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Facility Planning: Digital-Age Design

Change is a constant, and so is the learning environment.

Ten years ago, the approach of the new millennium created much excitement and concern. Educators, planners and architects were focused on designing learning environments for new technologies, delivery methodology and educational philosophies. Designing schools for the 21st century was the focus, and the Information Age was maturing into the Digital Age.

But the classroom learning environment has been evolving since the early 1800s, when one teacher taught all grades in a one-room schoolhouse and worked with small groups of the same age and learning ability.

As a result of urbanization, the Lancastrian School system developed and lasted until about 1840; large-group instruction is one of its legacies. The Transitional School (1840-50) unified separate reading and writing schools, and contained classrooms with small rooms for individual recitation. During the Industrial Revolution (1850-1950), large multi-storied schools in urban centers were built with self-contained classrooms.

The Crow Island School (1941) in Winnetka, Ill., was the birthplace for classrooms designed to address differing learning styles. Crow Island rejected the rigid conventional classroom associated with the Industrial Age and demonstrated how learning environments could enhance new educational philosophies.

In 1968, the Educational Facilities Laboratories published Educational Change and Architectural Consequences. It stated that flexibility was an abstract concept that needed to be defined in four specific terms: expansible space, convertible space, versatile space and malleable space. One of EFL's innovations was the development of the “open plan.”

In the 1960s, schools were designed for new technologies, including information-retrieval systems, overhead projectors and television. Individualized education focused on the uniqueness of each student. Many schools were designed with semi-open classrooms surrounding a resource center.

In the 1980s, the Information Age was developing as video, voice and data systems were incorporated. The 1960s open-plan classroom design was adapted and enhanced with breakout spaces in houses that contained flexible team learning areas (FTLA).

Today, the Digital Age has become the new descriptive for the Information Age. Technology has created a global learning environment — virtual, online and remote. Digital Age learning environments need to respond to varying class sizes, changing curriculum and educational philosophies, and technologies — using movable walls, partitions, portable furniture and sometimes open-classroom concepts.

Unaware of changes that would occur during the next 40 to 50 years, the architects of the 1960s “open-plan schools” created learning environments that even today accommodate the needs of the Digital Age.

James E. Rydeen, FAIA, is an architect/facility planning specialist and former president of Armstrong, Torseth, Skold & Rydeen, Inc. (ATS&R), Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].

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