Active Learning Centers

Coming to a campus near you?

If one asked us what was next in higher education design, ALCs (active learning centers or sometimes “advanced learning classrooms”) would have to be a part of our response. Developed over a decade ago and largely associated with N.C. State’s Robert Beichner, ALCs come in a variety of formats under a few different names (SCALE-UP being the best known), but are generally concerned with encouraging active learning in small groups. ALCs are an alternative format to the giant lecture halls of required introductory courses. Researchers found that ALCs teaching intro courses in Physics for example helped undergraduates better grasp fundamental concepts. An ALC classroom looks less like a lecture hall than a hi-tech meeting room, or as Beichner has called his spaces, “a restaurant,” where nine students gather at tables, share a flatscreen and work on projects via whiteboards, video projects and laptops. If the tech angle may seem novel at first, consider that ALCs aren’t so different, philosophically, from the question-and-answer group discussions Socrates held in his day. And while Socrates was often asking students to question themselves and their moral character, modern professors are finding that his techniques are more useful for helping students grasp concepts (particularly in the sciences), than a lecture/memorization/test format. The Harvard Physics department, for example, combines the Socratic method with active learning techniques.



  • Developed at NC State by Professor Robert Beichner and used for over a decade there
  • Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs
  • “Flips” the traditional idea of instruction, making students teachers and requiring students to obtain content “outside” the classroom
  • Originally designed for research universities that offer large introductory classes
  • While not technology-dependent, it typically features seven-foot-diameter round tables, each seating three teams of three students. Each team has a laptop and access to equipment. Computer projection screens sit at opposite ends of the room. Large whiteboards cover the walls. A teacher station, with document camera, is center. Beichner has said a SCALE-UP room “looks like restaurant.”
  • There are 250+ SCALE-UP sites in North America. Minnesota, McGill, Iowa, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, Northern Michigan, Oklahoma have them. Clemson probably has the largest number of courses taught via the SCALE-UP model. UC Berkeley’s Educational Technology Services has an experimental SCALE-UP-inspired “test kitchen.”





    • Technology Enhanced Active Learning at MIT
    • Developed for freshman physics, borrowed from SCALE-UP
    • At MIT, two 3,000sf TEAL classrooms each contain an instructor’s workstation in the center of the room surrounded by 13 round tables, each seating nine students. Thirteen whiteboards and eight video projectors with screens ring the room. Tables hold three groups of three. Each group uses a computer to view lecture slides and collect data from experiments.
    • Yale has a TEAL room that accommodate 126 students.


  • Developed by Steelcase WorkSpace Futures Group
  • Steelcase has LearnLab IMPACT classrooms at Purdue’s Roland G. Parrish Library of Management & Economics, University of Arizona, Penn State Krause Innovation Studio
  • Features media:scape tables, designed with IDEO, integrated technology furniture which allows laptop hook-up and projection, list price starting at $15,318
  • Features swivel chairs, mobile whiteboards and multiple projection screens


  • At the University of Iowa, TILE (Spaces to Transform, Interact, Learn, Engage) program offers seven classrooms across campus that range in size from 27 seats to 81 seats and include round table seating with microphones, glass whiteboards, LED monitors and projection equipment.


In recent years, numerous major universities have embraced ALCs, SCALE-UP and the like. Minnesota, McGill, Iowa, Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, Northern Michigan, Oklahoma are using SCALE-UP. Clemson probably has the largest number of courses taught via the SCALE-UP model. MIT and Yale have their own variant, TEAL. And MSU has REAL, which is based on SCALE-UP.

And naturally, office furniture manufacturer SteelCase has developed media:scape LearnLab, a sleek ALC-oriented system of integrated technology and furniture with out-of-sight connections, for the higher ed market. The media:scape table was designed in collaboration with IDEO. There are more than 80 LearnLabs around the country.

Until recently however, most of these universities were conducting ALCs in small-scale adapted spaces. In 2010, The Science Teaching and Student Services Building at the University of Minnesota raised the bar. The 115,000sf LEED Gold-certified building touts itself as “the largest SCALE-UP installation in the world.” It features 10-17 active learning classrooms that can be divided into 20 SCALE-UP-based spaces, holding anywhere from 27 to 126 students. One third of all Minnesota undergraduates took a class in one of the new rooms within a year of its opening.  Not to be outdone, North Carolina State incorporated ALC thinking in group study rooms and spaces at its new “technologically-sophisticated collaborative learning space,” the James B. Hunt Library, which opened in 2013.

ALC spaces should be collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning areas. Typically, the feature an instructor station, larger flat panel displays around the room, flat panel displays at each table, and semi-circular tables for the collaboration of groups of students (two or three groups of three, typically) and whiteboards around the room oriented toward each table. They need to be flexible, to allow a variety of formats for group gatherings. But there aren’t yet too many hard and fast rules in this emerging category. Indiana University’s Cedar Café, for example, challenges the traditional classroom design with a soft seating and bistro-style tables. The technology mix, as one might guess, is ever-changing.

Active learning centers in which students benefit from a social, collaborative and tech-enhanced environment appeal greatly to social and tech-utilizing collegians. They may appear trendy, but as universities have time to evaluate their effect on learning we may soon see ALCs as key components in the design of higher education environments.

Photos courtesy of Robert Beichner, NCSU and Michael Rook, PSU.

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