make as versatile use of the environment as possible.  In addition, teachers can use modelled ICT solutions to diversify the learning process, develop the planning of teaching and get students involved in the teaching, and to promote the utilisation, collaborative production, sharing and further processing of various materials.

When teachers become interested in trying the new learning environment and new approaches, their pedagogical practices evolve. In the best scenario, teaching also evolves in traditional learning environments, collaboration increases and learning outcomes improve.

The staff and students of an educational institution are rarely asked to describe, evaluate and produce the dimensions and characteristics of a good learning environment (Lei, 2010). Getting teachers and students involved in developing learning environments is one development method and objective. For this reason, teachers who have used the new learning space were asked in spring 2013 to share their experiences and provide feedback and suggestions for development. There were also open days in the learning space in early 2013 to collect first impressions of the environment. In future, it is also important to get feedback from students, whose learning and joy of learning are what this environment was built for.

Reference:

Brooks, D. C. 2010. Space matters: The impact of formal learning environments on student learning. British Journal of Educational Technology

Cisco Systems. Multimodal learning through media: What the research says. http://www.cisco.com/web/strategy/docs/education/Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf

Çubukçu, Z. 2012. Teachers’ evaluation of student-centred learning environments.  Education , Vol. 133, number 1, 49-66.

Dockrell, J. E. and Shield, B., 2012. The Impact of Sound-Field Systems on Learning and Attention in Elementary School Classrooms. Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research, Vol 55, 1163-1176.

Dominica, S. 2012. Multisensory teacher.

Lei, Simon. A. 2010. Classroom physical design influencing students’ learning and evaluations of college instructions: a review of literature. Education, Vol 131, numer 1 (128-134)

Mattila, P. 2012. Näkökulmia oppimisen tiloihin. Toim. Silander, P., Ryymin, E., Mattila, P. Tietoyhteiskunnan strateginen johtajuus kouluissa ja opetustoimessa. (61-67).

Silander, P. & Ryymin, E.2012. Oppimisympäristön arviointikehikko oppilaitosjohdolle. Toim. Silander, P., Ryymin, E., Mattila, P. Tietoyhteiskunnan strateginen johtajuus kouluissa ja opetustoimessa. (49-59) http://www.hel.fi/wps/wcm/connect/c6aaf1804b55a9bcb544f78fcc181101/tietoyhteiskuntakehityksen+strateginen+johtajuus.pdf?MOD=AJPERES&lmod=1934169621

 
This article was produced in 4GEE project funded by Central Finland’s ELY Centre (2010-2013).

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