Learning environment is a term used to describe different “physical locations, contexts, and cultures, in which students learn” (Learning environment, 2013, para. 1). This broad definition has appeared as a substitute for the prior understanding of it only as a classroom in a traditional school. Nowadays, the learning environment term is associated with formal, non-formal, and informal education spaces, including both physical elements and abstract characteristics.
For example, museums and science centers are the examples of an out-of-school learning environment (Eshach, 2007). A collaboration between schools and museums may result in an afterschool program, a semi-formal activity conducted in a less traditional learning environment (Russel, Knutson, & Crowley, 2012). Learning environments can be technologically enhanced, allowing students to acquire knowledge through systems of technologies and with a parallel help from teachers (Wang & Hannafin, 2005).
However, the concept of a learning environment is not limited only to its physical elements like study materials, technologies, or a natural surroundings. It also includes the types of interaction between students and their instructors. The former may either be put in the environment fully coordinated by teachers, or they may have a possibility to set time, place, and other characteristics of a study process.
Traditional, Online, and Blended Spaces
A learning environment is best described by its connection to a type of educational space. A traditional space is usually seen as a classroom with its elements – desks, chalkboards, study books, and printed materials. A teacher is the only person who organizes the learning process, hence all interactions within a classroom are supervised by him or her. Discussions are led by a teacher, and his or her knowledge is impaired to students. Studies are structured in terms of learning objectives, schedule or support. A learning process is supported by educational or training institutions. Nowadays, a traditional environment often becomes enhanced with non-formal or informal ways of learning. The difference between these options concerns not only location characteristics but also such qualities as interest and motivation (Eshach, 2007).
Online education becomes more widespread, supported by a learning environment that differs from the formal system. For example, it often includes course information, electronic resources and external links, assessment criteria, communication platforms, and other elements. The online learning environment is student-centered, offering an opportunity to gain knowledge anytime from anywhere.
A blended space is the one that combines the online material delivery with supervised studies in a physical location (Staker & Horn, 2012). This educational environment combines online digital media with traditional classroom methods. Students assume greater control and a more active role in their learning. Blended space includes different environmental models that vary depending on the amount of interaction between students and teachers, groups, or through technological platforms. A learning environment can either have one of these forms or combine them. For example, one classroom can have stations for teacher-led instructions, online studies, and group collaboration. Some learning involves teachers providing instructions at a brick-and-mortar location, and some involves students learning independently at computers.
Design-based research (DBR) is a method that does not have a clear definition, as it varies depending on the source. One of the studies regarding this topic states that DBR combines design and scientific methods that help to develop useful products and theories in education (Easterday, Lewis, & Gerber, 2014). The study identifies six phases that relate with each other: focusing, understanding, defining, conceiving, building, and testing.
The structure of DBR makes it highly effective for researching and transforming learning environments. In the beginning, designers focus on an audience, usually students, the general problem that needs to be addressed, and the scale of a project (Easterday et al., 2014). The understand phase is built around studying theory about an existing learning environment (literature reviews, student demographics, previous solutions, etc.). The defining phase outlines specific goals that need to be reached (Easterday et al., 2014). For example, how a classroom must be changed to support learning needs of students with eyesight issues. The conceive phase offers a solution plan, which is limited to designers’ knowledge of the topic (Easterday et al., 2014). They implement their plan in the build phase, while the test phase is used for evaluating its efficiency (Easterday et al., 2014). For instance, reconstruction of several classrooms to make an open-space learning environment requires testing of how it has affected group interactions if this was the goal.
It is understood that designers do not possess all the knowledge required for making an effective DBR (Wang & Hannafin, 2005). The role of an educational leader lies in helping designers acquire the necessary information about a learning environment they are researching. Firstly, the Understand phase uses much theory about students, their background, educational needs, progress, interaction patterns, etc. An educational leader can provide this information because of the frequent contact with the mentioned audience. Secondly, a solution plan drafted by designers often lacks detailing (Easterday et al., 2014), and an educational leader can point out elements that will make it a working set of required steps. Finally, he or she can also supervise a designers’ plan in its implementation and testing as an expert who can better trace the changes after putting students in a new learning environment. In other words, educational leaders play a role in offering their expertise and guiding designers in their search for an optimal solution of what changes need to be made in different learning environments.
One of the most valuable characteristics of DBR is that this method helps in reducing the costs of implementing changes to existing learning environments. Whether it is a reconstruction of a physical object like school, a design of field trips to support formal studies or implementation of new user tools created for online learning platforms, every solution requires financing. Unlike other research methods, DBR supports the process on all levels, making it possible to return to each stage when necessary. For example, the case with collaboration between schools and museums in the research by Russel et al. describes how a good initial idea has a poor implementation result due to a planning failure (2012). Museum administration offered to work with schools to create an informal learning environment for young students that would be a part of a blended model. However, they did not expect to follow the formalities required by teachers and by law.
Finally, another important feature of DBR is that it allows creating working solutions due to the combination of theory and practice. Literature often has confusing and sometimes even contradictory ideas of how to enhance a certain learning environment. DBR tests theoretical findings in practice on the spot and as a part of a whole research process, which eliminates the possibility of having outcomes that do not address initial issues.
Easterday, M. W., Lewis, D. R., & Gerber, E. M. (2014). Design-based research process: Problems, phases, and applications. In A. A. Jurow, B. Penuel, & J. L. Polman (Eds.), Learning and becoming in practice: The international conference of the learning sciences (ICLS) 2014 (Vol. 1) (pp. 317-324). Boulder, CO: International Society of the Learning Sciences.
Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal, non-formal, and informal education. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(2), 171-190. Web.
Staker, H., & Horn, M. B. (2012). Classifying K-12 blended learning. San-Mateo, CA: Innosight Institute.
Learning environment. (2013). Web.
Russel, J. L., Knutson, K., & Crowley, K. (2012). Informal learning organizations as part of an educational ecology: Lessons from collaboration across the formal-informal divide. Journal of Educational Change, 14(3), 259-281. Web.
Wang, F., & Hannafin, M. J. (2005). Design-based research and technology-enhanced learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(4), 5-23.