I know this is “The eLearning Guild.” I also know that a good many members do not live in a world of online-only training, or at least don’t live in a world completely removed from other humans, so I thought this might make for an interesting column this month. I recently had the opportunity to tour Duke University’s new School of Medicine building, the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education.

It’s a gorgeous, gleaming example of the kinds of learning spaces most of us only read about, in this case filled with the stuff of Grey’s Anatomy. The new school is a no-stone-unturned process of thinking through everything to support a good learning experience.

So here’s a recap of my tour. As you read: think about what you would do if money were no object. Or if money is an object, what can you do now? What could you be thinking far in advance of the next building renovation or furniture order? And before you start saying, “We could never afford this/they’re lucky/but it’s Duke,” keep in mind: Duke waited 80 years for this.  


After 80 years of being scattered in buildings across campus, the med school now, in the words of associate dean of curriculum Colleen O’Connor Grochowski, is “in one place, with a street address and a front door.” Learners spend their days in a central location nestled near the new hospital pavilion, the cancer center, clinical areas, and research offices.


The first thing the trainer in me noticed? Everything moves: tables, chairs, lab equipment, even the walls. Nothing is bolted down. Spaces can be configured and quickly reconfigured to suit small or large groups, and for special events the showcase lecture hall on the main floor can hold 400 people – the whole med school student body—at once.  File cabinets are a little better than waist-high, to serve as impromptu tables for stand-up gatherings. Open spaces—plenty of them—have lots of flexible, movable, comfortable seats to support informal chatting or serendipitous meetings, now possible among all the students, unlike those in past years who may have crossed paths once, never to meet again. And all those movable walls? You can write on them, too.

Figure 1: There is a heavy focus on team-based learning; this classroom space has movable tables and chairs so students can turn or otherwise quickly reconfigure the area as needed (Photo courtesy The Chronicle)

For the learners specifically? Lockers tall enough to hang a lab coat. Showers for students who bike to class. And a student lounge with a foosball table, game consoles, a real kitchen, and a big patio to encourage them to step outside every now and then. (Grochowski says: “The housekeepers have been told to do only basic cleaning in here. It’s the students’ space and we shouldn’t disturb it.”)


Seventy-inch touch screens in classrooms and smaller monitors in conference rooms make it easy to display information and images and share notes and ideas. Virtual microscopy allows everyone to see exactly the same thing on a screen in front of them, not different items or something projected huge, with the usual accompanying loss of resolution. There’s an entire floor dedicated to simulation, including an operating room, a birthing room, and an ICU.

Figure 2: This is one of many simulation rooms (Photo courtesy The Chronicle)

The simulation area includes clinical exam rooms where student doctors interact with “standardized patients,” actors who have been assigned detailed roles to play, and instructions for evaluating the quality of interactions with the students and the care they received. Students with an interest can use teleconferencing to practice talking with Spanish-speaking patients.

Learner ownership?

The students run their own website http://www.dukedavisoncouncil.org/ that includes an overview of the student experience, a welcome to Durham, North Carolina, and an ask-a-student feature for visitors wanting to learn more about the med school. It’s also a space for them to showcase their third-year work, a unique opportunity to pursue scholarly research in any area they choose.

What else?

The sixth floor was left unfinished in anticipation of … needs that have not yet been anticipated.

The new Duke medical school is positioned to be the gold standard in configuration of physical space for training physicians, now and in the future. So, again: What would you do if money was no object? Assuming that money is an object, what are some changes you could make now, or soon? More mobile furniture? Whiteboard paint? A chance to interact in other languages? Improvements to break areas, to make them less like dungeons? Standardized patients, or callers, or prospects?  Give some thought to ways you can control your space to enhance the experience and support learning for your workforce. 

Want more?

Learn more about the Duke University School of Medicine at http://medschool.duke.edu/.