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Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Archive for the 'Learning spaces' Category

Amsterdam University Library learning spaces visit 28th January 2013

By Paul Burt, on 4 February 2013

Whist arranging our visit to the ISE exhibition in Amsterdam I thought it would be good to maximise the value of the trip by seeing if there were any interesting learning spaces within institutions in the region. A bit of web searching revealed images of the striking redevelopment of the University of Amsterdam’s main library. A few emails and weeks later we were fortunate to be receiving a tour and in-depth discussion with the University’s Head of User Services, Robin van Schijndel.
The library is situated in the heart of Amsterdam and is actually made up of a number of neighbouring buildings which range in dates from the 16th century (we were shown a cellar room where there was a large reproduction of Dutch Masters painting which was clearly a view from the same room) to the 1970’s. The interiors that had caught my attention on the web were now three years old but still looked immaculate. I suspect this is as a result of admirable cultural differences (there is next to no litter on the streets of Amsterdam) as much as it is the result of good choice of materials.
The most distinctive space that was part of that phase of refurbishment is the book collection room.
view of book collection room at Amsterdam University library
Like many space-constrained libraries much of the available stock is stored off-site and be accessed by student and staff by searching the online catalogue and requesting items. How this process works and the way a user collects their requested items is made clear for new students and staff by clean signage above the relevant issue stations.
The workstation where users check if their books are available
Once a user is notified by email that their items are available then they collect them from a numbered box.
What could have been conceived of a fairly drab collection room has been made into the symbolic heart of the building complete with the glow of red fluorescents (others have noted the other symbolic meaning of red lights in the city). Originally the architect had planned for individual cabinets with hinged doors but budget constraints meant a more economic solution was needed and the red plastic crates (usually factory parts bins) decided upon. The end result is probably all the stronger for this decision.
Throughout the rest of the building there were numerous study areas that were all very busy with very quiet and very studious students.
One of the most recent library developments is the recently created a group/social learning space. There is a range of furniture in this space from high-backed benches that afford a degree of privacy to open desks and benches.
high-backed seating at Amsterdam University
Amsterdam University Library social learning space
The rules for students in this space are indicated by signage (designed by a student).
Some of the meaning required a bit of explanation for me (apparently – yes to talking, yes to mobile devices, no to fast food and ensure drinks have lids) but slightly more cool than most library signage.

Meet the Active Learning Classroom

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 8 November 2012

The term Active Learning Classroom seems to be quite well established in the US and Canada but I have to say isn’t something I’ve consciously encountered at home. I attended a great workshop at the Educause conference on active learning classrooms – and specifically on the kinds of activities that can take place in them – led by the very energetic Adam Finkelstein of McGill University in Montreal.

What are they? 
Simply spaces designed for students to learn together in groups – with or without technology. Typically there are tables for 6-9 students, with one or two (or no) screens per table for them to use with their own devices,  writable surfaces around the room, acoustics that can cope with multiple conversations, and  space for the teacher to move freely amongst the students.  There is no front podium for the teachers – they are normally in the middle of the room. The idea is that they promote collaborative learning experiences and provide more interaction between students and staff. There are some terrific videos from McGill showing classes and academics’ perspectives on them.

Some examples:

Learning in an ALC
A strength of the session was that it employed active learning strategies in an ALC – the workshop was in a space with all of the main ingredients of an ALC, and Adam modelled an active learning approach in which we had no option but to collaborate and learn together.

We were given a brief presentation on active learning and classroom designs, and then set to work with a short paper to read individually and a warning that we’d be tested on it – this definitely focused the mind.  After the test (multiple choice & short answer) on paper which we had to hand in (quite unnerving) we had to discuss our answers with our table mates and come to an agreement. This activity was a ‘readiness assurance process’, so called because it checks that participants are ready to move on in their learning.

Apparently we passed as Adam then moved on.  He outlined a framework for an active learning class which has four elements:

  1. You start by introducing the approach and orienting the learners
  2. There will be some informing or instruction – whether through presentation, reading, watching a video – whatever is most appropriate
  3. Next comes the active learning bit – time for learners to work
  4. The closing part involves reflection on what was learned and next steps.

He then set us off on another activity – this time a ‘four corners’ activity – in which we were split into four groups and given a couple of minutes to fill each of four whiteboards in turn on each of the four elements we’d heard about; each group built on the ideas of the previous one.  At the end of this he closed this activity by visiting each board and summarising – and challenging where necessary – our work.

Adam circulated a comprehensive list of 26 active learning strategies from brainstorming and buzz groups to interviews, simulations and one minute papers.

The session was backed up by other good online resources which I’d recommend a close look at – start at the resources section for each of the following:

Lots of food for thought and ideas for supporting learning in different sorts of learning spaces. Now we just need those spaces…

The cluster room lives on – but look out for the ‘un cluster’

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 7 November 2012

I spent the morning of the first day of the Educause conference in a workshop on the future of the cluster room (or computer lab) led by Keith Boswell from North Carolina State University and Beth Schaefer from the Uni of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.   It was well attended – I reckon 60 folk in the room – and we spent over an hour going around the room sharing tales of cluster-related challenges – increasing pressure on space, patchy usage, challenges of keeping up with students’ needs and expectations in terms of software and hardware, problems with the balance between open access (wanted by students) and teaching clusters (wanted by staff), with some institutions wondering whether to wait for the next generation of tablet-pc hybrids or to replace old pcs like for like. It’s clear that the challenges that we face at UCL are shared across the pond.  However I’d say that for most of those in the workshop the cluster room remains an important part of their university’s IT provision – the death of the cluster room has been exaggerated.

I did find out about a couple of nice approaches to power management used at North Carolina State – one was setting PCs to hibernate after a few minutes of inactivity can save a lot of money and energy. Another was the use of ‘lab stats’ data which logs which PCs are used most, and for how long – we saw some hot spot maps of cluster rooms showing that students tend to favour certain locations in a room for quick turnaround activities (email/printing/Facebook check) but will sit in different seats for extended work – this allows different power management regimes to be applied for different PCs. Thinking about it, perhaps we might even use this to zone open access spaces with different spec workstations, furniture etc for different patterns of use…

I also heard about the ‘Un Lab’ – again at North Carolina – where the university had looked carefully at what was needed in terms of connectivity, power, space, file storage, software deployment, lockers etc in order to allow students to use their own computers and so reduce the need for institutional workstations. They had focused on Engineering students and called the resulting computing environment EoS.   All useful stuff, though I still predict that the more that students use smaller devices liken iPads the less likely they are to want to bring in laptops and – as I can testify writing this on a iPad (as I don’t have a laptop) – they are not ideal for writing extended prose! So we might want some decent Un Clusters at UCL but we do also need to keep providing hardware…

Printing is a big issue with lots of institutions planning ‘follow-me’ printing and printing from student owned devices although few seemed to have implemented these as yet. The other source of shared pain is weaning students – but more critically staff – off printing and encouraging more reading on screen. A particular gripe is requirement to print coursework for submission even when it is also submitted online.

A couple of leads to follow up :

  • Griffith University in Australia have done some work on innovative technology-enhanced teaching spaces, and have set up a pinterest site with a bunch of images – pinterest.com/learningspaces
  • The University of New Mexico have a number of space-related initiatives including large ‘active learning classrooms’, interactive lecture theatres (set up to allow students to swivel round and work with those behind/in front), wireless projection (which made their network group unhappy…) and mirroring technology (allowing devices like iPads to be mirrored on PCs).
  • And more than one institution cited the University of Minnesota as a source of inspiration (see their active learning classroom site)…

Finally I was surprised to hear that many US institutions levy an ‘educational technology fee’ on their students. Bet that goes down well.

My next post will be about active learning classrooms…

MediaCity: work space you want to work in

By Fiona Strawbridge, on 24 November 2011

Tardis at MediaCity

I’ve just been at a meeting in Salford and was joking with a colleague about the glamorous places I get to go to – Salford in November promised drizzle, Coronation Street, having to endure a pendolino train to get there; what I hadn’t noticed on the agenda was a tour of MediaCity.

Oh. My. Word. What a place.

It’s the new second home for the BBC and home to Cbeebies, Five Live etc. And it also houses part of Salford University – students on creative, media, computing and journalism courses come together here to be immersed in the tools of their chosen professions.

Private boothWe had a tour of the BBC bits from a BBC rep, and of the Salford University part from Academic Director Andrew Cooper, and our host Gillian Fielding.  The BBC is a beautiful, stimulating, playful space full of colour, quirks, and practical genius. It is a workplace that oozes creativity and fun. It makes open plan offices and hot desking seem highly attractive.The university media campus is both stunning and crammed with top end facilities – fully loaded professional studios which students can use to make TV; immersive media environments; 3D green screens (no, not a clue how that works).

I liked almost everything I saw, but I was particularly taken by:

  • Superb use of colour, words, images
  • Playful touches – models, interactive tables, visual gags
  • Evidence that creativity is all around you – drawings, plans, exhibits
  • Private booths for meetings and phone calls
  • Private meeting ‘chair pairs’
  • Break-out space everywhere
  • Inspiring, comfortable, beautiful things and quirky touches
  • The Digiden – a space to immerse yourself in sound, images
    Projecting to the outside world

    Projecting onto window

  • Walls which you are expected to write on
  • Barriers you want to look at, and can see through

In all the feeling that you’re ‘where it’s at’. A destination. See this Flickr space for 100-odd photos; also Amber Miro’s pics.