Space to Play: Digitally Hybrid and Flexible Learning Spaces
I’ve come to believe that learning space design, like learning itself, needs to be a playful and iterative experience. Whether you are designing a room or inhabiting it, giving yourself some room for playful iteration can go a long way for learning how to best encourage learning.
Carbarn 315 is a Georgetown University classroom that facilitates learning activities for a mix of students and instructors who are concurrently and flexibly located either physically in the space or remotely online. All of Georgetown’s Masters in Learning, Design, and Technology courses are held in this room. As both a student in this program and a full-time staff member for the institution, I help implement a vision for this space that empowers faculty and students to experiment within this hybrid and flexible model of blended learning. Just like me, the room also plays double duty working with designers and technologists by day, and faculty/students by night. It’s there for us to experiment, collaborate, and explore new approaches to teaching and learning.
Shaping the room as both a student and staff member has been messy, revelatory, and fun. Experiencing the inevitable tech hiccups myself in the classroom gives me a unique stakeholder experience, as I can groan alongside other students and feel a sense of urgency and attachment. Doing this playfully is only made possible by a cyclical approach that lets us learn together from mistakes in order to take progressive steps forward. Our early low-stakes experimental interventions inform action and subsequent intervention through successive iterations. I shudder to think how this would have played out had the program poured a significant financial investment into a complete design from the get-go. I also hesitate to think we would have gained as much from our classes, both the in-person and online participants, if we weren’t all willing to grin and work through missteps with the technology along the way.
One of our students, Anel Albertao, has been a tremendous partner in helping us to play with the space. Unlike the rest of our students, who are only occasionally remote, she attends class online regularly (with the rest of the class in-person), having moved to California during the application process. At the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, a lot of our ideas for synchronously bridging the physical and the digital were all theoretical—but having the chance to try new approaches and set-ups from session to session with feedback from her has given us the chance to experiment and to play. Even before having a dedicated online student, we were experimenting on a smaller level. By setting aside the occasional class session to bring in a remote guest speaker into our classroom space, we were able to try using a relatively inexpensive 360-degree camera (the “meeting owl”) to begin our thought process.
While our goal is to invest heavily into making this experience as “turnkey” as possible, we have learned that it really doesn’t take too much to blend workable classroom activities and discussion. Technologies for audio, video, and web-based environments have progressed to the point where a range of approaches are possible with varying degrees of investment. In my experience, the main key for successfully finding an approach that works is a willing heart and mind, and the time and space to think through these approaches for learning and design in a particular space or in a particular class session.
Designing (or adapting) a space for faculty and students to experiment with new approaches to teaching and learning is an invitation for them to play—a liminal space that is approachable, exciting, and often messy. As Calvin once remarked to Hobbes after a full day in Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, “I say, if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.” I’m hopeful that my knees will still be green long after graduation as a student. I can’t wait to uncover what’s around the corner for blending digital and online spaces, whether in our classes or when reading about yours.
Hybrid Learning Path to Success
Anel P. Albertao
What is the future of learning? There is no one answer. However, when you examine the changing demographics of the university student (see fig. 1), one must take a serious look at how learning is allowed to flourish.
I am a hybrid student, meaning I attend classes in the Masters of Learning, Design, and Technology program both remotely from where I live in Silicon Valley and physically at Georgetown’s campus in Washington, DC. When I join remotely, I attend classes via the virtual chat program Zoom in real time. Thus far, I’ve joined classes physically on campus three times during the fall 2018 semester, for about five- to ten-day increments. This combination of remote and present learning is a new experience for me—but one that has been professionally and academically “up skilling.” I enjoy this type of learning process because it bridges the now of work and the future of continuous learning.
Through this hybrid method, I have learned design thinking processes and critically discussed important issues such as the wage gap and the future of higher education. I have both taken a class on technology and innovation in learning and experienced the benefits and challenges of these topics firsthand. In addition, I have enjoyed exploring, with my classmates, ways to remotely collaborate, stay in communication, and learn from each other’s diverse backgrounds and experiences.
As a student, many times you study in a program that does not truly prepare you for the complexity of navigating both work and life—you feel as though you are in a bubble—but as a hybrid student, I merge my worlds. For example, I have attended conferences and participated in engaged learning where I applied lessons from our course readings, discussions, and projects to further develop my skills and understanding of what it means to be an instructional designer, thus developing my professional framework. But at the same time, I am still able to be at home with my son, husband, and mother in California, where I navigate the everyday challenges of home life and find ways to balance professional demands with the family life I want.
The most rewarding aspect of this hybrid virtual learning experience is that I am provided the freedom to learn beyond the higher education campus. The autonomy to come to campus and reconvene with my classmates, professors, and advisor fits my personal learning style and work style. It is not a micromanaged process that is bogged down with bureaucracy or outdated practices, but instead, an iterative and truly cocreated learning environment where my student voice and professional needs are taken into account. All of this is done within the goal of learning, designing, and understanding the potential of technology via the rigor of a Georgetown University education.
The opportunity to explore this program through hybrid learning has shaped me professionally and personally. I have decided to focus my studies on instructional design for higher education because I now know firsthand that when learning, design, and technology are used purposefully, students can flourish holistically. As a first-generation Latina college graduate who was formerly undocumented, I understand the power of education; it is freeing. Thus, as my favorite author, Toni Morrison, has said, “When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else.”
 Toni Morrison, “The Truest Eye,” interview by Pam Houston, Oprah.com, November 2003, http://www.oprah.com/omagazine/toni-morrison-talks-love/.