John Branch, What Are You Thinking About?

Learning Spaces


Why is a marketing professor doing research with an office furniture executive? The answer has zero to do with selling more office furniture and everything to do with the future of higher education. John Branch, academic director of the Weekend and Evening MBA Programs, has shifted some of his research from marketing to higher education. People and technology are changing, but the way we build classrooms hasn't kept up. He thought there must be a better way.

Q: What Are You Thinking About?

A: Learning spaces and, more specifically, how they're designed.

The design of a space has a big impact on learning, but it's just now starting to get attention. It's kind of the final frontier in education, this connection between how a learning space is designed and the type and quality of learning that takes place in it. I published a book on this subject in late 2014 with some colleagues, one of whom is the director of education environments at Steelcase. The company does a lot of sociological and anthropological research on how people work and the technology they use, which then informs how they design office furniture. Steelcase is now starting to do the same for education. The trend, for example, is to move away from tiered classrooms to more flexible rooms. A popular format is the dinner-theater room — students work together at small tables or pods, but with a central focus for the "actor" on the stage. The professor, therefore, is more of a coach or moderator, and isn't always the center of attention.

Why is this interesting to you?

Well, learning space design is starting to be an integral part of any new building or old building retrofit. There's a growing awareness that an educational building must not only be beautiful, but must also be designed for the learners. It's becoming a talking point, just as we talk about curriculum design. You're starting to see more specialists and consultants in the area of learning space design. And here at Ross, we are putting this into practice with the new construction project. We want to be the leaders and best not only in business knowledge, but also in the methods and spaces for learning.