Over the last few months I have been collecting pictures of classrooms which I like. Let's call them learning spaces, as is the fashion. What I mean is the kind of place where students and lecturers feel comfortable, inspired, interested, playful, adventurous and studious. Somewhere which makes you want to work with other people. Somewhere which is humming with activity, but helps you focus.
My colleague Rob and I have been discussing how we can make the classroons in our department more suited to the kind of teaching we want to do in our nice new degree. In fact, it extends to the whole environment in the department, including the students' area which is known inexplicably as "the crush area". We are drawing up plans for it, which have the support of the right people in the dept (possibly only because they don't think it will ever happen, and possibly because it's hard to argue with the idea that students should be happy and comfortable in their work). At the moment we're looking for corporate sponsorship. I don't know whether it will ever happen, but it most certainly won't happen unless we give it a try.
Think of all the learning which goes on in a university department. Think of all the work that students do which remains silently in their note pads or in their computer screens. Think of all the classes which happen behind the closed doors of a lecture theatre or a tutorial room. I don't know what cool stuff my colleagues teach, and one class of students never finds out what another class is working on. We have great student projects happening in groups or individually but they almost never get shared. Why is it that all our VLE material is locked away where only people signed up for a module can see it? Are we embarrassed about all this teaching or learning we do? The idea of "Windows onto Learning" is to bring this learning to light, to share it and celebrate it in public spaces throughout the department.
It's the crossover of several teaching ideas I like:
- The Gold Star teaching pattern.When I was in primary school we had a "Good Work" board. It was outside the gym hall, and teachers from the whole school would choose good stories, or drawings or projects by their pupils to be hung up there for a month. And you would get a sticker on your work. I got a bumble bee sticker which said "Excellent" once. Clearly this has some effect, if I recall it 25 years later. :-) With "Windows onto Learning", we'd be showing good student work dynamically and constantly on big screens e.g in the crush area or staff room. I'd keep the aspect of the primary school good work board where it wasn't the quality of the final product which mattered. It was the fact that the work represented a big learning step for that particular pupil. But I would change the rate material changed at. The screen might update every 10 minutes, for example, showing a selection of different work in a collage.
- Learner generated content/contexts. I believe students learn a lot from making things: arguments, presentations, podcasts, paper prototypes and programs. I also believe they should be consulted about issues which affect them, and should have ownership of their space. So something thing I would change about the good work board idea is that it wouldn't only be staff who put material on it. Students could choose to showcase their own work, or their friends' work if they thought it was good. They build something to help them learn, then they share it with others.
- Vicarious learning. This goes back to a project John Lee did a HCRC about what students learn from reading questions and answers from previous students. The "Windows onto Learning" could also show questions and answers texted by students, or snapshots of the VLE discussion forums (which had been tagged as public, as some students may prefer to learn in private).
- Ambient interfaces. This isn't teaching related, but it refers to technology which has blended into the background, giving users subtle cues about the state of the world. My favourite example is the Philips shaving mirror which has a mini display which tells you weather or news as you brush your teeth, or the ambient umbrella which lights up if rain is forecast. "Windows onto Learning" would be a way to show the activity of the department as it constantly changes. Of course, if you got the software right, it could be on every screen saver in the labs, and accessible on a web page for students to see on their phone. Hell, you could even go all new fangled and have it generate Twitter feeds.
- Data visualisation/ aggregation (the geeky bit). What on earth would it look like? How would you do this? You'd need to have some software which would prepare a series of views onto a store of learning bits and bobs, and then display them in a fascinating way. When students (or staff) uploaded their work onto the VLE, they could choose to tag it as displayable. We're going to encourage students to archive their group work (e.g diagrams, photos of whiteboards, paper prototypes) and upload it during classes by having scanners, graphics tablets and cameras they can use. There would also be a facility for uploading "good work" and questions or answers, funny b;og entries, and social (but decent :-) ) photos of students. Now for the fun bit: ideally you'd be wading in content, so you want to find interesting ways to showcase it. Have a look at Digg Labs (http://labs.digg.com/swarm/), Etsy (http://www.etsy.com/color.php) or wefeelfine (http://wefeelfine.org/) to see the kind of thing I mean.
There are other aspects to the idea, particularly in the physical design of classrooms, but this is bit I am currently thinking about. The technology is all possible, if expensive. In fact, the last bullet point there about data visualisation I will turn into a fourth year project.
What now? Rob and I will keep plugging away at this. We need to consult the students when they come back and keep talking to colleagues. If you have any idea to add, please comment on this post! If you're one of our students, drop me an email or come and see me to chat, particularly if you fancy doing some programming. If you are a corporate sponsor, please give me a call. :-)