Flexible design of self-access learning centres for longevity

This article is not a discussion about the efficacy of self-access learning centres. (In recent years, some universities have backed away from physical centres, switching to online resources instead.) Instead, my assumption is that there is value in making available spaces for independent learning equipped with suitable resources. Moreover, my focus is on the secondary/high school level of education rather than on tertiary.

My concern is how relatively small educational institutions can maintain and develop quite costly self-access learning centres in the long-term. Initially, when an institution establishes such a learning facility, its novelty value stimulates student participation. However, this enthusiasm tends to peter out. Therefore, I suggest a way to keep such facilities well-utilised and worth the investment.

That way is flexible room design.

Some physical learning centres are beautifully designed, with sculpted furniture, carpets, etc. and work well as inviting environments. Here is an example:


On the down side, rooms like this usually have fixed furniture and are space-inefficient, in other words there are relatively few seats and computers. (With the increased use of tablets and other mobile devices, however, a low number of networked PCs is becoming less of a concern.)

Another common room design is almost indistinguishable from a traditional computer lab; desktop computers are arranged in rows or in clusters, like this:


The room can accommodate many learners but is not that enticing and restricts interactions. Yet the main problem, to my mind, is both designs’ static nature. Compare this learning centre:


The computers are around the edge of a large space. The furniture is movable and can be flexibly arranged. At the front of the room is an interactive whiteboard. So, this room can easily double as a classroom that is ideal for, e.g., project classes, enquiry-based learning or academic writing lessons.

Such versatility means that more use can be made of these expensive facilities. The room still operates as a self-access centre during lunchtimes and after school.

Here is an alternative design that is also flexible:


In this room, the desks and wheeled-chairs can be moved easily and there are power sockets in the floor for laptops and tablets. Some paper-resources and a few desktops are present on the edge of the room. Again, there is an interactive whiteboard and other AV aids at the front.

Finally, here is a smaller space that is very versatile:


This room is intended for small group work, consultations, meetings and club activities as well as individual self-access learning.

In sum, flexible room design is one measure to  make it more likely that the facilities will continue to be genuinely useful for learners and schools.

A way to introduce mind mapping tools to students

One of the secondary schools that I consult for is equipped with a large, well-resourced self-access learning centre. The 40 PCs in the centre are loaded with Inspiration mind mapping software for students to use independently.

With guidance, senior students (ages 15-18) can use such software for a multitude of study tasks, for example to brainstorm ideas for project work, to plan oral presentations and written compositions, or to create concept maps that summarise study topics.

To help introduce the functions and potential of this kind of software to junior students (ages 12-14), I created mind maps (or other kinds of graphic organisers) in Inspiration that summarized key concepts for study topics. Here is an example of a timeline that shows 4 stages of Hong Kong’s economy:

Hong Kong Economy1

Once the original had been approved by the subject teacher, I authored two new versions of it. The first new version looked like this:

Hong Kong Economy2

Students could then open this version first and attempt to reconstruct it correctly by dragging and dropping items. After finishing this task, they could request to see the original version.

The second new version focused on vocabulary for that topic. This time, students saw this:

Hong Kong Economy3

Their task was simple enough… just replace the words in the correct gaps. Not thrilling, but good for them to check their retention of key vocabulary items.

To assist students through the process of this learning activity, a laminated instruction sheet was placed next to the PCs.

I hope you find this technique useful and would be very interested to hear of other ways to help learners familiarise with mind mapping software.