Hacking the Classroom: Ideas from the Next Gen #LearningSpaces Conference

During my workshop at the Next Generation Learning Spaces conference in Nashville last week, I asked participants to hack the classroom, brainstorming ways an instructor might use the constraints and affordances of three particular classrooms to create active learning environments. This discussion came after an activity I described in my last blog post, in which participants discussed some of those constraints and affordances. Thanks, in part, to the warm-up provided by this earlier activity, participants shared some particularly creative ideas for hacking the three classrooms. If you have any interest in learning spaces or active learning, read on…

Classroom #1 is an active learning classroom at Indiana University-Bloomington. I photographed the classroom when I visited IU last year.  Here’s the photo I shared at the workshop:

Active Learning Classroom, Indiana UniversityAnd here are the ideas for using this space creatively and effectively that workshop participants shared (via Poll Everywhere, as with the earlier activity):

  1. Have the pods of students move to different pods to evaluate other pod students work.
  2. Use individual mediascapes as tutoring stations for individualized lessons via Skype to any classroom on campus.
  3. Students are to do a presentation on various subject for the rest of their classmates. Post to the larger screen.
  4. Put TVs on mobile carts (tethered) and make tables mobile.
  5. Video poster presentations, all stay-two stray (for interaction between groups), interaction with outside speaker ( video conference).

I really like the ideas that involve getting students to move around the room. This classroom is well designed for fostering small group interactions, but I think an instructor would need to be intentional about encouraging between-group interactions. I can see myself using the “all stay-two stray” structure to cross-pollinate groups.

Here’s Classroom #2, a lecture hall here at Vanderbilt University:

PackedHere’s how the workshop participants would foster active learning in this challenging space:

  1. Google Docs as a wiki for simultaneous interaction; Twitter feed with hashtag for class (moderated); Clickers or Poll Everywhere for activities.
  2. To create an interactive learning activity , use technology (BYOD) to create collaborative grouping.
  3. Geological timescale exercise.
  4. Use padlet.com.
  5. Backchannel with a graduate student.
  6. Left-handed desks.

As you can see, several participants went for some variation on a classroom response system or backchannel tool. As I noted in my previous blog post, you can almost always have students turn to their neighbors and discuss a question or problem, so a response system or backchannel could easily be combined with small-group interaction. The Google Docs suggestion is in the same ballpark. I’ve had smaller groups of students (maybe 15 or 20) all editing a Google spreadsheet at the same time. That’s a wonder to behold. I can only imagine how exhilarating that would get with the 100 students or more.

The geological timescale exercise suggestion (#3) needs some explanation. This came from, I believe, an instructor who teaches a course on evolution. Each row of students is assigned a different time period, from the very distant past to the present era. The students in that row are asked to identify what kinds of living organisms existed on Earth during that time period. Then, row by row, the students asked to shout out their findings. The punchline comes when row after row of students yell “Bacteria!” and only the very last row says anything different! I love this idea. It uses students’ physical location in the classroom as a visualization tool, without requiring students to move around, enhanced by a choral response mechanic. Innovative, elegant, effective.

Classroom #3 resides in the Weitz Center for Creativity at Carleton College, housed in a former high school:

Weitz Center Classroom, Carleton CollegeAnd here are the workshop participant suggestions for making good use of this space:

  1. Adding desks.
  2. Number three could be used as a traditional set up and more interactively for activities or pair activities.
  3. Fewer chairs; more rolling whiteboards.
  4. Encourage movement to avoid students working only with same groups.
  5. Take out some chairs.
  6. Chalkboards and windows as collaborative writing anchors around the perimeter.
  7. Can place chairs in small groups in front of an area of chalkboard for group activity/brainstorming.
  8. Isolate some groups to see if there is a different in thought process from those that have access to the chalk board.
  9. Rearrange the furniture is various ways. Have them centered in front/around chalkboard.

It strikes me that none of these suggestions involve digital technologies. All of them focused on the analog technology already in the room — the chairs and chalkboards. Two participants suggested removing some chairs, which makes sense. There’s almost too much furniture in the room to really allow for the kind of flexibility that wheels on chairs provides.

Speaking of wheels on chairs, if you’ve seen my Twitter bio, you might recognize this classroom, since it provided my banner image:

Wheels on ChairsI’ve often said that “wheels on chairs” is my favorite educational technology. As the workshop participants indicated in their responses, mobile furniture provides for a much more flexible learning space. And wheels matter for mobility. Just last fall I taught in a classroom with tables and chairs that could be moved,  but not easily, since they were heavy and lacked wheels. As a result, I rarely moved the furniture in that room, instead adapting learning activities to fit the classroom. That’s an unfortunate example of technology (analog, in this case) leading teaching, when it should be the other way around.

Several workshop participants responded to the question about creating active learning environments with answered that didn’t apply to one of the three classrooms in particular:

  1. Chatsy, Edmonton, Today’s Meet.
  2. Twitter to gather all comments publicly.
  3. Have the front students turn around and kneel to create a group of 4 or 6.
  4. We would like to overhaul not hack.
  5. Flip the classroom, do the poster session online.
  6. For all, use Vine or Nearpod.
  7. Use a virtual classroom tool to create breakout rooms.
  8. Use scheduling to pair these classrooms. Allow lecture on Monday, interaction on Wednesday, etc.

Again, lots of suggestions for classroom response systems and backchannel tools. And while I’m a fan of overhauling, too, the assignment was to “hack” the given classrooms, since that’s what instructors have to do. Teachers typically have to make do with the classrooms they’re given. That’s one reason I really like suggestion #8. Who says you have to teach in the same classroom every class session? You might not even need to go through the registrar to implement this idea. Just find another instructor who teaches at the same time you do in a classroom with different affordances, and see if that instructor will swap with you on occasion.

I’ll wrap up this post on the Next Generation Learning Spaces conference with a couple of tweets I wrote during one of the conference panels. The first tweet captures a comment made by architect Terry Hajduk:

Terry Hajduk: Only 20% of a campus is classroom space. How can we encourage more learning in the other 80%?

I followed this up with a thought of my own:

I’m all for informal and alternative learning spaces, but let’s also make sure our classrooms support learning well.

It’s exciting to see colleges and universities make better use of learning spaces around campus, but as long as so much of our curriculum focuses on courses and classrooms, we need to make sure those classrooms are designed to support active learning.

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