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Published October 21, 2016
This past summer, UB and SUNY were honored to receive a Campus Technology Innovators Award for the development of FLEXspace™. So what is FLEXspace™, you ask? Let’s rewind a bit.
As you might imagine, upgrading classroom spaces can be an expensive job and one that requires immense planning—especially when your campus has hundreds of classrooms. Wouldn’t it be easier if there was a way to take a virtual tour of college classrooms around the country to generate ideas for classroom upgrades?
It was this question that Lisa Stephens, Senior Strategist and Associate for Instructional Resources at UB, posed to colleagues and fellow participants in FACT2 (SUNY Faculty Advisory Council on Teaching and Technology). Stephens hoped that a discussion of this question would lead to new ideas about how information on learning-space planning could be shared more efficiently across campuses.
Out of Stephens’ discussions with FACT2 arose a new concept—that of Flexible Learning Environments eXchange, or FLEXspace.
FLEXspace is an open education resource (OER) platform that has grown to encompass over 1,000 educational institutions representing some 35 countries. Each institution participates in a process of sharing details and ideas about learning space design, with a special focus on active learning.
“The seeds for this idea grew out of the earliest days of UB’s master planning efforts,” says Stephens. “Several of us in central and departmental IT wanted to connect with colleagues at peer institutions to explore how they were approaching content capture and collaboration in virtual environments.”
It quickly became clear that academic technologists, technology integrators, facilities planners, and faculty across SUNY were grappling with similar challenges of learning space design, so in 2011, the SUNY Provost charged a FACT2 Learning Environments Task Group to investigate potential solutions. This resulted in a pilot project with Artstor, a company that specializes in storing images.
Five years later, FLEXspace version 1.0 connects wide-ranging stakeholder groups to foster an integrated approach for planning learning environments conducive to active learning—a teaching method that involves students more directly in the learning process.
The key to this approach is a system of connecting high-resolution images and video with easy-to-understand terminology that helps campus groups charged with ideating new space to “get on the same page” instead of drowning in discipline-specific jargon. The system is divided into two sections: the “upload” side for sharing and showcasing campus spaces, and the “download” side for browsing spaces of interest and exporting detailed records to MS PowerPoint or Word documents.
“We had to figure out how to give a gift and not a burden,” explains Stephens. “We worked with people across the country to find a balance of asking for enough details to make the tool useful, but not so many that it took too much time to contribute examples.”
The problem Stephens refers to was demonstrated when AppleTM gave Stanford University a grant to build a computer classroom and writing instruction lab. The design process was so dependent on technical jargon that it impeded shared understanding between faculty and technologists.
“Facilities staff have always thought in terms of things like square footage per person,” says Richard Holeton, Director of Academic Computing Services at Stanford, in an interview with campustechnology.com. “We realized we had a situation where there was no common language, no standard for how you talk about group work.”
Building a common understanding of learning environments by creating a community of shared ideas is what FLEXspace aims to accomplish. When the SUNY-wide pilot project was presented at a series of national conferences, its prospects quickly gained traction; faculty, technologists, and facilities planners were all expressing interest in joining the growing effort.
“It’s been a career highlight to work with people across the country,” says Stephens. “People always bring resources and understanding to a project through the lens of their own experience, and it’s great to be part of an effort that shares ideas across institutions, states, and countries. I hope everyone looks at the ‘about us’ section on the FLEXspace website. In addition to the efforts that John Pfeffer, Beth Fellendorf, Terry McCormack and I contributed in the early days, there are a ton of people across the founding partners and core team that have brought this collaboration to life. One example is Joseph A. Moreau, who led the original SUNY-wide task group when he was Chief Information Officer at Oswego."
What started as a pilot project caught fire, spread across the nation, and soon went international. With designers, technologists and faculty connected, what’s the next step for the future of FLEXspace?
“Our next goal is to release version 2.0, which will be mobile-ready and address some user interface issues,” Stephens says. “This redesign will allow someone to walk into a classroom and take a picture or shoot a video and upload content to FLEXspace from their mobile device.”
FLEXspace is often used in combination with the EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System—a separate but parallel development effort designed to quantify the learning potential of a space based on active learning attributes.
“We’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to present at major planning conferences for several years now, and the message has shifted from, ‘these are cool tools, check them out’ to ‘here are case studies where these tools really helped us understand campus needs before sitting down with donors, contractors and architects,” says Stephens. “We want everything to be easier to use in the future. So let’s save time and effort while we learn from each other!”