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The brick and mortar of blended learning

The brick and mortar of blended learning

By Larry Kearns, Principal, FAIA / LEED AP and Timothy A. Ballard AIA / LEED AP / PRINCIPAL | NAC Architecture | September 12, 2017
Children working on laptops
Children working on laptops

In our architectural practice, we have learned that design either supports or frustrates a school's mission – it is never an innocent bystander. When design is working in concert with a school's mission, the building improves student engagement, creativity, and achievement. Conversely, when the building and technology communicates inconsistent or unclear messaging it impedes the school's ability to deliver on its vision. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in schools that use a blended learning pedagogy.

Simply defined, blended learning mixes face-to-face with online instruction. In theory, this gives students increased autonomy over how, when, and where they learn. Proponents of the blended learning model also say that it better prepares students for the way college is structured.

Blended learning – sometimes called hybrid learning – has been gaining ground in this country since the 1990s, as computer devices have become more personal, portable, and affordable. More recently, the educational model has been lauded as a viable vehicle for scaling up student-centered learning. By leveraging technology to personalize learning, instructors can avoid the limitations of teaching to the middle. As students work independently online, teachers are freed up to provide more targeted instruction. It also frees up teachers to develop stronger relationships with their students.


Designing for Traditional Schooling vs. Blended Learning

Effective blended learning spaces not only foster smooth and seamless activities within the class, they also nurture communication, both verbal and non-verbal, between instructors working as a team. Traditional classrooms isolate teachers from one another much of the time, while blended spaces support collaboration between master instructors, new teachers, and special educators.

Our challenge as architects and designers is to create space that helps facilitate blended learning while minimizing distractions between activities and preserving the visibility that allows teachers to easily supervise.


Working with Ednovate: When Form Follows Function

In 2012 the USC Rossier School of Education founded the Ednovate charter management organization. Ednovate is an independent nonprofit organization designed to oversee a group of charter schools. The organization currently operates three charter schools in the greater Los Angeles and Santa Ana areas: USC Hybrid High School in downtown Los Angeles, USC East College Prep in Lincoln Heights, and USC College Prep Santa Ana.

In 2016 NAC Architecture and Wheeler Kearns Architects were commissioned by Pacific Charter School Development to collaboratively design a new 460-student building for USC Hybrid High School in the Exposition Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. The goal was to design a learning environment that better upheld the educational mission and vision of the innovative charter school.

Hybrid High uses technology to enhance the learning experience and provide greater flexibility and personalization. They have a 1:1 ratio of students to Chromebook computers. The culture is about fostering student ownership over their learning; students work at their own pace through online modules to reach mastery of various skills. The self-paced nature of the program encourages learning in different settings. But the school, currently located on the first floor of the Los Angeles World Trade Center, wasn't offering the flexibility nor supporting the variety of activity that was required.



Challenge: Support Ednovate's flex learning model

Solution: Quad-Pods

"Quad-pods," which are four classroom-like spaces grouped around a common open space, were developed for each grade level. This ensemble functions as a small community in which students rotate throughout their day. Large storefront windows, big openings, and glass-roll up doors allow pod activities to seamlessly breakout into the open community space. Additionally, adjustable, flexible furniture complements the variety of activities students engage in. In sum, the learning experience is markedly differently than a typical classroom where rows of desks lined up in front of a teacher at the head of a room.


Challenge: Build a culture of leadership among students

Solution: Location + Transparency

At Hybrid High, cultivating a long and rich tradition of peer leadership is paramount to nurturing a culture of student-directed learning. Each progressing grade, and each student, is looked up to by their peers and lower classmen. We wanted to use the architecture to reinforce and promote this peer leadership. As such, we developed the following design priorities:

  • Transparency in/out of quad-pods;
  • A major focus on the open community spaces for each grade;
  • All circulation passes through the upper level community area so the oldest students can model successful behaviors for younger ones.


Two renderings of USC Hybrid High School


Furthermore, during their senior year Hybrid High students complete a year-long capstone project that attempts to solve a social problem or otherwise improve the community. Ednovate wanted to make the seniors' work highly visible to their younger peers, a goal that was inherently at odds with the isolating classrooms of a traditional school. To achieve this, we made the 12th grade community area a real focal point. We installed transparent walls around the 12th grade quad-pods on the first floor adjacent to an atrium opening to the second floor so that students could observe the seniors' activities. Stepped seating on the second level, with built-in work surfaces, encourages students to stop and look down. For special events, the space becomes a forum for presentations. It's the space that will knit the student body together.


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