The classroom of tomorrow
By Denis Blount
March 11, 2014
How will tomorrow’s classrooms look and perform? How can design help future-proof educational environments? These questions were at the heart of one of our recent projects, the Yale School of Management, which opened in late 2013.
Pushing the boundaries
When Yale set out to replace the dated collection of buildings that had housed its business school for decades, the school determined to make the new facility the best of its kind in the world. Yale commissioned Foster + Partners and Arup to design the 242,000ft2 structure.
The building’s 16 classrooms received particularly close attention throughout the project. The design team employed a number of strategies that we believe will play an increasingly prominent role in classroom design in the years to come.
Making technology invisible, efficient
The near ubiquity of laptops and tablets in many classrooms has greatly increased the amount of technological infrastructure in schools. Our IT and communications solutions focused on meeting current needs by carefully integrating necessary equipment into the rooms to make it virtually invisible, while ensuring adequate space and ease of access for future modifications.
We also carefully considered the relationship between individual classrooms and the collection of spaces throughout the building. Whereas standard designs make each class a technological island, ours located all technology on a single converged network, with dedicated links to the building’s data center and media control room. This convergence of the AV and IT systems gives the Yale IT department the ability to troubleshoot all issues remotely, reducing student/faculty downtime as well as operational costs.
The school’s chief technology information officer was pleased with the final result, calling the building “future-proof when it comes to technology.”
Facilitating global connectivity
Education increasingly involves real-time dialogue and collaboration extending far beyond the school’s walls, a trend that is expected to grow exponentially in the coming decades. To accommodate this, the physical infrastructure needs to grow as well. In addition to improved videoconferencing facilities, designers will be asked to provide a wide range of audio and video communication to enable everything from casual video chats with off-campus experts to elaborately structured massive open online courses (MOOCs), as was done for this project.
Designing from the inside out
Form truly followed function in Foster + Partners’ classroom design. Taking nothing for granted, the team conducted in-depth analyses of everything from acoustics to sightlines to projection angles in order to optimize room shapes, sizes, and finishes.
The end result — an oval-shaped room whose walls closely (but not too closely) hug the semi-circular student seating — meets the needs of students, professors, and university staff alike.
To arrive at these solutions, the design team dedicated itself to understanding opportunities and constraints from the outset of the project, conducting user surveys, employing sophisticated tools, and building mockups for physical testing.
The process kicked off with a series of stakeholder meetings during which professors, staff, students, and others shared their goals and priorities for the new building. Professors reported a wide variety of needs and teaching styles. Some wanted as many technological options as possible — “The more screens you give me, the more screens I’ll use,” one told us — while others sought reassurance that gadgets and wires wouldn’t get in the way of interaction and dialogue.
Student concerns ranged from being able to plug in laptops to visibility of chalkboards and projection screens.
Administrators and event planners requested the ability to use classrooms for special occasions, while technology managers focused on the need to minimize operational time and cost. In particular, they were eager to leverage technology to achieve efficiencies not formerly possible by means of remote troubleshooting, automated control, and electronic room scheduling.
Test, refine, test again
After arriving at a solid understanding of the school’s needs, we started creating hand sketches, working through multiple iterations with Foster + Partners. We tested each for audiovisual and acoustical functionality, examining the quality of sight lines for both classroom and event uses. Subsequent detailed technical analyses revealed strengths and weaknesses of each typology and enabled further refinements.
To ensure that the classrooms would succeed in their primary function — facilitating conversation — our acousticians paid particular attention to optimizing sound reflection, diffusion, and absorption. Using 3D burst animations, we were able to understand precisely how sound would move within the room and adjust the design to achieve desired results.
We also built a full-scale mockup to assess factors such as constructability, acoustics, and usability. Students, professors, and other school representatives were invited to visit, and the design further refined to reflect their comments.
In particular, the feedback resulted in tweaks to the spatial relationship between the seating area and lecture space, helping students and professors feel more connected and comfortable in class.
At this moment in history, rapid technological change and raised expectations from students, faculty, and staff alike demand a higher level of attention to details than has hitherto been required for educational spaces.
Given the current trend, designers must continue to explore on-the-ground needs and develop creative, flexible solutions to deliver the best spaces possible for educating future generations.