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IMAGE CREDIT: Tracy Withrow

Designing for a Brighter Future in Post-secondary Education

Embracing an active learning philosophy redefined Richland Community College

Richland Community College was going through a dark time. Not existentially. Literally. Part of this post-secondary hub in Decatur, Illinois was a cinderblock box lined with classrooms. Sunlight was rare. This was just one of the reasons the school was looking to update the building. 

“It was a very 1950s design,” says Greg Florian, the VP Finance and Administration at Richland. “Except the building was built in ’88.”  

But it wasn’t just a matter of atmosphere. The space wasn’t as functional as it could be. With a single corridor running down the space between the classes, changing rooms was a lot like dealing with rush hour traffic.

“Students would hang out in the hallway between classes. They didn’t have anywhere else to go. If you were trying to go down the hallway right before class change, it became a gauntlet of stepping over people and trying to miss book bags.” 

Bruce Maxey, BLDD Architects.

Knowing that they were going to change the environment gave the administration a chance to really explore their options. Where could they open up the space? What was the best use of technology? How important was adaptability? But according to Teena Zindel-McWilliams, the Director of Institutional and Academic Planning at Richland, there was really one over-arching question. “How do you change learning and teaching for the 21st century learner?”  

Approaching active learning

Ultimately, Richland wanted to create an active-learning environment for their students. This encourages a shift from a lecture-based scenario where students sit and listen, to a space where students actively work with each other. Zindel-McWilliams describes it as less “sage on the stage” and more “guide on the side.” But what was the best way to do that? 

“A large part of it is doing your homework before it ever gets started,” says Florian. That homework meant that along with BLDD, the Richland team did a deep dive into the student experience. What they learned reinforced their need to make a change. 

“One of the students commented that he just wanted a zip line to go between classes,” says Maxey. “At first you roll your eyes, but then you understood why he wanted a zip line. Because he was just tired of hurdling people to get to class.”  

Rarely does a construction project turn out better than expected. However, this project is different.

Greg Florian, VP of Finance and Administration, Richland Community College

A look outside

While they were examining the school internally, the team was also looking to outside sources for inspiration. Staff and instructors toured active learning facilities nearby. It was on this road trip that they first encountered DIRTT. When they saw the prefab solutions in the learning commons at the University of Iowa, it was a turning point in the project. 

“DIRTT presents extremely well,” says Maxey. “It’s a very clean modern look in terms of use. The ability to incorporate the technology into the wall itself. The ability to incorporate magnetic marker boards in the wall. It just presents incredibly well.” 

University of Iowa Learning Commons

IMAGE CREDIT: Wayne Johnson, Main Street Studio

Making a plan

With the fact-finding mission complete it was time to implement what they had learned. To maximize active learning in the classroom, integrated technology was essential. To keep the conversation going outside class, creating common areas and huddle spaces was key. Improving student traffic flow meant a revised floor plan. And, of course, making the most of natural light meant incorporating glass. 

All these things are doable. But getting them done quickly is another story. Richland is a busy school and they didn’t have time to shut down for renovations. That meant getting all these renovations done as fast as possible in a school that was still open for learning. “We (temporarily) lost 15 thousand square feet of classroom and lab space,” says Florian. “We had to relocate within the existing facility so shortening the construction period of that was really valuable to us.” 

Demolition phase


This is where using DIRTT really paid off for Richland. After the original space was ripped back to the supports, the DIRTT install team got to work. In only five weeks, doors, walls and integrated tech were in place. Quick-connect electrical also shaved time off the construction schedule. And even though the demolition process took longer than planned, the speed of DIRTT kept the project on pace. 

Install phase


Install phase


“Once I actually saw it in place, I was really impressed with how quickly it came together,” says Florian. “If we had built traditional drywall and studs in this room, we would have had three times the waste, the dirt, and the noise and been shut down longer.”  

A space that works

Once the job was done, there was only one more question to answer. Will the space do what they thought it would? Zindel-McWilliams admits that initially there was some pushback from the faculty who weren’t used to active learning spaces. It didn’t take long for staff buy in, though. After the first semester in the newly christened Carroll Center for Innovative Learning, there was a waiting list for instructors wanting to use the space. 

Common area

IMAGE CREDIT: Tracy Withrow

The real test, though, was how students responded to it. If active learning is going to work, they need to stay engaged and collaborate. According to Zindel-McWilliams, it didn’t take long for all their research and engagement to pay off.  

“About three hours after the construction tape was taken down — no notice, no anything — we had students using the space,” she says. “They were using the technology. They were studying. That tells us that we need spaces like that at Richland.”  

“It’s so gratifying to walk through the upstairs and see the white boards that we have up there filled with formulas and nursing strategies and flow charts. They use it all the time.”  

Natural light in the hallway

IMAGE CREDIT: Tracy Withrow

Active learning classroom

IMAGE CREDIT: Tracy Withrow

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