What If? How did we get to now? Where do we go from here?

These questions set the stage for discussions at the LSC session at the AACU 2015 Annual Meeting. They were designed to challenge participants to think more boldly—embracing the future—in the process of planning, using, and assessing 21st century learning spaces for 21st century learners. The urgency of asking new kinds of what if questions was made clear by examining findings from recent reports about the future of learning—particularly in the undergraduate setting. Although many are from (and for) STEM communities, each report sets forth a cogent argument for asking new kinds of questions, explicitly or implicitly suggesting that campuses need to revisit not only goals for learning but the process of planning and assessing learning spaces. 

As noted by Riel Miller, 

The point…is to become more adept at inventing imaginary futures…to rethink the assumptions we use to understand the present. 
By increasing our capacity to improvise…, live with permanent ambiguity and novelty, [we are freed] to go beyond the predictable, ...to embrace complexity. 

-- Riel Miller (UNESCO). "Embracing Complexity and Using the Future." ETHOS. October 2011.

Inventing imaginary futures requires moving away from a "playing checkers" approach to planning to an approach that more elegantly mirrors what 21st century learners do, what 21st century graduates will be expected to do upon graduation.


The need for asking what if was reinforced for workshop participants by the publication of the new AACU report outlining contrasting realities between employers and students about their preparation for the world beyond the campus. Even a quick glance at dark and light blue lines on this graph suggests a disconnect that needs to be dealt with; a deeper study of the "preparedness" categories prompts reflections on how space matters: prepared to work in teams, work with people from different backgrounds, applying knowledge and skills to real world problems, etc.

An important lesson learned about planning learning spaces is the power of listening to the student voice about how learning happens for them. From a recent campus visit:

  • What works for me is when I can go back and forth between learning by myself and learning with my group.
  • How I learn best is trying to figure out answers, working in groups to learn with and from my friends… when I don’t know something I can usually find someone who can explain it to me.
  • I think we all learn better when we can see what others are doing…in a place where there are ‘things’ around that make it a good place for learning.
  • I like to work in teams to solve a problem.
  • I am a big-picture learner, so I have to understand from the beginning how what I am trying to learn fits into the larger picture of what I am learning.

Reflecting on this repurposed spaces at Berkeley, a student remarked:

The new classroom definitely has a better vibe, at least giving me the illusion that I am able to learn better because I feel more ‘free.’ Since more group work is possible, it turned me more into an active learner than a passive one…. (I am not falling asleep!)

Over the next several months, we will be capturing stories from the field about how and why to ask the what if question in planning for assessing learning spaces. Stay tuned.



Upcoming Events


POSTPONED to September 2015​
3:30 - 5:00 p.m. EDT


  • Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, Deputy Director of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter) and Lecturer at Hasso Plattner Institute of Design - Stanford University
  • Jeanne L. Narum, Principal - Learning Spaces Collaboratory