Language learning always happens in spaces – in classrooms, in homes, in virtual worlds, in libraries, in hallways, and in cafes. Spaces shape and influence how we think, what connections we make, how we feel and relate to others. They may be physical or virtual, and increasingly they are blended and hybrid learning spaces.
This project is about bringing language classroom and learning space design into the 21st century. It is time to critically think about how our spaces need to adapt to serve educators in a constantly changing environment.
The general design and physical layout of Western classrooms has not changed very much since the 19th century (Koutamanis & Majewski-Steijns, 2012). There have been only a few modest changes, such as the introduction of new technical devices (e.g. projectors and screens) or the replacement of bench-table combinations with individual chairs and tables. Formal teaching and learning environments have not developed at the same pace as pedagogies, teaching methodologies and approaches, learning styles, social conventions and political expectations, as well as technologies have.
The field of language teaching and learning in particular has seen dramatic changes over the last decades, with an array of major shifts in second language teaching methodologies and approaches. While the earliest traditional form, the Grammar and Translation Method, worked well in a traditional, formal classroom, more recent forms, such as the Communicative Approach, or mixed approaches of the Post-Methodology Era, are no longer served well by the confines of the classroom. Such “spaces of enclosure” (Giroux, 1996) do not serve small-group or pair work, a staple of modern language teaching, nor do they serve project-based, task-based, computer-assisted, hybrid, blended, community-based or other recent approaches. Physical learning spaces, such as classrooms, determine the way students learn and interact and the way instructors teach, and force certain patterns and may actually impede learning (Woolner, 2010).
This web site is only a start. It is not meant to be comprehensive, but rather as a starting point for your design or redesign projects. Good space design is situated; it is specific to the place, location, history, culture, and character of each individual learning environment.
Designing meaningful language learning spaces is a complex endeavor. Moving beyond cookie-cutter classrooms is difficult because we don’t have many models. And radical designs can be risky. But when a new building or room is constructed, it will have to serve without major alterations for decades. It’s important to think ahead and try to envision how learning in 20 years might look like, and how a space for such would have to be designed. For language learning and teaching, certain parameters need to be taken into account. Innovation can happen in expected places, for example when an old language lab is turned into a language center, or when classrooms take on different forms and are filled with new furniture. But it can also happen in unexpected places: corridors, coffee shops, quads, offices, meeting spaces…
Language Center Design
Designing a new language center or redesigning an older one is a complex undertaking. Many will do this only once during their careers, and it is such a niche that information and expertise are hard to find. You have come to the right place. These pages will provide not only some suggestions and examples of language center design, but also suggest essential tools that will make this wonderful task less daunting. This is, of course, only a brief introduction. Please see section “Further Resources and Information” below for tips on how to find more in-depth information. The modern language center is not a language lab, which was designed to provide a space for listening to audio tracks and recording one’s own voice. While these functions may still be in need for some courses, they can be done virtually and are not a widespread occurrence in today’s communicative classroom. Language center’s are multi-purpose spaces that deliver a variety of services, functions, and resources. None are alike, and it depends on each institution what those functions and services are. The language center is not a defined unit, as was the case with the language laboratory. It is part of a larger system of classrooms, transitory and gathering spaces, offices, virtual spaces, etc. Thinking beyond the immediate space is crucial when envisioning or re-envisioning a language center.
The first step when designing or redesigning a language is a thorough needs assessment. Do you need a language center? For what? What functions are most needed? Would it be a teaching space? A resource center? A production facility? A social space? A facility for videoconferencing, online learning and classes, or blended learning services? (Check out the needs assessment checklist in Language Center Design). Assemble an assessment team that gets feedback from faculty and students and collects examples of successful centers from other institutions. Focus on peer institutions that are similar in size, philosophy, and resources. You might also consider hiring an experienced consultant who can help you with assessment of the actual needs. A language center is a costly project, so the center cannot address the most important needs. Most centers cannot possibly address all needs, therefore it is important to also agree on what it will not provide. Needless to say, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the next two decades.
Interior Design and Furniture
Usually we don’t have a lot of choice about the location and size of the language center. We get a space assigned and are supposed to make do with those parameters. You’re lucky if you can choose, but that rather the exception than the rule. (Choose proximity to language faculty offices, language classrooms, places with high visibility and accessibility; 1st floor is best; avoid basements or other hard to find/access places). Furniture selection is a crucial part of language center design. Choices abound: mobile tables, group tables, couch tables, or conference tables? Banana/boomerang shaped tables? Should there be a video viewing room? A multipurpose room?
See-through or solid doors? Sliding doors? Chairs or couches? Individual or group spaces for videoconferencing? Mobile and/or flexible walls and partitions? Mobile, sliding, or installed whiteboards? There are no right answers, but many possibilities. It all comes back to the needs assessment: what will you do in the language center? A few general suggestions: pay attention to the lighting: soft, warm lights, not bright, cold lights work best! Install shades to block out or dim natural sunlight. Make a color palette and identify some them colors that distinguish the center from other spaces in the building and give it an identity. These colors should also be used in promotional and other language center materials and publications. Make sure to consider the flow of visitors in the center. It should be both inviting but also provide feelings of protection. A balance of open and closed spaces works best. Make the center a unique experience, for example by using Wallwordsor writeable surfaces.
The most difficult aspect that one encounters when conceptualizing a new or redesigned language center is wether or not it will be obsolete in the future. The bitter lessons of decaying language labs have led to a more cautious approach to language center design. Future-proofing is essential, so that in 10 years the center is still a vibrant, usable space. The space should not be built around a particular technology. Technology is rapidly changing, and it is impossible to determine what devices or systems will be used 10 years from now. Furniture should be flexible and accomodate a number of functions. If desktops are no longer needed in the future, then they should be able to fulfill another function. Certain functions of the center will remain valid and one should make sure to integrate these: storage, social spaces, individual learning spaces, classroom spaces, and support/resource spaces will remain to be useful even with changing technologies. There will be changes – we may possibly not have any physical DVD or Blueray discs but rather rely on streaming services – but these resources will be replaced by others.
Outreach and Management
Outreach is an important part of any language center. Make sure your visitors know what you offer. In today’s digital world, that is often not very clear. Some ideas: create a poster series (for inspiration: Language Center Poster Series – Rhodes College – 35 mb download). Use a digital signage system. Create trifolds. Make a language center photo book (for inspiration: RHODES CENTER book (in pdf format) – 20 mb download) . More ideas can be found in the upcoming IALLT Management Manual (new edition currently in progress).
While technology is constantly changing, you’ll have to make some choices at some point. Rest assured, it is okay to not have the latest and greatest. Make sure you have usable equipment that can be upgraded and that patrons will actually use. Before venturing into any new gadgets or platforms, make sure you do some field testing. Not all technologies that initially appear exciting work well in lab settings. Single-purpose devices, such as flash-camcorder or voice recorders, are easier to maintain than multi-person devices. The iPad or the iPod touch, for example, have a steeper learning curve, need to be configured to be used, and have to be personalized to realize their full potential. They also need to be charged and maintenance, such as software upgrades or synchronizing, makes these devices trickier to use in a language center setting. That doesn’t mean they cannot be used to great effect, but much work and preparation needs to happen before they can be deployed. There are some technology decisions that are more long-term, for example integration and placement of projectors and screens, smartboards, keyswipe authentication systems, large screens with hookups for collaborative work or computer games for language learning, or network printing.
Further Resources and Information
The best thing is to come to one of the IALLT Language Center Design (pre-conference) Workshops at an IALLT conference! The next one is in the summer of 2015 Harvard University. At the conference, you will also find all the experts in one location, and IALLT members are very collegial and usually eager to share their experiences and knowledge. Also, consider purchasing the books “Language Center Design” and/or the “Management Manual.” Educators and administrators who are at any point in the planning process might also consider hiring a consultant. IALLT has a consulting coordinator. I have also consulted before and would be happy to function as a resource. One other good practice is to visit other language centers (ideally at institutions nearby). Most directors are happy to give a tour, and this has been a fantastic source of inspiration and experience for me.
Another good resource to start with is the article “Language Center Design and Management in the Post-Language Laboratory Era” (Kronenberg, 2014), published in the IALLT Journal. You can access the article here (HTML version / PDF version)
The above information is merely a starting point. It is not meant to be a comprehensive overview.
Icons: Thanks to Prax_08: http://findicons.com/pack/754/isuite_revoked