A Classroom’s Design Can Make or Break an Education Environment
You, person reading these words, are a lifelong learner. I know this because here you are, reading AVIXA's blog, deepening your understanding of the industry you’re a part of. You’re also in great company. The AV industry is full of people like you, as evidenced by the more than 12,000 Certified Technology Specialist (CTS) holders or the 94% of you who say staying up to date with industry trends is one of the main reasons you come to the InfoComm show. Clearly, learning is important to you.
That said: do you hate going to class?
If so, you’re not alone! Though learning about trends and products are the top two reasons people cite for attending the InfoComm show, only about 10% of attendees participate in formal training there. This makes perfect sense: there is plenty to be learned on the show floor. There, you have opportunities to examine products and systems in person and talk directly with the experts staffing the booths. Here’s the thing, though – the big, potential missed opportunity – what about all the other experts, completely enveloping you at all times at the show? That is, what about the army of peers, competitors, and potential partners attending the tradeshow alongside you? If you’re not going to class, are you learning anything from them?
Maybe. If you’re outgoing, or persistent, or lucky, you’ll find yourself in the right networking reception next to the right people, at the right time, and you’ll connect over a shared challenge, and you’ll learn something from the different ways you approached it. But! If you go to class, intentionally seeking out a cohort of fellow learners determined to tackle the same questions as you – well, in all honesty, you might fare no better. Sure, you will gain insights from the 1 to 5 people wearing microphones, but what about the 100 people sitting around you? So often, in lectures or panels, each attendee is an island. People are mere inches away from each other, but they’re isolated by the lighting, the orientation of the seats, the implied focus on the front of the room.
Our average session attendee has over 15 years of experience in the AV industry. If you’re sitting silently in a room with 100 of them, you’re missing out on a millennium and a half of expertise.
That’s the challenge: every year, we bring tens of thousands of AV experts, all committed to learning more about their industry, together under one roof. How do we facilitate they’re getting the maximum possible value out of attending by making sure they can leverage not just our exhibitors and speakers as knowledge resources, but each other?
That, my friends, is an AV design challenge. I’m turning to you, the vast army of lifelong-learning AV experts, to help solve it.
To be clear, that’s not just an AV design challenge. It’s an event planning challenge, a pedagogy challenge, and a human nature challenge too. We need to attack it from multiple vectors, changing the kinds of sessions we program and the expectations for our speakers and attendees. Changing just the content is not enough though. If you want to transform an experience, you also have to change the space and the technology.
For InfoComm 2019, we introduced a handful of new room designs for our sessions, two of which were specifically designed to address this challenge. Internally, we referred to the designs as the “peer-to-peer space” and the “roundtable space.” Here they are:
These rooms were intended to serve different, but related briefs. The peer-to-peer room was intended to support small groups of people talking, working, or studying together. We wanted a facilitator to have the ability to address the entire room to initiate and facilitate activities, but all other activities took place on an interpersonal level. In the interest of supporting this, the seating areas were small and spread out. We used different lighting presets for three different types of task that took place in this space: studying, versus discussion, versus drinks and networking. The direct-view display was intended to support the studying task – the idea was that, on demand, one of the AVIXA staff instructors circulating through the study space could bring up a presentation and quickly guide a group of people wrestling with the same topic through a lesson.
This room functioned nearly exactly as it was designed to. People engaged in rich, active networking, studying, and discussion. I’m not saying the room made them do this, but it presented no barriers. The small, widely spaced seating areas invited people to congregate in small groups. The comfortable furniture and appropriate task light made the space feel inviting. The sound reinforcement made it easy to facilitate activities within the space. The one element that went unused was the display – once people had settled into their nooks, they weren’t so easy to dislodge, preferring to review concepts using the portable whiteboards, written references, and handheld devices. This was a space that removed barriers between people with just enough supporting technology to give them the environment and tools they needed to learn from each other.
The roundtable room was intended for larger group discussions – a whole roomful of people having a lively debate. The speakers/facilitators would be on the same level as the other participants, not behind a lectern or on a stage. A couple of throwable microphones would ensure everyone had a voice. Originally, we designed it completely in the round, with everyone facing each other in a circle. We had a variety of seating and floor lamps throughout the room providing soft, even illumination. In essence, we were hoping to be the living room for the AV industry’s family meeting. In later design iterations, we reverted to a semicircle so that the facilitators could use slides and images to help frame the discussion. We also dramatically reduced the amount of soft seating because it seemed wasteful – it looked very beautiful in the design renderings, but we weren’t confident it was contributing substantively to our design intent.
Adding the display re-introduced the impression of there being a front and back of the room. That was reinforced by the single row of soft seating that remained in place: those in the front row seemed “on stage,” and everyone behind them seemed like the audience. We had accidentally created a new barrier between the front row and the ranks behind them.
I’m not saying the room “didn’t work” – sessions that took place here were, on average, the highest rated at the show. You experts, you lifelong learners – you really benefit from talking directly to one another. Anecdotally, though, the facilitators who used this space reported that it resisted its intent. While it was easy to draw in the front row, those in the back seemed almost hesitant to interrupt.
The beautiful thing about designs is that they’re made to be modified. I suspect that if we integrated the roundtable display into the backdrop so that it could “disappear” when not in use, we could recapture the sense of a circle of equals. Having seats clustered around their own designated microphone instead of making people ask to have a mic passed to them would reinforce the impression that everyone is expected to speak. Having either more variety or uniformity of seating might eliminate the “on stage/off stage” perception.
You probably have a better idea though – that’s the whole point. As an industry, our collective knowledge dwarfs any one individual’s, if only we can access it. If you’d like to share any of that collective knowledge with me, I am ready to learn.
Tim Albright leads a panel on collaboration at the AV Executive Conference