Proper acoustic design in educational facilities is ever more crucial as open-plan, technology-filled “innovative learning environments” (ILEs) become increasing commonplace. Proponents of this current trend laud the flexibility provided by these open spaces, but sceptics doubt the effectiveness of these spaces due to various reasons, including the lack of consultation with teachers before implementation and poor acoustics.
As acoustical consultants, it is no surprise to us the prevalence of poor acoustics in open-learning environments. There is an inherent trade-off between flexibility of space versus acoustic comfort, and as rooms become larger and more activities occur in the same space, these acoustic issues become more apparent.
For teachers that are used to teaching in a traditional fixed environment, we expect that they will experience a number of acoustical changes to their open-learning environment, three of which are discussed below.
Lack of noise isolation is probably the most obvious acoustic difference between open-plan learning environments and traditional teaching environments. Without a separating wall, noise created from one class easily disturbs another class and distracts the learning of students in another class sharing the same learning space. In this noisy environment, teachers have to strain themselves to speak over this noise.
A typical solution to this problem is to incorporate an operable wall into the design of the room so that privacy between spaces can be maintained. While this is a reasonable solution for open-plan learning spaces, these walls are much more expensive to install and maintain than fixed walls made of plasterboard and stud. Operable walls are also prone to noise leakage around the perimeter or gaps between operable wall panels, and because of this, typically performs worse than well-designed fixed walls.
Increased room reverberance
Large open-plan learning spaces are typically more reverberant than smaller classrooms due to the increased room volume and lack of sound absorptive treatment incorporated on surfaces within the space.
An overly reverberant teaching environment is detrimental to the communication between teacher and students, as a reverberant room accumulates existing sounds that masks new sounds, such as instructions from a teacher. This leads to a decrease of speech clarity and intelligibility for everyone inside the teaching space.
The reverberation time of a space can be controlled by installing suitable amounts of acoustically absorptive treatment to surfaces.
Lack of speech support
One of the benefits of open-plan learning environments is the freedom for teachers to move around the space to engage students, without being tethered to the front wall of a classroom. However, the traditional arrangement of having the teacher in front of a classroom provides a nearby reflective surfaces that supports the vocal projection of the teacher. Teachers speaking further away from a reflective room boundary wall in a larger room will have less acoustic support from the room and will need to speak with greater effort to maintain communication with students.
Proper acoustic design of open-plan learning spaces with strategically placed reflective surfaces within the room will help support teachers in delivering clear and audible instructions to students.
With the promise of better and more effective education through flexible and technology-filled teaching spaces, large open-plan Innovative Learning Environments (ILEs) are here to stay. Although these spaces do not provide the same level of acoustic comfort as a well-designed traditional classroom environment, most of the acoustical issues present in ILEs can be resolved by appropriate acoustical design.