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Teaching & Learning aids classrooms modernization

ITS Teaching & Learning is playing a key role in the multi-year classrooms modernization plan that the University announced earlier this year.

The Flexible Learning Spaces Initiative will modernize as many as 50 general-purpose classrooms, including several lecture halls, over the next five years. The majority of the changes to small and mid-size classrooms will be completed during this calendar year.

Glynis Cowell stands in front of white board, with students around her.
Glynis Cowell, Teaching Professor in Romance Studies, works with students using whiteboard walls in flexible classroom Dey 205. Photo: Lars Sahl

Plan runs through 2025

Provost Robert Blouin announced the master plan on February 20, 2019. Funding and construction will be staggered through 2025. The goal is to create learning spaces that can accommodate a wide range of teaching methods, including both collaborative and lecture-based techniques.

Over the next five years of this project:

  • As many as 50 general purpose classrooms will be updated, including several lecture halls.
  • New workshops and resources will be offered to support instructors using the updated spaces.
  • The faculty-led Classrooms Modernization Advisory Group will help oversee implementation of the initiative.

Most of Carolina’s classrooms, designed for traditional presentations, cannot adequately support contemporary pedagogies, Blouin explained in a formal note to campus. Many classrooms also contain decades-old furniture that is beginning to fail. In recent years, the University has been evaluating and implementing flexible classroom designs, which have been well received by instructors and students.

Focus for Hotline unit

Gina Reitz
Gina Reitz

Modernizing these classrooms has been a primary focus for the ITS Classroom Hotline group within Teaching & Learning.

Classroom Hotline Manager Gina Reitz and Bob Henshaw, ITS Liaison to the Center for Faculty Excellence (CFE), are highly invested in this project. They were part of the planning team that put together the Master Plan for Modernizing Carolina Classrooms. They also serve on the implementation team working to ensure that these updates happen as quickly as possible and with appropriate input from other campus stakeholders.

Henshaw is providing staff support for the faculty-led Classrooms Modernization Advisory Group, which was convened by the Provost to help oversee the initiative.

He and Reitz’s Classroom Hotline group will examine individual rooms to help determine which rooms would benefit most from flexible student seating.

“We are sorting through a lot of different criteria to finalize the list of classrooms to renovate,” Henshaw said. “The truth is, most of our classrooms are not good candidates to become flexible classrooms, for one reason or another. We hope to renovate as many classrooms as possible that support a wide range of disciplines.”

The Hotline group helps determine if extra technology should be added to any of the rooms on the master plan for the summer. The team also will assist with planning for the three larger rooms, which will be tackled later.

Once the rooms have been picked for technology additions, they will work on design, procurement, choosing audio-visual vendors and assisting the project managers overseeing those rooms.

The Hotline group also is working with the Interior Design group within Facilities Services to determine furniture storage and which seating to keep and which to surplus.

Progress to date

Bob Henshaw
Bob Henshaw

Initial classroom improvements kicked off over last year’s winter break when 15 general purpose classrooms with 50 or fewer seats were converted to flexible classrooms. Improvements include a new generation of mobile furniture, shared writing surfaces, and updated finishes to improve classroom acoustics. Some classrooms are also being equipped with additional technology to facilitate collaboration and digital content sharing, as well as access for remote learners.

Eighteen additional general-purpose classrooms were updated this past summer. New whiteboards were also installed in nearly 40 classrooms updated in previous years with furniture only.

It is likely that a few more classrooms will be updated next summer, budget permitting. Consistent with the goals of the master plan, a portion of the budget will be reserved to replace older classroom furniture that is beginning to fail en masse.

Planning for the lecture hall renovations is ongoing. Both Henshaw and Reitz’s Classroom Hotline are part of the campus team working with campus stakeholders and external architects on the concept designs. Carroll 111 and Sitterson 014 are the first lecture halls targeted for renovation. The changes will result in fewer overall seats, but greater student interaction and easier instructor access to students. Construction on one or both projects could begin as early as this summer.

Improving the classroom experience

“It’s great that the University is focusing funding and time into the general-purpose classrooms,” Reitz said. “Rather than just buying more of the same seating, they are allowing the group to look at ways to enhance the instructional goals for the instructors and students and look into ways to make the entire classroom experience more positive.”

“It’s also a huge plus,” she said, “that we’re getting rid of seating that’s more than 20 years old and addressing other maintenance items in the rooms, including carpet and new paint.”

The Flexible Learning Spaces Initiative is the culmination of many years of work on the part of many different people and organizations on campus, Henshaw said.

“I have taken advantage of my role at the Center for Faculty Excellence to engage faculty members and learn more about what classroom changes have the biggest impact on teaching and learning,” he said. The CFE has offered 15 workshops this fall designed to support instructors teaching in flexible classrooms, and is also taking the lead on evaluation of the program.

Changes support innovation

The classroom renovations, Henshaw said, will help accommodate a wider variety of teaching methods on campus.

“The flexible classrooms don’t take anything away from instructors, but we think they will open new doors for instructors ready to try some new things,” he said. “Faculty members tell us that they are more likely to experiment with new teaching methods when the classroom makes it easy. We often consult with faculty members about how to work around the constraints of our traditional classrooms. The flexible classrooms allow us to shift the professional development focus to how to take advantage of the interactive features.”

“We are fortunate,” Henshaw added, “to have a lot of talented instructors here at UNC. In classrooms where they have more control over the learning environment, we see them doing some really amazing things. I’m looking forward to seeing how our faculty members utilize these flexible classrooms.”

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