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Flexible Classroom Design Saves Money, Improves Flexibility, Accessibility of Instruction

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed a classroom design that gives instructors increased flexibility in how to teach their courses and improves accessibility for students, while  slashing administrative costs.

Specifically, the new classrooms take advantage of the fact that students are bringing their own technology – such as laptops – to class. The classrooms also include mobile infrastructure, where whiteboards, desks and tables can be reconfigured according to the needs of students and instructors.

“These classrooms work really well in terms of engaging students, particularly in regard to helping students bridge the gap between in-class instruction and out-of-classroom assignments,” says Dr. Susan Miller-Cochran, an associate professor of English and director of the First-Year Writing Program at NC State and lead author of a paper on the flexible classroom design. “It was also important to us administratively because it lowered the costs for our department.”

The cost of equipping a traditional computer classroom, including laptop computers, is approximately $34,700, whereas the cost of equipping the flexible classrooms using students’ technology is approximately $14,500. Students who don’t have their own laptops are able to sign out  laptops from a central repository near the classrooms.

In addition to lowering costs and giving instructors more options for how to conduct their classes, the flexible design significantly improves access for students with special needs.

“You can adjust the classroom layout to serve the needs of students with physical disabilities, students on the autism spectrum and students who use technology to address visual or other challenges,” Miller-Cochran says.

Since launching the flexible classroom program in 2011, Miller-Cochran has helped other universities in North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina pursue similar concepts in their classrooms. “Our next steps include developing guidance materials on how to incorporate this concept into classrooms for students in a variety of settings,” Miller-Cochran says.

The paper, “Making peace with the rising costs of writing technologies: Flexible classroom design as a sustainable solution,” is published online in Computers and Composition. The paper was co-authored by Dana Gierdowski, a Ph.D. student at NC State.

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Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“Making peace with the rising costs of writing technologies: Flexible classroom design as a sustainable solution”

Authors: Susan Miller-Cochran and Dana Gierdowski, North Carolina State University

Published: online January 2013, Computers and Composition

Abstract: In a challenging economy where budgets for academic programs seem to shrink each year, writing programs face serious economic challenges. When fiscal challenges are paired with the ever-changing nature of writing technologies and the need to update classroom technologies on a regular basis, the challenges can seem insurmountable. In this article the authors discuss the multiple phases of a classroom redesign project where first-year composition students used their own laptop computers in a flexible classroom, which included mobile furnishings, mobile whiteboards, and multiple LCD screens for projection. The purpose of the project was to design a space that was economically sustainable, and would better meet the needs of composition instructors and students. To meet that goal, the First-Year Writing Program partnered with their institution’s IT and Design Services to develop the flexible classroom model. The flexible classroom project sought to answer the question: how do we take existing classroom spaces and small/shrinking budgets and make the spaces work well for the teaching of writing? Based on financial comparisons of equipment between the flexible classroom versus classrooms where computers are provided by the university, as well as student surveys, the authors found that a flexible design is a cost-effective solution that is also an effective pedagogical space.

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