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How do you create a flexible learning environment in higher education?


What is a flexible learning environment?

Flexible learning environments should allow students to do everything from studying solo to participating in a lively group discussion, sometimes within the same room and at the same time. That is flexibility, after all, but what it looks like in practice may differ.

In virtually any flexible learning environment, there are opportunities for students to work together in small groups or, as in a traditional classroom, listen to a teacher deliver a lecture. Also, due to the ubiquity of remote learning, there should be opportunities for students to interact with members of their cohort who are not in the same physical space through video screens and collaboration tools.

Flexibility should extend to all types of instructions that can be given in that space as well. This too takes different forms. Some universities are opting for spaces that can effectively accommodate face-to-face lectures, hybrid classes, and full distance learning in one space; others, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), have created unique “personas” in the classroom for what they have identified as four distinct needs.

Still other universities have gotten even more creative, with one stacking all the tools for flexible instruction on a cart to drive from class to class, says Kathe Pelletier, director of the teaching and learning program at EDUCAUSE.


“The faculty can just plug it in and go,” she says. “Obviously there are benefits to having more established technology hanging on the wall, but there are also benefits to having more modular options that allow for flexibility, and the faculty can create what they want based on the technology.”

WATCH: See how a university designed forward-thinking learning spaces.

How are flexible learning environments structured?

Designing a flexible learning space in higher education starts with the furniture. Students’ chairs can’t be bolted to the floor as they go from listening to a lecture to huddling with their classmates or burying their noses in textbooks.

Students in a flexible classroom are usually seated in pods and around tables, something that also allows the professor to flow around the room and work one-on-one with students when needed. It’s also the kind of setup that allows for personalized, adaptive learning if instructors choose to use that method.