collaborative learning, Instructional Design, Learning Spaces

How can I make my classroom more collaborative?

By Kirk Lunsford

The interior design classroom and lab at Front Range Community College, in Fort Collins, is a relatively new space in a recently constructed building. The room houses approximately 18 seats with Windows 7 computers and design software. It includes a scanner, a printer, some material storage, and a separate room for materials. The desks not only serve as computer workstations but also drafting tables.

IMG_3504-blur(The Interior Design Classroom Front Range Community College)

The curriculum is relatively ‘individual achievement based’, such as, students almost always work on their own projects for the purpose of their own portfolio. However, students will often congregate in areas to get advice from other students or watch over someone’s shoulder as they perform work in CAD software. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we could create these situations more intentionally? Although designers typically perform work intrinsically in software, the best designs always shine through team efforts between several designers, architects, clients, and end users. Our students could be more prepared for the ‘real world’ if we made it easier to collaborate.

IMG_3500(Instructor console Interior Design room FRCC)

The instructor console is off center. To demonstrate on the computer half of the class is on the opposite side of the room. It’s hard to keep everyone engaged. It seems the further the instructor is away from students the less interaction occurs. Some students on the far side of the room face the wall and are isolated. There’s a lonely ADA desk over there as well. I’ve already considered some ways we could improve this in an equity reflection.

IMG_3501(Isolated ADA desk, furthest away from instructor, faces away from group)

Before I can consider a redesign of this space I’d like to point out some challenges:

  • Drafting desks are large and rectangular. They cannot be moved but can they be replaced?
  • Must accommodate 18 workstations
  • Must integrate ADA better
  • Allow for appropriate distinct individual and shared work areas
  • Space required for the scanner, printer, and drawing supplies
  • Must integrate materials better
  • Instructor console integrated better
  • Easy access to all groups and groups can co-mingle

It may not be possible to address all of these challenges, but establishing an overarching goal would be sufficient to address many concerns. Of course, the ultimate goal of the classroom re-design is to create a better space plan to promote collaboration between students and instructors. I will attempt to address this goal and the considerations of this ‘collaborative’ space in another blog post featuring the space design in the near future.

collaborative learning, Instructional Design

Discord, A Platform For Education of the Future

By Kirk Lunsford

When we look to the future of collaborative learning in higher Ed, there are a couple of trends to consider. Firstly, the number of students seeking higher education online continues to grow. Secondly, the demand for higher education will exceed what can be provided in face to face instruction by universities. It’s also likely the spaces in which people will learn will be decided by the users, not technology. Knowing these things, it’s possible to imagine a future where instructional delivery is online and the spaces in which these learning opportunities are hosted are more like an affinity space.

Affinity spaces are known to deliver user based interactions much like connectivism theory. People who are interested in learning about a subject congregate to areas hosted by moderators and facilitators, who interact with users and cohorts. The connections made in these spaces, amongst the various users, could last years and spark or fuel development and personal growth. Common places where these interactions happen are wikis and forums. To liken this to a familiar online course in a LMS, the moderators would be instructors, facilitators are teaching assistants, and cohorts/users would be students. These types of platforms for affinity spaces and online classes offer mostly textual based interfaces via postings with the occasional embedded media or link. However, recent emerging technologies have provided new ways for interacting in affinity spaces, classes, and professional work that offer instantaneous communication via instant text or voice chat.

Slack, a project management platform is changing the way people collaborate in professional groups. At least it’s marketed towards corporate and business collaborators. It could however be used for students working on group projects. In fact, my group for INTE 6750 ‘Trends’ wanted to try Slack to collaborate on our group project this term. Most of us were new to this software however I really enjoyed using it. It felt very intuitive and simple. The hashtag system made it easy to track conversations and use the instant text effectively. Using the pins allowed us to track the critical posts that included embedded media or files associated with the assignments, the syllabus, and rubrics. The simple framework made it more accessible than most LMS platforms because there was less digging around to find needed things. We had instant access to each other and we could see if another one was online. But for one reason or another, after a few weeks, we abandoned Slack for simpler interfaces in gmail and google docs. It appears there are still some technology gaps for adoption among our group.

In contrast to my experiences in Slack, I’ve had great success in another emerging technology in the gaming domain. Although this technology could be adopted for education or various affinity groups. Like Slack, Discord is a platform that offers instant text and voice chat among many other great things. It’s important to note it’s available for all platforms and is available in a browser. This makes communication constant, on the go, and instantaneous should one choose to maximize use of this platform. Discord has most if not all of the features previously mentioned about slack, except it boasts the best performance because it needs to in order to succeed. Because the platform is marketed to gamers and used widely by them, players need to utilize this interface to communicate rapidly. Milliseconds count in the competitive gaming world. It’s interesting how a performance demands can push technology into new domains and be so readily adopted.

To give us an idea of how I experienced Discord for the first time last Fall, I would like to share some of the key features that make it so exciting.

Discord 011. Friends lists and groups are easy to access. In the educational domain, we can see this as a way to quickly access different courses and friends from various courses all in one place. The power of ‘connections’ through this platform for social learning are strong.

Discord 022. The ability to converse in Discord through instant text, voice chat, and personal messaging give it the most versatile synchronous and asynchronous means for discussion.

Discord 033. Pinned discussions and various text channels offer ways to quickly access topics and core learning materials. These text channels and pins are continuously updated as the collective provides learning materials.

As we think about the future of education, it’s likely the platforms for learning will be decided by the users, not technology, and not the institutions. It’s probable users will choose platforms like Discord or Slack because of the seamless myriad of means for social interaction. The interface is secondary to these ways of interacting making it user friendly and accessible to communicate. Although technology is always changing, the need to communicate in a variety of means, both synchronous and asynchronous, across multiple devices and platforms, should remain a constant need for education. I look forward to a future where technology seems secondary to user interaction. Discord and Slack seem to be a step in the right direction.

collaborative learning

Mystery Skype Connects Classrooms Across the U.S.

By Allison Sandler

Recently, I had my 5th graders Skype with a classroom in another State. The goal of the Skype session was for each class to use listening, speaking, and geography skills, to guess what State the class was in. Each team alternates asking yes/no questions, until students are able to guess the State. For example, my class might ask “Are you located East of the Mississippi River?” Students would then use a map to cross out states based on the other classes’ answer.

Mystery Skype is a powerful way for students to collaborate among their classmates, allowing them to reach out to students in other regions. This game has greatly improved the speaking and listening skills within my classroom.

When we consider collaborative activities within our schools, it is important to create opportunities for students to connect with students in other States. It allows them to meet academic standards, and to know students who come from different backgrounds and places. Mystery Skype can easily be used in any K-12 classroom!

collaborative learning, Instructional Design, Learning Spaces

Open Space Classroom Articles

By Christina Moore

It is interesting that Open Space classrooms are so readily promoted in the K-12 arena, but don’t apply well to corporate learning spaces.

Open Space Classrooms K-12:

Open Space Classrooms Corporate:

collaborative learning, Instructional Design

Peers Learn Best From Each Other

By Allison Sandler

As a classroom teacher, I am constantly reminded of the importance of group work. Students learn best from their peers and I was reminded of this as I worked with a student the other day.

Parastou and her friend on a school field trip

Her name is Parastou. Parastou came to me as a fifth grade student from Afghanistan. Before arriving in Colorado, she had spent her whole life living in a single room house in a war zone. She came to me knowing no English at all, and only speaking Parsi.

I spent the first week trying to get to know Parastou by using picture cards. I would match a phrase such as “bathroom” with a picture of the bathroom. Parastou quickly picked up on these simple commands and cues. I wanted her to start to understand more of the social language used in our school, in hopes that she could connect with her peers. I invited her to eat lunch with me several times, but most of the sessions were silent lunches.

I then paired her up with some other softer-spoken girls in my class. They began to include her in jump rope games at recess, in classroom conversations, and at the lunch table. It was amazing how quickly she picked up the language from these girls.

It is important that I remember Parastou as I continue to teach 20-30 students per year. Pairing English language learners (ELLs) with other students is so powerful and helps them grow as learners and communicators.

I am constantly trying to create collaborative experiences and situations for my students of second languages. After all, they learn best from their peers!

collaborative learning, Instructional Design, Learning Spaces

3 Different Collaborative Learning Spaces and What We Can Learn From Them

By Kirk Lunsford

The old way, “Push” classroom. Photo credit: Allie Sandler, 5th grade classroom at Virginia Court Elementary School.

How can we create more collaborative learning in the classroom? There are a number of ways to do this, such as project based learning (PBL), and working in small groups. To do this effectively, we should really be thinking out the space and the setting for learning, otherwise known as the collaborative learning space (CLS). For many teachers, it can be a challenge to balance the number of students with the given furniture and space. The goal is to create spaces that allow for better interaction between students and access to the instructor. The instructor should be able to observe and wander between these groups freely.

The classroom can be set up in both formal and informal ways depending on the needs of the students, space, and curriculum. Here we explore three different collaborative learning spaces and discover what might be learned from them.

1. An Informal and Homey Setting

A collaborative learning environment. Photo source:

Let’s look at “The Learning Lounge,” an informal learning setting for 5th graders with flexible seating. Teacher Sherah Cash explained that she wanted to eliminate the desks and make a comfortable ‘home-like atmosphere.’ She says, “the space invites more conversation and deeper connections to content through peer interaction.” Students are also presented with the freedom to choose from different areas to hang out and learn. Each area is designated to a task such as reading a book, playing a game, or studying the “Facebook” board which is utilized for social studies. Students play a large part in their own learning by the agency provided. Some of the furniture is ‘fold-up’ and portable and can be taken into the hall or outside for even more areas to engage in learning. Much of the furniture Sherah found at yard sales or thrift stores and dressed them up a bit. She has some furniture in progress (examples of her DIY furniture) to share. Other pieces of furniture have come from DonorChoose. A program where people can choose to donate funds to school projects of their choice online.

What can be learned from The Learning Lounge?

  • Deeper connections through authentic peer interaction
  • Agency in one’s own education by choice
  • Separate areas of distinct focus provide variety
  • Informal learning environments provide less stressful and natural engagement

2. A Functional Co-Designed Remake

(Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment. Edutopia. August 6, 2013)

Steve Mattise, a math and science teacher at Roosevelt middle school was looking for ways to promote more collaboration and deeper learning. His classroom was too small for the amount of students. The Third Teacher+ and Steve came together with their students and the community to redesign the classroom. The focus of the collaborative effort was to create an environment that meets the learning and teaching goals with limited means. The Third Teacher+ worked with the students and collaborators to draw out ideas by use of image boards and post-it notes. Faculty members, community members, the students, and The Third Teacher+ all came together in a weekend to remake the classroom. You can watch the transformation in the three part video series:

Remake Your Class Part 1: Planning for a Collaborative Learning Environment

Remake Your Class Part 2: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment

Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment

What can be learned from the classroom remake at Roosevelt Middle School?

  • Rely on students, members of the community, and experts to create valuable stakeholders and economical solutions
  • When students are involved in the remake process agency and ownership is achieved
  • Creative ways to re-use furniture and resources can promote function on a budget
  • Getting creative with space design allows for better traffic flow even with many students
  • De-cluttering can open up new places for much needed storage

3. Where Formal Lecture Meets Collaborative



The CLC at John Hopkins is a space for a variety of courses and workshops that have previously presented themselves as lectures. As opposed to other spaces with loose frameworks and varieties, the classroom is designed to provide singular group focused activity with brief lecture periods. Each round table group area has white boards directly adjacent and a screen where laptops can be projected. The instructor has two screens to project onto and access to each of the groups. The instructor, Rebecca Pearlman says students seem to intuitively know what to do. Their grades have stayed relatively the same, but engagement has increased and the quality of work has improved. The format was seemingly more pleasant for both the students and the instructor. Although this is a higher ed setting, this format can be applied appropriately to grades 7-12.

What can be learned from the CLC at John Hopkins?

  • Students are more actively engaged
  • Quality of work improved
  • Students were more ‘on task’
  • Defined expectations for the course

There isn’t one clear cut way to design a learning space. You need to rely on the students, members of the community, teachers, and experts to make the best decisions. Some spaces are flexible while others are more rigid. I hope these examples have provided you with some motivation to think critically about your learning spaces and if they are serving you and your students best needs. If you are looking for ideas on how you can design your own collaborative learning space, check out the Pinterest board for Collaborative Learning to get some ideas!