AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

36: Ergonomics and the Learning Environment

36.1 Background of the Topic
36.2 Review of Selected Ergonomic / Learning Environment Studies
36.3 Ergonomic Research Findings and Design Guidelines for the Learning Environment
36.4 Conclusions

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v. - Instructional Strategies Research
Marcy P. Driscoll,, Florida State University
Associate Editor

36. Ergonomics and the Learning Environment

G. F. MeVey
Boston University


36.1.1 Introduction

In seeking a universally acceptable definition of the learning environment, I have borrowed from Tessmer and Harris's useful publication Analyzing the Instructional Setting (1992, p. 15): "The learning environment is the physical space allotted for learning. This environment may be a classroom, training center, computer lab, study room at home, office desk, car, or some combination of any of these." In citing the work of Spivak (1975) and David (1975), Tessmer and Harris note (p. 18): "The environment exerts a powerful influence on learning and behavior, even though we may not be aware of it or may choose to disregard it." These authors go on to state that "... environment-based (facility) design is still more art than science." While I recognize that this represents the popular conception, I believe that it was more true in the past than it is today. And it is my hope that this chapter will serve to change such perceptions.

Recently there have been significant gains made in our understanding and awareness of ergonomics as applied to the design and utilization of various kinds of environments where people perform tasks not dissimilar to those performed in schools and training centers. I believe that much of that information is readily transferable to the educational sector. In addition, there have been other studies conducted by myself, my students, and by other academicians and their students specifically assessing the merits of design features in educational facilities, which I believe if used collectively with the previously mentioned information are sufficient to make possible educational-facilities design decisions based on hard science. That is one of the primary goals of this chapter, a goal that also embraces my own singular professional objective for more than 25 years.

36.1.2 The Components and Function of the Learning Environment

The learning environment consists of all those physical-sensory elements such as lighting, color, sound, space, furniture, and so on that characterize the place in which a student is expected to learn. This surround should be designed so that learning may proceed with minimum stress and maximum effectiveness. Thus, it should promote sensory comfort and high auditory and visual acuity; and its dimensions and physical layout should accommodate scheduled activities, allow for people's sense of personal space, and promote desirable patterns of social interaction and communication.

In addition to supporting human functioning, the learning environment must accommodate the equipment, tools, and materials that are used in education and training. The introduction of these media, be it chalkboard, computer terminal, video, or film display, inevitably alters the nature of the environment. When a medium is prudently integrated into the learning environment, it may be effectively employed in ways that are coordinated with basic human sensory processes. However, when media technology adds glare, noise, or excessive heat to the learning situation, it vitiates the design of that environment and interferes with those same processes.

Consequently, guidelines are required that will enable the facility designer to create learning environments that recognize both how human beings function and how instructional tools operate. The science that investigates such matters is called either human factors engineering or ergonomics, and knowledge from this science is, I believe, essential for those who design educational facilities. And similarly, I believe that an understanding of ergonomics will help the educator better manage both the equipment and the physical surround to promote effectively his or her educational objectives. Thus, the facility designer, through prudent design in accordance with established ergonomic principles, and the educator, through effective teaching and media utilization, create the learning environment (McVey, 1985).

36.1.3 Defining Ergonomics Relative to the Learning Environment

Ergonomics simply stated is the study of the relationship between people, the work that they perform, and the environment in which such mental and physical activities take place. The term is derived from the Greek words ergos, meaning work and nomos, meaning laws. Consequently ergonomic research methodologies are generally applied toward the multiple goals of determining how work (tasks) can be best designed to maximize an individual's performance, and how the work environment, including tools and equipment, can be best designed to promote the safety, comfort, and the effectiveness and efficiency of the worker in the performance of those tasks.

As noted above, another term considered today to be synonymous with ergonomics is human factors engineering. Alphonse Chapanis (1959), one of the long-time academic leaders in the field, describes human factors engineering as "the name applied to that branch of modem technology which deals with ways of designing machines, operations, and work environments so that they match human capacities and limitations." And more recently, the educational technologist Frederick Knirk (1992) identified the objective of ergonomics as "... to systematically define, design, and develop effective, safe, comfortable and efficient working, learning, and living environments." Up until around 1980, there seemed to be some minor distinctions between the two terms, with ergonomics being a term generally employed in Europe and characterized by a greater physiological focus, while human factors engineering was the term primarily used in the United States and characterized by a greater psychological emphasis. Today, such distinctions seem to have evaporated, and the term ergonomics has gained the wider usage on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in the many other countries around the world boasting such organizations and programs.

36.1.4 Ergonomics in Education: A Short History

During the first half of this century, the focus of ergonomic study was on industrial and military tasks and settings. .Beginning around the late 1940s and early 1950s, a good amount of this attention was turned toward transportation, the commercial sector, and office work. A smaller and less significant portion was directed toward education. Notable exceptions to this included a series of publications by the National Council on Schoolhouse Construction (today known as the Council of Educational Facility Planners International) aimed at applying research findings toward school facilities design, actually with some efforts made as early as 1921, but becoming more comprehensive during the early 1950s and continuing up to the present time. The initial and continuing purpose of this organization was "to promote the establishment of reasonable standards for school buildings and equipment with regard for economy of expenditure, dignity of design, utility of space, healthful conditions and safety of human life" (Gardner, 1971). As previously noted in recent years, this organization's publications have become increasingly more comprehensive, with such efforts including higher-education facilities and stressing guiding principles and planning goals rather than standards. Its bimonthly publication, The Educational Facility Planner, continues to offer summaries of research having a practical utilitarian bent for the facilities manager, planner, and designer. The Pioneers, Bennett and Harmon. Another notable exception in educational ergonomics began during the early 20s as a doctoral study investigating the posture of elementary and secondary students and their classroom furniture. This study, involving about 4,000 students, was conducted in the schools of Des Moines, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Winnetka by Henry Eastman Bennett, and culminated in the publication of his findings in the book School Posture and Seating: A Manual for Teachers, Physical Directors and School Officials (Bennett, 1928). From the time of that publication and for about a decade, little activity took place in school ergonomics until around 1940, when a series of highly significant studies were initiated by Darrell Boyd Harmon and completed in the early 50s. These involved a series of pioneering epidemiological studies of the physical effects of the school environment on elementary-level students and culminated in a series of comprehensive and highly informative monographs, chief among them The Co-ordinated Classroom (Harmon, 195 1). Interestingly, this monograph and another by Harmon, Controlling the Thermal Environment of the Co-ordinated Classroom (Harmon, 1953), were published by a school furniture company and a heating control systems company, likely indications of the lack of interest shared in "classroom ergonomics" during that time period by the principal publishers in the field of education. In reviewing Harmon's The Co-ordinated Classroom and its implications for more ergonomically correct learning environments at the school and college level, Barrett Caldwell (1994) has succinctly stated:

Harmon's approach conceived of the classroom environment as "an occupational environment-a working surround in which (students), through participating in organized experiences, can grow and develop in an optimum manner, and channel their unfolding capacities into constructive and satisfying living." He advocated a systematic approach to "occupational hygiene" to evaluate and improve the classroom, focusing on enhancing student's learning performance. Harmon's ideas integrate several major elements of the human factors perspective: organization of information and resources devoted to improving performance and satisfaction of persons in a complex environment. Nonetheless, his work, and that of his few intellectual successors, is largely ignored in modem classroom design.

Two of the main strengths and distinctions of the Harmon studies were its epidemiological approach and the reliability and validity of its findings, borne by the large population of its subjects (more than 160,000 school children) and supported by the controls only possible when conducted under the mantle of a governmental agency. A number of Harmon's findings were summarized and reported by the author in his own dissertation (McVey, 1969) and later in a monograph, Sensory Factors in the Classroom Learning Environment (McVey, 1971), funded by the National Education Association for its What Research Says to the Teacher series, and then used in the development of the educational specifications that were used in the design of a new, ergonomically correct educational facility for the University of Wisconsin's School of Education. Figure 36-1 includes photographs of the then new (1972) instructional spaces designed in accordance with the environmental design principles, human factors guidelines, and design development details that I provided to the architect, and which, because of my full-time involvement in all phases of the project, ensured inclusion in the project. These photographs display a number of ergonomic features that will be discussed throughout this chapter. Progress in the 60s. In the 1960s, the activity in school facility research, including but not specifically naming ergonomic issues, increased significantly, funded mostly by the government; in the U.K. through its Building Performance Research Unit, and, in this country, through various state departments of education and such private organizations like the Educational Facilities Laboratories. One of EFL's most ~ influential school facility research projects culminated in the publications SER 1, 2, and 3 produced by the School Environment Research Project, an activity of the Architectural Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and directed by C. T. Larson.

SER 1: Environmental Abstracts is basically a collection of annotated abstracts of research that the project's investigators believed would advance the readers knowledge of the various relationships that link environment with human behavior, particularly as it applies to educational settings. SER 2: Environmental Evaluations presents "a series of technical papers, prepared by individual project staff members, which summarize and analyze what is now (was) generally known about the environment and its interactions with the individual and the effects of space, the thermal environment, the luminous environment, the sonic environment, and the social environment (Larson, 1965)." The third publication, SER 3: Environmental Analysis, presented proposed methods for investigation and processing of information needed in environmental design. Today's Organizational Efforts and Research Dissemination. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, we have seen numerous publications on human factors engineering, ergonomics, environmental design, architectural research, and applied ergonomics flood our libraries from printing presses literally spanning the globe. During this period, we have also seen professional organizations such as the Human Factors Society (now the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society) and the Environmental Design Research Association gain in membership and prominence. Unfortunately, such progress has not brought with it a commensurate increase in ergonomic research specifically applied to educational settings. And, in fact, some educational facility planners even today have reported difficulty in finding relevant ergonomic research that they can use in their planning efforts. In a recent issue of the Educational Facility Planner Lane and Richardson (1993) stated: "The literature dealing with human factors engineering and education is almost nonexistent. A literature search yielded few resources and little usable information." These authors went on to list only six citations they were able to find that they felt had so me relationship to human factors engineering and educational-facilities design. An Overview of the Research. The topic areas, and research designs considered appropriate for use in ergonomic research are no different from those traditionally conducted in the other behavioral sciences. An overview of such research is offered by Aikman (1994), who states:

Research designs share a common element, namely, a systematic view of a given phenomenon by determining relationships among variables with the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomenon. Once a research problem linking an aspect of environment and human behavior has been formulated clearly enough to designate the explanatory variables, the researcher must develop a research plan or design. Specific research variables are selected from the several possible explanatory variables. They are the variables among which the researcher wishes to find and to measure some specific relationships. They include both the "dependent" and "independent" variables, that is, the "predict and" and the "predictor" variables.

Although there is no such thing as a single "correct" design, a design should include procedures not only related to the variables which are the objects of study, but also procedures for the control of as many as possible of other explanatory variables not included as objects of study. If the relationships among variables, the characteristics of which are ready-made, such as human characteristics, a given classroom environmental characteristic, an architectural feature of an educational facility, etc., the type of design of study is descriptive. Causality is not established. In contrast, in an experimental design, an independent variable is manipulated by the research to determine what effect or relationship it has, with a dependent variable as well as determining its relationship with other explanatory variables, either manipulated or controlled.

Descriptive and experimental studies are sometimes defined by the setting in which a study is conducted, for example, field studies, field experiments, or laboratory experiments. Some of the other descriptive terms employed to designate studies in the behavioral sciences are "qualitative" versus "quantitative" and differentiated primarily by the precision of measurement; cross-sectional versus longitudinal, which reflect some variation in time orientation; single factor versus multiple factor, indicating the number of explanatory factors involved in the study. The two major statistical procedures employed in both descriptive and experimental studies in determining relationships among the research variables are various forms of regression analysis or analysis of variance.

The majority of ergonomic studies to date have been of an experimental nature carried out in laboratory settings specifically set up for this purpose. As such, these studies when properly conducted have included the four important features that Chapanis (1965) states must be present in human factors research : (a) controlled observations in (b) an artificial situation with (c) the deliberate manipulation of some variable(s) in order to answer (d) specific hypotheses.

306- Seat Multimedia Lecture Hall

132-Seat Multimedia Lecture Room

20-90 Seat Flexible Classroom

20-Seat Media Conference Room

Figure 36-1. University of Wisconsin instructional complex displaying ergonomic features specified by the author. Studies to Be Included and Limitations. Later, I will review in detail a cross section of specific ergonomic/educational environment studies. Only representative studies with which I have been directly involved and that deal with ergonomic topics that relate specifically to educational facilities design have been selected. Others that relate to comparative instructional methodologies, instructional design, instructional coding and mapping, and so forth, and which given another interpretation or context could very well claim educational-ergonomic relevance, cannot be presented here. Ergonomic studies related to the design and utilization of environments other than educational will not be treated (cf. Burton, 1980). Influences. Several educators and specialists from other fields played important roles in promoting the ergonomic or scientific approach toward educational facilities design during the past 3 decades. These individuals subsequently had a great influence on the research and on my own facility design efforts and countless others. Such direct and personal influences included the guidance and example of James MacConnell and his planning team from San Francisco in the preparation of the University of Wisconsin School of Education educational specifications-the critical building block for all good facilities design; the knowledge and environmental assessment examples of Drs. Darrell Boyd Harmon and Philip Lewis of the University of Wisconsin; Gene Ferris and John Moldstad of Indiana University for their pioneering 1961 survey, Improving the Learning Environment, which influenced the future direction of my own academic pursuits; Gaylen B. Kelley of Boston University's School of Education, for his practical insight into what constituted good media presentation facilities; Alan Green, formerly of the Educational Facilities Laboratory, and Don Ely of Syracuse University, for their tireless efforts at collecting and disseminating relevant information. Key influences outside the field of education included William Lam (lighting design), Robert Newman and Lyle Yerges (acoustical design), Jerry Dommer, O'Neil Ford, and Byron Bloomfield (architectural design), and Ray Wadsworth (audiovisual systems design); and from the field of human factors engineering, for their knowledge, critical analysis, and creative applications, Drs. Alphonse Chapanis, Harry Snyder, and H. Mac Parsons. The valued legacy of all of the above individuals can still be seen in numerous educational facilities across the country and overseas.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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