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Richland Community College Works on Flexible Learning Environments

The college plans to infuse different technology and teaching techniques in learning spaces.

(TNS) — DECATUR, Ill. — A transformation of the student learning environment at Richland Community College is under way, beginning on the second floor of the South Wing.

The impact of the changes was evident to visitors including Jonan Tiarks of Decatur, who stopped by a recent open house to see what has been done as part of the Carroll Center for Business project. While Tiarks has young children who are still a long way from being the age to attend Richland, he could understand the need for schools to adapt spaces to meet the evolving learning styles of students.

"This gives them an opportunity to teach in different ways," Tiarks said. "This is the way it's going. It's not going back to traditional classrooms."

Richland is working with BLDD Architects to test the configuration of the space this summer as part of the $3.5 million Carroll Center project with funding raised through the Richland Foundation. The space has not changed since the original construction of the main campus building in 1988.

The reconfiguration of nine classrooms is part of the process to gather ideas for how best to create a flexible learning environment, said Greg Florian, Richland vice president of finance and administration.

Ideas were gathered during a series of interactive meetings this spring. Designers are continuing to seek as much comment from students, faculty, staff and community members as possible.

Visitors are invited to post their reactions on a wall in the hallway, Florian said.

"Collecting the data is a big piece of the project," Florian said. "People seem glad we're listening and see what they said got implemented."

A first layout was tested before the furniture, much of which has been donated, was moved around this month to see what might be most effective. The west side of the hallway has been turned into four innovative classrooms, and the east side has been converted into student study areas and a lounge area.

Teachers have been eager to test various ways to engage students in an active learning environment, said Teena Zindel-McWilliams, who has been among those working with students in the newly created areas.

"It is intriguing to see what it is like," Zindel-McWilliams said. "We want to see how we can integrate a traditional format and still lecture, then go try something else."

By being able to create the space for use over an extended period of time, designers can test the functionality and incorporate changes when coming up with the final layout, said Bruce Maxey, an architect with BLDD.

"It gives the college firsthand knowledge of the educational environment," Maxey said. "It helps alleviate the unknown."

This is one of the first times BLDD has used such an extensive process to gather feedback at the community college level, Maxey said.

"Studies have shown these types of spaces keep students more engaged," Maxey said. "We've done a lot of work to observe classes and try to understand their needs."

The technology that can be used in the classrooms can make a big difference, Florian said. One of the remodeled classrooms has tables with seating for students to go along with six large monitors that can show different information, he said.

The goal will be for students to bring in their own computers and present information as needed, Florian said.

It's the type of technology that is being used at various levels of the educational process, said Andy Hynds, Richland mathematics, science and business dean.

"We're seeing universities adapt," Hynds said. "It's time for community colleges to do the same thing."

Richland administrators are hoping the changing styles of classroom and meeting room layouts eventually take hold throughout the campus. The ability for students to comfortably interact in an open environment with more windows is part of what is being tested, Florian said.

"It's incredible to see how this has all opened up," Florian said. "People really like the openness and having daylight in the hallway."

After allowing time for further revisions before construction begins, the final design is expected to be implemented by next summer.

©2016 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.