Design for Learning—physical and virtual—place matters!

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Where we learn is as important as what and how we learn. Control over one’s environment is a critical component of comfort, happiness and focus. When you approach a table and chair setting, you pull the chair out a bit, not just to make space to sit down, but to assert your autonomy and control over the space you are about to inhabit.

The same broad principles of autonomy and control over our environment apply to face-to-face places for learning and to the flipped classroom and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) environments. Sitting on a hard chair that cuts off your circulation at a screen with poor contrast in a noisy room presents the same barriers to learning in the virtual world as the physical one.

At the most basic level, we need to feel secure to learn. Why do booths always fill up first in a restaurant? Because the sense of enclosure makes us feel secure. We can look out onto the larger, more stimulating space from the security of our nest.

Along with security, a stimulus-rich environment is a key element of effective learning. Facing a wall is a punishment, not a source of stimulation. When you look up from your screen or your discussion, what do you see? A view to a bustling sidewalk, to fellow learners constructing a robot, or to green leaves fluttering in a breeze contribute to a refreshed, focused learner.

Continual feedback is another key principal of an effective learning environment. We don't learn well in isolation. The environment needs to allow for a fluid movement between both independent and collaborative interactions. Are you a cave dweller or are you a villager? The answer for the successful learner is an emphatic both!

And finally, a successful learning space needs to supports active, real-world learning. Retention and deep understanding are greatest when we learn though solving problems, though inquiry, and through cross-disciplinary projects. The best environments provide space for wet, messy and active projects along side the reflective and collaborative spaces.

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