Collaborative Learning in Higher Education

Jan. 11, 2011

Universities are evolving to serve millenial students and 21st century businesses.

Our spaces shape our lives; our lives shape our spaces— it's a chicken and egg thing.

It is human nature to come together in communities. Ancient clans and tribes have grown and evolved into what we now understand as modern society by establishing villages, towns, and cities as technologies developed for sustaining larger population densities.

In its "Sociocultural Evolution" entry, Wikipedia tells us that it is "the process by which structural reorganization is affected through time, eventually producing a form or structure which is qualitatively different from the ancestral form. … Evolutionism then becomes the scientific activity of finding nomothetic explanations for the occurrence of such structural changes."1

Such theories typically provide models for understanding the relationship between technologies, social structure, the values of a society, and how and why they change with time.

Substitute the words "business" or "corporation" for society, and the entry does a canny job of shedding an evolutionary light on our working world.

There's no question that our corporate structures have been forever changed by the information revolution. For most of the population, even the concepts of what it means to be an "employee," or work in an "office," are light years from the brick-and-mortar confines of the industrial age. Companies that haven't adjusted to these newrealities are no longer in business, as outmoded models are unable to compete in their markets or retain talented employees.

Contrast the depth and pace of this change with our institutions of higher education. Why is it that many of our colleges and universities still feel like they were designed and built during the industrial revolution? And why are some of the furnishings still downright medieval?

Let's back up a moment and consider the stated role of our colleges and universities: to prepare us for professional careers, often in the business world. How has this world changed since many of these repositories for higher education were built and furnished?

NEW WORKING REALITIESThe ancestral "office" has become that proverbial box—the one we're all supposed to be thinking outside of. Just about every workforce now includes telecommuters (either from home or a "third place"), satellite offices, freelancers, consultants, temporary contract employees, managers that float from office to office, and roadwarrior employees who spend even less time in the office than all of the above. If home is where the heart is, then work is wherever the laptop lands.

In this world, professionals constantly find themselves confronting different challenges with different groups of people—individuals often pulled from various departments, or with very different areas of expertise and experience. And yet, here they are: a temporary task force that must find a way—and a place—to collaborate ... efficiently and productively. This is why cubicle farms and human Habitrails are giving way to more flexible spaces that can accommodate the ever-shifting nature of a company's business, while nurturing teamwork and collaboration for specific tasks and temporary working groups.

The success of a collaborative workgroup hinges on three basic factors:

  1. IT—specifically, streamlined interconnectedness, enabling everyone in the group to conveniently communicate, share information and log on to Web-based project management software packages.
  2. Flexible environments that allow collaborators to freely organize (and spontaneously reorganize) their workspace for full group, subgroup and individual tasks, and for convenient brainstorming, discussions, and presentations. The spaces must also include the basics: ergonomic seating and worksurfaces that are also easily reconfigurable; mobile presentation/dry erase boards; and access to power. They should also offer the extras that attract people to "third-place" settings like coffee shops (e.g., inspiring surroundings, good lighting, access to snacks and refreshments, and, perhaps above all, a higher degree of social energy).
  3. People with the interpersonal and leadership skill sets to facilitate the group's effectiveness and success—defining goals, managing, coaching, assigning tasks, and assigning subgroups.

The new realities of work have driven significant changes in workplace and furniture design. In making these accommodations, companies have found that they're also using their space more efficiently and creating a kinder and gentler environment for all employees. Workers are more inspired, less susceptible to fatigue, and in the end, more productive at their jobs.

Collaborative workspaces are here to stay, as the job descriptions of skilled employees become more fluid, and static and functionary positions are outsourced or taken over by software. Employers are looking for college graduates who can excel in this kind of environment (a successful collaborative workgroup, factor No. 3, above). We've all heard an employer say, "I'd rather hire someone who's good with people than someone who knows our industry inside and out … we can always teach them that. But people with the right interpersonal skills are hard to find."

So, where do people beginning their careers learn to work well with others?

THE STUDENT MINDStudents in today's universities have been raised in an age of technological ubiquity, with video games, GPS, iPods, smart phones, and laptops. They are"digital natives"—these devices, and the level of interconnectedness they offer, are an ambient part of their world.2 They don't see them as technology, but merely basic appliances or accessories. This is why it might be tempting to consider them as being more likely plugged into gizmos than tuned into people around them. But that would be a mistake.

Design Drives Innovative Renovation at Millikin University

When a new science facility was built at Millikin University, the old building was turned over to the university's Taber School of Business, which spared no detail in creating a truly leading-edge facility for integrated and collaborative learning.

ADM-Scovill Hall, on the university's Decatur, IL, campus, underwent a $6 million renovation that brought the 36,000-squarefoot building solidly into the 21st century. Video conferencing capabilities, wireless access, and computerized lecterns that control lighting, sound and projection provide students with unparalleled state-of-the-art educational opportunities.

Technology aside, the university's goal was to create a real-world setting for their business students without compromising the historic beauty of its campus.

"We don't like to knock down our old buildings," says university president Doug Zemke. "We have a common architecture throughout the campus—all beautiful red brick buildings—and didn't want to lose that. We looked at that building and thought, 'Let's create a business-looking environment for the business school; something that makes them feel like they're in a business, so when they leave here for the working world, it's already familiar to them.

"And as we looked at the changing pedagogy in terms of how you teach, the traditional classroom is long gone. These are very interactive classrooms, so we needed to provide furniture that could be easily moved and rapidly reset for team groups and lectures. This also allows us to more fully utilize our spaces and resources."

Technology access and control is uniform regardless of classroom size, so faculty with smaller class sizes don't need to bid for larger rooms just because they once housed the better technology. The university specified custom-design multimedia lecterns that are able to house up to 13 pieces of technology, including control over lighting, projectors and projection screens, built-in PCs, and a document camera. Advanced cable management is integrated into all necessary furniture.

Comfortable, flexible furniture in the classrooms and special breakout areas adapt to the varying needs of students and professors alike. Worksurfaces vary from room to room, with combinations of fixed and mobile tables geared toward anticipated class sizes and activities. Should requirements change, the furniture is ready to adapt.

"The comfortable, high-tech looking soft furniture in the hallways and in faculty areas fits in well with the rest of the environment, and adds to the business feel of the building," notes Zemke. "And on the main floor we have a large, open area with furniture with tabletops that crankadjust to different heights so students in wheelchairs, or who prefer to stand, can work and socialize comfortably. Off to the side is the same furniture we have in the classrooms, which can be constantly reconfigured for study groups or other activities. This area is the most used workspace in the entire university—from 6 in the morning until 2 in the morning, every day."

What more could our next generation of business leaders want? How about an à la cart café that serves premium roast coffee and fits in perfectly with the furniture design? Done!

By working with a single, full-line furniture supplier, the university was able to create an environment that evokes what you might find in a world-class corporate headquarters—cohesive design and finishes, commercial durability, and dynamic flexibility of space and function.

"When you walk into the building it looks like it was all planned and realized as one project, and that's what we wanted," explains Zemke. "Durability is also critical, because the look of the space is very important as you bring prospective students through. When they see the functionality, they're even more impressed.

"We've had the furniture in the building for five years now, and it has proven to be extraordinarily durable. We were concerned about that, because if you've seen students' heavy backpacks, and how they interact with furniture, you know it will be taking a pretty serious beating."

Unlike the Gen-Xers and the boomers, the millennials (born between 1980 and 2000) have developed work characteristics and tendencies from doting parents, structured lives, and contact with diverse people. Millennials are used to working in teams and are anxious to make friends with people of diverse backgrounds. In work settings, they seek leadership—and even structure—but expect that older and managerial co-workers will draw out and respect their ideas.3

Other millennial characteristics include:

  • Experiential and exploratory learners: Millennials strongly prefer learning by doing. They almost never read the directions, and love to learn by doing (by interacting). Multiplayer gaming, computer simulations, and social networks are some of their favorite environments and provide little penalty for trial and error learning, but offer interactivity and instant feedback on what works and what doesn't. Millennials say they find average lectures boring.
  • Flexibility/convenience: Millennials prefer to keep their time and commitments flexible longer in order to take advantage of better options. In turn, they also expect other people and institutions to give them more flexibility.
  • Personalization and customization: They expect their world to offer as many personalization and customization features as possible to meet their changing needs, interests and tastes. For example, they will customize their cell phone rings in order to determine who is calling them.
  • Impatience/instant gratification: Millennials have no tolerance for delays. They expect their services instantly. They require almost constant feedback to know how they are progressing. They are frustrated when they are delayed, required to wait in line, or deal with some other unproductive process.
  • Practical, results oriented: Millennials are interested in processes and services that work and speed their interactions. They prefer merit systems to others (e.g., seniority).
  • Multitaskers: Millennials excel at juggling several tasks at once since this is an efficient, practical use of their time. Multitasking can enable them to accelerate their learning by permitting them to accomplish more than one task at the same time.
  • Nomadic communication style: Millennials have more friends and communicate with them more frequently using IM (instant messaging), text messaging, and cell phones (in addition to more traditional communication channels). They are prolific communicators. They love and expect communication mobility to remain in constant touch wherever and whenever, and to obtain any services regardless of their geography or distance.
  • Collaboration and intelligence: After many years of collaborating at daycare, schools, soccer teams, orchestras, peer-to peer networks, games, and other programmed activities, millennials know how and when to work with other people more effectively. Even those who do not prefer collaboration typically do so if they think it gives them a practical advantage. They respect intelligence and education (i.e., "it's cool to be smart"). Peer-to-peer justin-time collaborative learning is happening more than ever as a way for students to learn from each other. Impact upon academe: Colleges and universities, not just individual faculty, have to do far more in creating collaborative technology so that two or more students can work together faster, more effectively and more comfortably.4

CREATING EFFETIVE COLLABORATIVE ENVIRONMENTS"Where do they learn to work well together?" The answer to the question is, it's already hard-wired into their nature. The challenge for higher education, then, is how to effectively embrace and nurture the parallels between the personalities of the incoming students and the new realities of the workplace (rather than act as an intellectual bottleneck by attempting to mold them to an outmoded pedagogical structure).

This educational evolution begins with creating environments that are more student-centered than teacher-centered, encouraging students to collaborate and work in groups.

"Working together" is a key concept for millennials. Learning is a social process. The most memorable college experiences involve making connections with others—whether students or faculty—and the importance of learning spaces that facilitate these connections cannot be overstated. These connections are not just verbal or spatial, they are visual—enabling people to see others and feel as though they are part of something bigger, such as observing a class at work in a laboratory.

Creating spaces for spontaneous meetings is particularly important. "Think stops" are places for individuals to stop, relax, and meet others. Often marked by a chalkboard or whiteboard, these locations encourage impromptu meetings and conversations.5

The University of Melbourne hosted an intensive five-day workshop in 2007, titled "Creating New Generation Learning Environments on the University Campus," with the goal of exploring the role and development of new types of classrooms. The forum was facilitated and documented by Peter Jamieson, whose observations get to the heart of the learning process.

"Key findings from the research into teaching and learning in higher education should underpin the design of all educational environments," says Jamieson. "In my own case, these include the concepts that: knowledge is not 'transferred' from teacher to student, but is personally constructed by the student; learning should involve students in the active construction of their own knowledge; learning is essentially a socially-constructed process; and, learning is fundamentally about changing the way an individual understands an aspect of the world they are learning about and how they make sense of it.

"Therefore, exposure to the variation in this understanding within the class—seeing how others understand what they are learning—is vital to the individual's own learning. It is a key function of the teacher to bring out this variation in understanding."6

Collaborative learning environments are often referred to as "learning studios" (modeled after an artist's studio that changes with each project). Some key characteristics include:

  1. They don't have a recognizable "front," either visually or from the perspective of the place where you expect the teacher to be. There may be a formal instructor's workstation, which may include remote controls for the room's AV technology. Alternatively, it might be mobile and small. In either case, most of the time the instructor is a wanderer, listening in on discussions, answering questions, and furnishing resource materials.7
  2. They have multiple electronic display surfaces oriented on different walls. Some are large projected images, using dedicated ceiling mounted projectors.8
  3. A good portion of the perimeter walls are made up of writing surfaces; they might even be magnetic to enable them to be used as tack-up surfaces.9
  4. In some cases, the furniture is lightweight, movable, and reconfigurable to accommodate workgroups of various sizes. Chairs are comfortable and on wheels. The room is sized to allow for comfortable circulation and a certain messiness, even chaos, during classroom project activities.10

It's important to note that collaborative learning spaces aren't just limited to classrooms. Corridors and hallways, residence halls, cafés, and of course libraries, can easily be transformed with the right furniture and access to technology.

FLEXIBLE FURNITURE—THE HEART OF COLLABORATIVE LEARNING SPACESStudents and faculty both prefer a level of control over their environment. The ability to rearrange seats or adjust the lighting makes it possible for the same space to be used in many ways—by different groups—throughout the day. A computer lab or classroom may become the site of a small group performance or a club meeting at night. This flexibility also allows customization, maximizing not only space utilization but also convenience.11

Learning studios with flexible furniture can be easily configured for full-grouppresentations and lectures, subdivided for small-group projects, moved to the perimeter of the room for "roundtable" discussions, and even collapsed and stowed out of the way to open up floor space.

Choosing the right furniture is critical for collaborative environments and will largely dictate how the space is used. Here are the primary types of furniture used in higher education collaborative environments:

  • Training tables: Tables in various shapes and sizes that can be easily moved into different formations are a basic necessity. Many fold and nest together for easy changes, movement and storage; some are available with power options to support technology.
  • Meeting tables: Round and oval meeting tables are an ideal complement to a group discussion. Students can meet with a professor over coffee, or groups of students can sit together and brainstorm for a project; sitting or standing height tables ensure discussions aren't limited.
  • Mobile boards and easels: These allow an idea to be created, shared and moved around as needed. Both freestanding and mobile options as well as rail systems that affix to a wall fall under this category.
  • Mobile carts to support technology: Wheeled carts allow new technologies like flat panels to be brought into collaborative environments to enhance the discussion. Mobile instructor workstations also support a variety of multimedia equipment at once, making them ideal for front-of-the-room applications.
  • Soft seating: Collaborative spaces need modular seating that can be modified to support group work. Chairs, sofas, benches and lounge seating are needed for informal collaboration areas. Various finishing options help complement the space.
  • Mobile privacy screens: These allow larger collaborative spaces to be broken down into smaller group environments. Lightweight and mobile screens allow for easy movement and create more privacy for student activities. Like soft seating, many screens come with a variety of color, pattern and material options to enhance the look of the space.12


  1. Claessen, H.J.M. Problems, Paradoxes, and Prospects of Evolutionism. In Alternatives of Social Evolution. Ed. by N.N. Kradin, A.V. Korotayev, Dmitri Bondarenko, V. de Munck, and P.K. Wason (p. 1-11). Vladivostok: Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. P.2.
  2. Jamieson, P. et al. (2007) Creating New Generation Learning Environments on the University Campus. WB Research Press, Melbourne, Australia.
  3. Heathfield, S. Managing Millennials: Eleven Tips for Managing Millennials
  4. Sweeney, R. (2006) Millennial Behaviors & Demographics. New Jersey Institute of Technology
  5. Oblinger, D. et al. (2006) Learning Spaces. Washington, DC: Educause.
  6. Jamieson, P. et al. (2007) Creating New Generation Learning Environments on the University Campus.
  7. Leiboff, M. (2010) Studio Classroom: Designing Collaborative Learning Spaces. Campus Technology.
  8. ibid.
  9. ibid.
  10. ibid.
  11. Oblinger, D. et al. (2006) Learning Spaces.
  12. (2010) The Role of Furniture in Higher Education Collaborative Spaces. Bretford Mfg. Inc.
  13. ibid.

Ideally, furniture for collaborative learning spaces should be:

  • Flexible/reconfigurable: Simple to set up, rearrange, store and share.
  • Comfortable: Easy to sit in for a period of time, especially when using electronic equipment.
  • Mobile: Wheeled furniture is a must in spaces where the room and meetings are constantly changing. It must be able to be moved in, out and around quickly and without custodial support.
  • Dependable: Long lasting and made with high quality materials that resist damage from people and the environment.
  • Technology-enabled: Products that support the technology used in the room—with space for equipment placement, power and storage.
  • Attractive: It should enhance the tone of the collaborative space by providing a warm, inviting look that is also polished and professional.
  • Customizable: Able to be changed or tweaked to meet the exact needs of the space—from color and design, to style or construction.
  • Able to work with other furniture: It is ideal to have furniture that can work and fit with other furniture in the space (preferably the same style and brand for consistency).13

Collaborative learning spaces are the perfect environment to connect the personalities of millennial students with the needs of successful modern businesses. If these spaces are properly furnished, universities will realize increased utilization of the spaces and a more energized, engaged faculty and student body.

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of I+S Design, create an account today!