Open Space, Physical and Virtual

The New York Times (which is where I seem to be getting my blog ideas from these days) ran an article this weekend about the difficulty some people have with open offices. Reading over it I was struck by the parallels between open office architecture and the internet.


On the one hand, open offices present a problem with distraction; conversations from other workers seems to be the primary culprit, and the distraction they create has a demonstrated effect on cognitive functioning. On the other hand, open offices are great equalizers, and they also amplify possibilities for collaboration by reducing barriers between people. As New York’s deputy mayor put it, “The bullpen really allowed free-flowing communication and efficiency. It eliminated gatekeepers.  You don’t have to make an appointment to see someone.” Some people cited in the article mention getting ideas from overheard conversations — almost in the way we benefit from “listening in” to conversations on Twitter.


The parallels with the internet are clear: reduced privacy and increased distraction, but also increased possibilities for collaboration, as well as increased ability of anyone to make his or her ideas heard.


It is possible to design an open office so it works better. The article mentions a number of features, from intentional background noise to designated places (not just enclosed offices, but also open “booths”) for conversations to take place. In short, you have to design the environment to maximize the desired outcomes while minimizing negative side-effects.


In a tech-oriented classroom that can mean everything from classroom layout (say, arranging desks so you can monitor what’s on students’ computers) to lesson design (maximizing possibilities for engagement and student creativity). And there’s also a certain amount of education involved.


My wife’s company is moving towards an open-office plan, and when we were discussing the perils of an open office, she said, “A lot of it is about talking to people and making them aware that they’re affecting others.” It’s a useful reminder that the benefits of any architecture, physical or virtual, don’t just happen. You have to be deliberate in your design of the physical, and pedagogical, environment.


How do you design your classroom and pedagogical environment to maximize the benefits of technology?


Photo credit:

David Korfhage

David Korfhage

History Teacher at Montclair Kimberley Academy

I am an upper school history teacher at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, in Montclair, New Jersey, where I also teach comparative religion. I am particularly interested in the application of technology to education, in using effective assessment and feedback to improve student learning, and in promoting thoughtful wisdom, insight, and reflection in my students.