Posts Tagged Classroom Design
Greetings from Chicago!
The start of the fall semester is fast approaching and while I will miss the more relaxed schedule of my summer days, I am looking forward to meeting the incoming class of first year students at UIC. I often forget how unique my experience is on campus as I look out at a group of students who are truly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, gender, and religion. These students teach me about what “America” is actually like and what it can be in the years to come even as I help teach them the literacy skills they will need to succeed.
Fall is always the busiest semester for me and this fall is no exception. I’ll be teaching four sections of Academic Writing I, the first class in the First Year Writing sequence, with a total of 96 students. This year I’ve decided to focus that class primarily on genre so that we can consider how the forms we choose to write in signal to our readers what we intend and shape the ways we use language. I also plan to consider how our language choices as writers can shift the ways in which readers understand a genre. Stay tuned as the semester progresses to hear more on how my writing classes are going.
In this month’s blog post, I’d like to consider the role of classroom design in the way that faculty teach. For those of us who read Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle of Higher Education, articles on the death of the lecture and the need for more active forms of student learning are commonplace. There has also been a resurgence lately in these publications of articles on the pros and cons of using technology in the classroom. What gets missed in most of these articles, however, is any real discussion of the actual classroom. How is it designed?
As with most form’s of infrastructure, the physical reality of the classroom is taken for granted. A board, some desks, a few square feet of floor space sufficient to cover max enrollment. Maybe a TV or projector system. But if colleges and universities want to change the way they teach, there needs to be greater emphasis on the spatial design of the classroom.
Traditional lecture halls were designed with a sloping or step down tier system. There also tends to be a curvature to these lecture halls. Students eyes are thus directed downward towards a common focal point–a lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector screen. Aside from the access issues these rooms present for physically disabled students, who might not want to sit all the way in the back or right up in the front, this traditional design sends a clear message about who is in charge and how knowledge gets distributed. Some faculty might try to counter this trend by using the room in a unique way, but the design can’t help but frustrate that intent. Group work and peer to peer discussion will always lead back to the focal point down below.
Rooms designed for a lecture/discussion format or a lab are a little better in terms of floor design. The floor space is flat and holds a smaller number of students. Some have fixed desks while others have movable desk and chair combos. Often, however, the square footage of the room prohibits a great deal of movement of these desks. It also takes considerable time and effort for faculty and students to rearrange desks for small group activities and discussion. The path of least resistance, therefore, is to leave them pointed towards the lectern, chalkboard, whiteboard, or projector. Student vision is distributed in a straight line but is still directed towards the professor. Thus turning the classroom on most days into a smaller lecture hall with a flat floor.
Of the two existing options in classroom design, the spaces allocated for lecture/discussion classes have the greatest potential for adaptability. They often, however, have too many students in them to make movement practicable on a regular basis. One solution, certainly controversial, is to reduce the number of students placed in these classrooms or at the very least to revisit how max occupancy standards are arrived at. On my campus, the Fire Marshall is the main factor determining this rather than pedagogical research. There is definitely a need for more research on the optimal number of students that should be in a room for a certain type of teaching method to succeed. This would give student advocates and faculty interested in changing to more active learning strategies some data to make their case for much needed changes. Right now, much of the discussion on this topic remains anecdotal and (therefore) gets ignored by campus administrators.
For those campuses lucky enough to have the money to build new classroom facilities, the issue is a different one. Should new lecture halls be built to create spaces for an evolved version of a venerable teaching method? Or should all new class space follow the call for more active learning (sometimes called a flipped classroom)? I’m of the opinion that new construction should contain spaces for all types of educational method currently applied such as lecture and lecture/discussion. New experimental spaces should also be constructed that allow for project based learning–small group activities and discussions. These spaces should imagine such active learning as on-going and not simply one method of using a lecture/discussion space.
This fall one of my first year writing courses will be held in an experimental classroom. It is a traditional lecture/discussion classroom that is being fitted with new desk and chair combos as well as touch screen monitors assigned to various clusters of desks. These monitors are supposed to allow students to work in small groups on assigned activities easier as well as discuss readings. The monitors are connected by a wireless system to the podium at the front of the room, which will allow me (should I choose to do so) to project what each group is working on up on the main projector screen for the entire class to see. I’m sanguine about what I’ll be able to accomplish in this set up with that group of writing students. As I get a better sense of what is different, I’ll let you know since I’m also teaching in three more traditionally designed lecture/discussion classrooms.
What I can say before I even get started in using the space, is that I’m afraid classroom designers (and some faculty) focus too much on technology (projectors and screens) as well as desks. The real focus (in my opinion) should be on square footage, focal points, and lighting. There should also be some consideration on storage for backpacks and winter coats as well as access to electrical outlets. For the experimental classroom I’m teaching in, I believe that racks will be installed under the chairs. We’ll see how that works. The electrical outlet set up will remain the same. Temperature of the room and wall color are also important. And, just as important, the room should make disability access seamless. Too often, the design of a classroom makes it feel like disabled students are being accommodated. They should be allowed to feel like the other students attending the class.
I hope that you all enjoy the waning days of summer.
Until Next Time…
Greetings from Chicago!
The leaves are starting to change color on campus and there is a chill in the air. Fall is slowly coming here to the windy city. We’re now more than half way through the semester at UIC and it shows on the faces of students and faculty. Everyone is ready for a break. If nothing else, it will get us away from the constant noise of construction that follows us from one space on campus to another. In the meantime, we press on.
My last blog post focused on my research. This one will be a bit of a grab bag. One of the major downsides to being a Full-Time Nontenured Faculty member is the lack of time for research. This semester I’m teaching four First Year Composition classes and its hard to find time in between course prep, grading, and meeting with students to read the sources I’ve collected from the library for my second book project. Right now, I’m slogging my way through an economic history of farming written by Willard W. Cochrane. His text is giving me a useful overview of the shift in farming practices over the course of US history. Careful notes are helping me remember where I left off each time I set the book down to counsel a student on the best way to format a literature review. I recognize, of course, that having any time at all to research is an oddity for most NTT Faculty, especially those who teach part-time. My situation as a Lecturer is far from ideal, but it is certainly an improvement to the days when I was paid by the course and had to travel in between campuses.
As with most things in life, the academic profession is a series of pluses and minuses. The minuses for me are the stagnant pay and lack of research opportunities. The pluses are the security of a yearly contract, benefits, course schedule, and now an increasing recognition of my past research on campus. It might not seem like much to outsiders, but my being assigned to teach a section of the Sophomore level American Literature survey (ENGL 243) is a major advancement not just for me but a sign of how work conditions are improving for NTT faculty in our department. I’ve also been invited to a faculty author’s reception hosted by the UIC Chancellor’s office to celebrate the publication of my first book (New Men) last year. This also is a major advancement in NTT conditions on campus since I was not recognized for a long time as a faculty member. Finally, there’s the fact that I am writing this blog as part of my duties as Director of American Literature for NEMLA, a position that has traditionally been held by TT faculty. So life is not all gloom and doom for those off the tenure track. Progress, I often have to remind myself, is incremental and not necessarily linear. I continue to advocate for NTT faculty and for nontraditional students on campus, planting seeds for trees I will probably never see fully grown.
Part of what has helped me become more integrated into my campus is hutzpah. If there’s something I’m interested in, I find a way to get involved. This was the case with a recent event discussing the construction plans for a new classroom building on the UIC campus. I saw the faculty massmail advertising the event and showed up, the only English faculty member and probably the only NTT faculty member in the room. The usual types were well-represented, of course, various Vice-Chancellors and diverse Deans of subject areas few can adequately comprehend. There were also a few TT faculty from Math and Chemistry as well as Engineering and Social Sciences. During this session, the designers explained the overall goal of their plan. They want to design a classroom that encourages “student-centered” learning. Normally phrases like that give me the creeps. They have this “edu-speak” ring to them that is common amongst folks who talk a lot about education but have never stepped into a classroom. This presentation, however, held my attention because it focused on how the physical design of a classroom might change (in a positive way) how faculty teach.
Physical design of classroom space at UIC is a frequent topic of conversation among our faculty. Usually in the form of complaints about how a classroom’s designs prohibit us from doing the type of teaching we would like to do. For years I’ve wanted to experiment with multi-modal composition in my writing classrooms but have been stymied by the lack of a good computer and projector to exhibit projects, poor wi-fi reliability, and classrooms that are too small for students to move around in comfortably to work. Our buildings at UIC were designed for an era when the lecture was king. In spite of our best efforts to increase the discussion/activity functions in teaching, the rooms often lead us back to the lecture because it’s easier to do so. So what would a class that makes lecturing hard if not impossible look like? I saw a few examples of this in the presenter’s mock up drawings.
The example most relevant to the size of the courses I teach (18-25 students) was a room that could hold a maximum of 35 students. That room had a white board in the front, a fixed computer podium, projector and interactive screen (i.e. a screen you can write on with dry erase markers). Students sat at square tables made from joining together two rectangular ones. Four students to a table. These were arranged throughout the room. On the side walls were touch screen televisions that could be used by students for break out sessions. Each television was connected to the main projector in the room as well as to the internet.
The whiteboard, podium, and projector set up still make it possible for a faculty member to lecture, but it is harder for students to see the material. They need to move around because they don’t sit in fixed rows oriented towards the front board. The room is also longer than it is wide, making it difficult to project your voice from front to back. Consequently, this room discourages faculty from talking to the class as a whole and encourages them to move away from the podium to walk among their students and check in with individual groups. This is something that I already try to do in my composition classes. The square footprint of our classrooms, however, make it harder for me to do this. The room fits exactly 24 students (according to fire code) and that is the number I have. Add backpacks and winter coats and it soon becomes impossible for anyone to move about in the room. A 35 person room with 24 students in it would be like heaven. Adding technology to the room and more natural light would simply be a bonus. I can imagine providing students in a classroom such as this with a task to complete in a set period of time. I would then check in with each group as they work and show the entire class particularly unique methods to addressing the task.
Of course, there are obvious drawbacks to the design proposals I saw. One is the assumption that all our students have laptops or tablets that function like laptops. The digital divide is real on our campus and is only slowly being addressed. You can’t complete homework assignments on a smartphone even though many students try to do this. Another is maintenance. Lincoln Hall is currently one of the most advanced classroom buildings on our campus and its technology is fast becoming outdated and very beat up through heavy use. I’m constantly having to reconnect or jiggle loose cables and find adaptors to connect new devices that no longer have VGA or standard sized HDMI ports. Finally, design alone cannot drive pedagogy. It can force us to think more carefully about how we teach, but only faculty meeting with other faculty can hash out what the role of the lecture should be in each course and discipline and how it should relate to more active learning techniques.
All of this brings me to my conclusion for this post, which is a question. What does your ideal classroom look like? Mine would be large enough to have zones for distinct modes of learning. One zone would have a circle of desk/chair combos near a white board for lecture/discussion. Another zone would have tables and chairs for writing and research. And yet another would have comfortable chairs for students to sit and read, thinking through their understanding of a concept. Students could move freely through this space depending on what task they needed to accomplish. My syllabus would reflect this. Each day would emphasize a certain mode of learning and blend them together as needed. At least one wall would provide natural light that could be filtered or blocked to allow showing films and videos. There would also be ample storage for student backpacks and coats so that they don’t have to be placed on the floor.
Multiple focal points in a room. Multiple modes of learning in a syllabus. These are my goals. We’ll see if the new classroom building UIC constructs makes this possible. In the meantime, we make do with the tools at hand.
Until next time….