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The L.R. Wilson Hall, right, neighbour to the DeGroote Centre for Learning and Discovery, at left is expected to open to humanities and social science students at McMaster University in Hamilton in September of 2015. The building will have classrooms, research spaces and labs, and a performing arts centre with a 450-seat concert hall.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Students are in for a big surprise when they first set foot in the third-floor classroom of Middle East and Islamic history professor Gavin Brockett at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont.

Unlike a traditional classroom, there are no fixed rows of chairs with students eyes-front to the professor, no beige-coloured walls nor the usual shortage of electrical outlets for computers.

Instead, the second-year students enter a carpeted room painted in bright sea green and blue. At five round tables equipped for laptops, video conferencing and integrated projector controls, they sit in swivel chairs with a 360-degree view of the room. During class, they write on whiteboards mounted on the walls or unhook portable "huddle boards" (small whiteboards) for group work that includes nine Turkish university students in Istanbul connected by video conference.

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"It is priceless to be standing there and looking at their faces," Prof. Brockett says. "It turns everything upside down."

That sense of upheaval is evident at Laurier and other Canadian universities exploring new ways to harness space, in existing classrooms and new buildings, to promote flexible physical environments that encourage students to take charge of their learning. Be it an "active learning" classroom like that at Laurier, wide corridors for informal study sessions or atriums that serve as gathering spots and classrooms, space is the tool of choice in the pedagogical shift from professor-controlled lectures at the front of the class.

"There is a sea change in thinking about how students and all of us learn and how we engage with the material," says Donald Schmitt, a principal with Diamond Schmitt Architects, whose recent projects include university buildings that feature flexible room configurations and informal learning spaces to facilitate collaborative group learning. Architecture, he adds, can play "a very significant role in reshaping the learning environment to accommodate a broader understanding of the different configurations, forums and theatres for learning."

At McMaster University in Hamilton the effort to examine space in support of pedagogy is "a hugely disruptive" moment, according to Charlotte Yates, dean of the faculty of social sciences.

"It has the potential to be enormously positive for how we engage in education with students," she says, adding that "space is integral but the bigger piece is why do you pursue the educational change you do and then how do you need to rethink the design and use of space?"

Earlier this year, McMaster set up a special committee on classroom space that brought together a cross-section of interests on campus, including students, to assess options for reimagining sometimes-underutilized classrooms and labs. A separate committee, again with students, worked with architects on the design of a new liberal arts building, Wilson Hall, set to open in 2015. Of 10 classrooms, three of the four largest will be designed for active learning and, with wide corridors for chairs and tables, a recognition that all areas of the building are potential learning spaces. Significantly, there will be plenty of plug-ins for electronic devices.

Rethinking space is not about adding technological bells and whistles, warns Arshad Ahmad, assistant vice-president of teaching and learning and director of the Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning at McMaster. Some active learning classrooms, he notes, are decidedly low-tech, with flat floors and movable desks for student collaboration and walls equipped with whiteboards or specially painted surfaces for group work even in a large lecture hall.

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Several factors are driving the change, including a new generation of digital learners who treat education as a social experience, with smartphones, iPads and other devices to connect to each other.

"Being able to leverage some of this technology in and outside classrooms is a really important aspect," says Jill Scott, vice-provost of teaching and learning at Queen's University. "If we think about what it means to be a digital native, these are people who are engaging with others all the time in the digital world, so the quality of engagement in class is just a mirror of that."

Earlier this year, with private donor support, Queen's renovated three underused classrooms for "active and collaborative learning." In a survey, students gave mostly top marks to the experience in the classrooms compared with a traditional lecture, citing closer interaction with classmates and increased confidence to participate in discussions.

Back at Laurier, the active learning classroom is drawing similarly positive reviews.

History major Elliot Alder took Prof. Brockett's second-year Introduction to Islamic Studies earlier this year. "I hardly remember anything from my first-year lectures, but I retained a lot this year," he says, adding that students "seemed to be motivated to contribute."

Prof. Brockett took advantage of the room setup to modify his teaching strategies. Instead of assigning a mid-term exam and essay that often revealed, too late, who was in academic trouble, he now asks students to write a short essay every week before class. He sends back grades within two days.

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"They are working a great deal harder and so am I," he says. "The result is that they are happy and learning and I am happy because I can see the learning."

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