Millennial brains are just wired differently. This fact quickly became apparent when I started my new position in August as an assistant professor in the Department of Interior Design at the University of Florida. I decided early on that rather than ban the use of mobile devices in my classroom, as some professors do, I would encourage their use. I realize, of course, that students may be texting their friends, checking SnapChat or the latest social media fad (I’m so old that I still use Facebook). But, the truth of the matter is that I don’t know everything. Outside the classroom, information is everywhere, so why should my students be limited to the knowledge that resides inside my brain during class time?
I also discovered that millennial students seem to prefer less formal learning environments where the traditional teacher–student hierarchy is unrecognizable. As an instructor standing in front of a typical college classroom, it is clear to all that this classroom has been designed more for me than for the students. I “own” the space and students are passive learners. But, this is changing as technology-infused active learning classrooms are being developed. In these classrooms, students often work in groups and learn from one another, as well as the instructor, using technology to share information in real time. But even the active learning classroom sits vacant when there are no formally scheduled classes occurring in them, leaving valuable real estate unused while students cram into commons spaces on campus to study or work on group projects.
Along the spectrum between commons spaces and classrooms, there is a new, emerging archetype that my colleagues and I call “mixed use learning zones.” These spaces can accommodate a variety of learning activities, including independent study, small group work, or even a formal, scheduled class. One of the best examples of this type of environment on the University of Florida (UF) campus is the Aha Lab within the College of Journalism. Instructors either love it or hate it when it comes to holding class in this space. Some are disturbed that an elevator opens into it. Others appreciate this bright, open, modern space for providing instructors and students with great flexibility for teaching and learning. A small kitchen area and a variety of comfortable seating options make it a desirable place to study or just hang out and socialize when a formal class is not occurring in the space. Meeting rooms can accommodate small groups. No one really “owns” the space. Although these types of spaces are emerging, little is known, beyond anecdotal evidence, about how the design of these spaces can foster the creation of learning communities.
Thanks to a Transform grant from the American Society of Interior Designers Foundation, our team recently kicked off an investigation to better understand mixed-use learning zones and how they can best serve millennial students. Our Engage Design Lab at UF has partnered with The Agency, which has designed and launched MAVY, an online virtual community created and managed by millennials, where members can express their views among their peers. Clients can use MAVY to test products, concepts, and ideas. Recognizing that it is difficult to survey millennials in traditional ways, this online forum will allow our team to gain important insights from a large, national sample of millennials regarding their attitudes and preferences around mixed-use learning zones. Once their preferences are understood, our team will conduct case studies of several mixed-use learning zones on the UF campus using behavior mapping and narrative inquiry. By mapping users’ behaviors (e.g., individual study, socializing), researchers will examine the various ways that different stakeholders make use of mixed-use learning zones and identify successful and not-so-successful design strategies. Narrative inquiry will provide a richer understanding of people’s perceptions about these spaces. The beauty of the narrative method lies in its ability to capture the human experience and the multiple voices of students, instructors, and other stakeholders who engage together in learning environments. A deep understanding of this emerging learning community is essential to the transformation of learning spaces that will reshape higher education now and into the future.
About the Author
Dr. Sheila J. Bosch is an assistant professor in the Department of Interior Design, College of Design, Construction and Planning at the University of Florida. Previously having served as the Director of Research at Gresham, Smith and Partners, Bosch is a national thought leader regarding evidence-based design. Her research with UF’s Engage Design Lab is focused on improving occupants’ experiences in educational and healthcare environments. She is an invited member of the National Academy of Medicine’s Advisory Panel on the Evidence Base for Patient & Family-Centered Care and serves as an ad-hoc reviewer for several peer-reviewed publications, including Health Environments Research and Design journal and the Journal of Interior Design. In 2014, Bosch was named top researcher by Healthcare Design magazine’s HCD10 awards for her contributions to healthcare design.