How Smarter Learning Environments Can Help Schools Close Opportunity Gaps

A designer’s view of the future means student-friendly, intentionally-built learning spaces.

GUEST COLUMN | by Danish Kurani

It’s 8:30 a.m. in rural Alabama, and a class of 16 students is beginning their school day.

However, students aren’t sitting in rows or opening textbooks per their teacher’s request. Instead, desks are modular, lessons are found on students’ iPads, and there is no teacher, only a facilitator whose job is to help students through self-guided instruction.

‘…students aren’t sitting in rows or opening textbooks per their teacher’s request. Instead, desks are modular, lessons are found on students’ iPads, and there is no teacher, only a facilitator whose job is to help students through self-guided instruction.’

The classroom has a slightly elevated stage, with a large display monitor, where students regularly gather. Every so often, different teachers from around the country beam into this screen—live—to instruct on biology, computer science, art, and many other subjects.

Despite being thousands of miles away, these teachers are unlocking untold opportunities for their students.

 IMAGES COURTESY KURANI.US/

This is the Connected Rural Classroom, a new model of classroom created by my organization Kurani, the nonprofit Ed Farm, Apple, and the State of Alabama. It was designed as a way to solve the problem of delivering a high-quality education to rural students, despite top teachers not wanting to live in rural areas.

This situation isn’t unique to Alabama. The rural-urban opportunity gap has existed all over the world for decades, as children in rural environments consistently go on to complete fewer years of school and make less money than students who grew up in urban areas. Couple this with the many other opportunity gaps that exist in the US, such as unequal access to STEM education, and the true scale of inequity comes into focus.

While these are big, structural problems, we can start solving them today—through smarter learning environments. By focusing on solving real problems, and not just introducing tech for tech’s sake, we can use digital tools to bridge physical divides and close opportunity gaps once and for all.

Step inside the Connected Rural Classroom

To show how design can level playing fields, let me highlight just a few possibilities of the Connected Rural Classroom.

We know from research that just by changing the lighting, students have been shown to perform up to 26% better on tests of reading and math. So, at the entrance to the Connected Rural Classroom is a light switch with four preset moods: energize, work, present, and watch. These switches change the lighting temperature and intensity to promote different working states, making it easy to optimally support students.

As students walk in, they may grab a set of headphones and their personal iPad, which keeps track of their progress through different lessons, and find a seat in one of several semi-private work areas. Students also have access to tripods, ring lights, soft boxes, and photo and film editing software for creative projects.

This mixture of low, medium, and high tech is designed to get students in a flow state more easily—from the low-tech divider screens between booths, to the lighting system and creator hardware, to the editing software and conferencing capabilities.

What’s important here is not that students have access to the latest technology. It’s that the technology is being used in thoughtful ways. It enhances learning. More specifically, it solves the central problem of rural students being disconnected from high-quality teachers who can teach elective subjects that a handful of students may be deeply interested in but their school is too small to hire a full-time teacher to teach non-core subjects.

‘What’s important here is not that students have access to the latest technology. It’s that the technology is being used in thoughtful ways. It enhances learning.’

This is the value of design in creating smarter learning environments. Design isn’t a process of making spaces more beautiful or cool. Design is a process of identifying people’s problems and goals, and shaping their surroundings to make life better. In the 21st century, technology must be a thoughtful part of those surroundings.

The rural-urban gap is one such problem, and the Connected Rural Classroom is one solution. But opportunity gaps of all kinds have plagued schools for years. With the right approach, design can remedy these issues as well.

A love of tech starts with better tech spaces

It should be good news that college enrollment rates are rising. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2010 and 2020, almost every major ethnic group saw rates of enrollment increase—the exception being those who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native, whose rates decreased over the 10-year period.

The bad news? Enrollment rates for Black and Latin students between 18-24 years old still hover below 40%, while rates for white and Asian students are far higher. Even worse is the disparity between students who go on to earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields, meaning the opportunity gap grows the nearer you get to the working world.

One bright spot comes to us from Oakland, California. There, the Code Next lab—an after-school and summertime computer science space—is putting up remarkable results in terms of student achievement.

Nationally, the number of Black and Latin students who finish high school and enroll in college is less than 37%. When those students come to Code Next, they make it to college nearly 92% of the time. In addition, more than 88% of Code Next graduates pursue a STEM-related major in college.  

By students’ own admission, these impressive graduation rates can largely be traced back to Code Next’s design. The lab offers access to tech like 3D printers, laser cutters, and soldering tools, and to working professionals and other students who share an interest in STEM. These are practical details, but they are essential for reinforcing an environment of comfort, support, and connection.

In addition, the lab combats imposter syndrome by showing alternative narratives from just white men excelling in tech—through murals and success stories of Black and brown inventors and engineers plastered around the lab. These elements tell students, “You belong here.”

Lastly, the space is designed to get kids into a maker mindset. Construction elements are exposed, so students can see the guts of the building: the pipes, ducts, and screws. In one area, they can see personal devices pulled apart, such as a set of Beats headphones. These features in the space encourage students to think beyond consuming things and more about creating things.

When we asked students how they felt in this space, two-thirds of them said it made them feel like they could change the world, and 80% said the space gave them the confidence to pursue computer science or tech as a career.

‘…two-thirds of them said it made them feel like they could change the world, and 80% said the space gave them the confidence to pursue computer science or tech as a career.’

Since it opened in 2016, more than 2,500 students have matriculated through Code Next. Many have started their own businesses and launched their own tech products. One student, Cindy, even received a full ride scholarship to both Harvard and Yale.

The bottom line here is that environments matter. By replacing a fearful learning environment with one that makes engineering fun, Code Next is inspiring underrepresented students to follow their dreams. That is progress.

Imagining a smarter-designed world

The design of our surroundings has outsized impacts, at school and many other places we care about.

Hospital patients subjected to a lack of natural light have been shown to use more painkillers, report more stress, and have higher mortality rates. Cities with poor (or no) public transit force people to drive through rush-hour traffic, the worst of which has been shown to increase rates of nighttime domestic violence by up to 9%.

Adding technology into the mix isn’t guaranteed to make a positive impact, but we can seriously help ourselves by starting the design process with the people using that design. We can ask questions about their pains, their needs, and their goals. And we can ask educators about their learning model and the experience they want to create for students.

When we put this kind of inquiry at the top of our checklist, it means that any decision we make involving technology will keep the tech intentional. It won’t be an afterthought, like when a school tries to modernize an old classroom with a “smartboard” tacked on the wall.

Instead, we can use tech to serve its actual purpose: accelerating our ability to connect to one another in real-time, and exposing us to new ways of working and creating. If we want smarter students, we need to think critically about creating smarter environments.

Danish Kurani is the founder of Kurani, a world-renowned leader in creating learning environments. As a professional, Danish began deploying his knowledge to build education spaces around the world, from India to Silicon Valley. He’s worked with Khan Academy and Google, and his designs have charted new futures for thousands of students globally. For nearly a decade he has taught education leaders about physical learning environments through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Connect on LinkedIn.

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