The COVID-19 pandemic has affected educational systems worldwide, leading to the temporary closure of educational institutions, from pre-school to higher education, in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. Its impact has been far-reaching with many people doubting if we will ever return to ‘normal’. The publication by Steelcase (2021) indicates that: “There is a lot of conjecture about what ‘normal’ will be going forward, but we know that the global COVID-19 pandemic will change the workplace forever”.
School closures affected not only students but also teachers in a wide range, the transition from the face-to-face to the digital world had as a result radical changes in teachers’ practices and methodologies, which imposed a rapid and, in most cases, limited adaptation, due to the lack of preparation and, therefore, of planning for the online learning process.
Portugal educational system was heavily affected by the pandemic. Considering the cultural differences and economic inequalities in the national context, and with the aim of assuring students the conditions associated with well-being and security (essential aspects to be taken care of in distance learning methodology), regarding access to food and education, each municipality in Portugal has chosen a host school. These schools serve to welcome students who do not have the necessary conditions to attend distance learning at home (due to lack of equipment, access to the internet, and food). However, the host schools also include students whose parents have essential jobs (doctors, nurses, supermarket workers, etc.). As the head-school of the school cluster of AEFCPS was chosen as a host school, it became necessary to define strategies that would allow facing the second phase of confinement. In this way, AEFCPS had to act quickly to minimize the effects of confinement on its students.
In this context, several work teams were set up to ensure the full functioning of the school in different ways. Involving teachers, technicians, assistants and school staff, the teams were formed with the aim of (re)adapting the school flexible learning spaces to this new reality.
As spaces with specific spatial characteristics and typologies, the adaptation consisted of their transformation into authentic computer labs, to meet the needs of the students, who, due to the reasons already mentioned, would have to remain in school.
According to Gislason (2010, 2018), flexible learning spaces are not just spaces that limit themselves to changing the furniture or the architectural layout of the school. These spaces are intertwined with more systemic changes in the curriculum, culture, and school values (Gislason 2010, 2018). To preserve the essence of the spaces, the restructuring was based on the educational culture of the school, organized in two stages: i) design and physical organization of the spaces; ii) organization of work teams: teaching and non-teaching staff.
1 – Design and physical organization of the spaces
It was decided to select two rooms, contiguous (separated by a sliding door), of which the ActiveLab was included. Aiming to dynamize classes with the use of technological equipment/resources, the configuration imposed transformed them into authentic computer labs. On straight and aligned tables, front-to-front, and on others flanking the sides of the rooms, in these computers lab there are new 48 desktop computers, which had been made available by the La Caixa Foundation (BPI) and the General Directorate of Education (Ministry of Education), through partnership and collaboration with the school cluster.
In these spaces, the school cluster ensured full access to online classes and quality in connectivity to the internet. In this context, the characteristics and specific furniture of the spaces allowed the easy reconfiguration, following the urgency in the adaptation required for these challenging times. The restructuring of the spaces was based on theoretical evidence, verifying that some radically reformed schools were built as living laboratories to promote the pedagogy of the next generation. The deskless school, adopted in Finland, was taken as a reference. It resembles open plan/openspace schools (Sigurðardóttir & Hjartarson 2016), which concretize the idea of flexible learning spaces using easily transformable furniture and an architectural layout that consists of different types of physical spaces. “The purpose of eliminating encapsulated classrooms with traditionally-arranged pupils’ desks is to change the traditional roles of pupils and teachers, thereby promoting collaborative forms of learning and teaching” (Reinius, Korhonen & Hakkarainen 2021).
In addition to ensuring full conditions to access distance learning, the school-cluster also ensured (indirectly), the relational and social component among students, with them sharing the same workspace, regardless of the level of education. According to the literature, redesigned physical spaces can influence general social relationships within the school and encourage spontaneous interaction between students and teachers.
When properly adjusted to the activity of the local community, these learning spaces can become information ecosystems that integrate people, practices, technologies, and values (Nardi & O'Day 1999), creating opportunities for learning and teaching in new ways. In the spaces were about 15 students. To take advantage of the potential of the classrooms, it was decided to divide the students into the two spaces, to respect and ensure the physical distance rules issued by the General Directorate of Health. The use of the equipment followed specific requirements, and students were asked to disinfect each device and their personal space after use.
The school also provided full access to physical education classes. Those classes were dynamized into two containers, fully equipped with a computer, access to internet, interactive whiteboards, and furniture.
2 – Organization of work teams: teaching and non-teaching staff
To minimize some aspects that could limit the functioning of the classes, it was decided to organize work teams, including teaching staff (teachers) and non-teaching staff (school staff), to monitor, follow and ensure favorable working conditions for students at school. Regarding the groups of teachers allocated, they worked based on a weekly and rotating work plan, to ensure adequate rest among them.
To guarantee support to students who remained at home, a third team was also formed, with a more technical nature, taking care of the management and availability of computer equipment, to guarantee full access to the distance learning. In this context, the importance of ActiveLab is also verified, using for this purpose another part of the adjoining room, containing the necessary computer resources to be made available. This process involved the participation of the teachers responsible for each student’s class (from the first to the third cycle) to fill lists with the identification of students who didn’t have computer equipment and Internet access. After filling out the lists, the equipment was then available for these students. In the case of students who had access to the internet, they were referred to the school.
In total, 210 computer devices were made available. In this sense, it is also important to mention the support of the local authority, specifically of the Municipality of Rio Maior, in the provision of 30 new portable computers, as well as the Ministry of Education, which, according to the situation in force, chose to create a program so as to provide students with computer equipment at all levels of education.
What is more, it is important to mention the design ideas implemented in the spaces, which, due to their spatial configurations, made the restructuring process easier. Nevertheless, it has been noticed that part of the strategies adopted have consciously limited the capacity of the classroom as a space (initially conceived) for active learning. Even so, it became possible to reuse the inherent potential to meet the most urgent needs.
According to Reimers, Schleicher, Saavedra and Tuominen (2020), for teachers, the COVID-19 pandemic is an adaptive and transformative challenge for which there is no manual or guidelines to follow. In the educational field, the biggest challenge is the continuity of teaching and learning practices and processes developed during pandemic times.
In the uncertainty of what will happening the near future, it is important to rethink how to take advantage of the technology and design of the physical classroom space in a way that elevates both to create a safe learning environment that improves learning outcomes.
Patrícia Baeta, is based in Santarém, Portugal and works at the school cluster Fernando Casimiro Pereira da Silva (AEFCPS) where she coordinates projects and technological resources, and supports students and teachers in the use of ICT. She has a PhD in Education, specialization in ICT in Education by the Institute of Education, University of Lisbon.
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Reinius, H., Korhonen, T. & Hakkarainen, K. (2021). The design of learning spaces matters: perceived impact of the deskless school on learning and teaching. Learning Environments Research. Available on: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10984-020-09345-8
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Steelcase. (2021). “Designing the Post-COVID Workplace” [blog post]. https://www.steelcase.com/research/articles/topics/post-covid-workplace/designing-the-post-covid-workplace/