Why collaborative learning space matters in higher ed

Business students develop critical skills in connected, studio classrooms

The MBA required to develop the leaders and entrepreneurs our societies need involves a far stronger focus on knowing, doing and being—so says Srikant Datar, Patrick Cullen and David Garvin in Rethinking the MBA: Business at a Crossroads (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010).

How and what students learn matter greatly—but let us not forget the where.

When we decided to launch an 11-month MBA with a thematic module approach at Bentley University, we knew constructing the right physical space was critical to differentiating the program and developing a unique, place-based student experience. We asked the right diagnostic questions, envisioned our graduates’ successes and articulated the program’s core identity before we broke ground on what we now call the Myers MBA Studio.

Space to get messy and creative

As many applicants are turning away from the traditional MBA and toward online degrees and specialized master’s programs, it is imperative that today’s students learn in a collaborative, highly interactive environment that is built on the experiences of its participants.

Our core objective as educators is to prepare leaders capable of functioning effectively in times of rapid change, accelerated innovation and intense globalization. Students’ time in the classroom should reflect these profound shifts so they are able to make an immediate impact after graduation.

Unlike traditional classrooms or horseshoe-shaped, case-teaching classrooms, this type of studio mirrors a layout one might find at a school for architecture and design. Students sit at technology-enabled team tables that are all connected to broader smart boards to maximize the interactions within small teams and among the entire cohort.

This ensures that faculty operate as facilitators rather than instructors. In this setting, each student becomes a dynamic contributor to the discussion—standing up to debate with classmates, illustrating points on multimedia boards and continually engaging their smaller team to share perspectives based on collective experiences.

“As part of our Exploring Design Thinking course, our cohort went through the process of converging and diverging—a common practice in the design industry,” says Bentley MBA student Mary Dolan. “We began with the low-tech approach of using colorful Post-it notes on white boards to track and record our thoughts, transforming the studio into a rainbow of ideas. As we continued to diverge and imagine, these low-tech Post-its became the foundation for our high-tech presentations displayed on multiple smart screens. The studio allowed us to get messy and creative while simultaneously engaging in thoughtful, technical peer discussion.”

Creating “collaboratories”

I believe the success of the studio concept does not just resonate for a graduate student audience, but can and should be articulated for undergraduates as well. If MBAs must work collaboratively, digitally and dynamically, so should undergraduate students.

If we can capture the spirit of effective leadership that is noticeably present in an MBA studio environment and translate that to our less experienced learners, everyone wins—the students, the university and future employers. We are doing this now at Bentley, with a renovation of our undergraduate classroom building into spaces we call “collaboratories.”

In a time when business education is criticized, scrutinized and questioned, it is important that academia heeds the call of industries. We must stay creative and open-minded in order to stay relevant. If that means coloring outside the lines when developing new physical spaces, I am up for the challenge.

Chip Wiggins is dean of business and the McCallum Graduate School of Business at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.


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