Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spatial skills: Classroom architectural innovation in the era of “virtual learning”

The average journalism instructor typically doesn’t spend much time thinking about engineers—especially at UW-Madison, where the two disciplines are housed in buildings separated by about a mile. Yet the engineers appear to be on to something when it comes to innovative learning spaces, and their efforts are gradually spreading toward the southeastern end of campus.

I first wrote about the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning (WisCEL, pronounced like “whistle”) in 2011 while working as a science writer for the College of Engineering. At the time, architecture was a big theme in the CoE (engineers are chronic acronym creators). The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID) and the new Union South were under construction, and Engineering Hall also had received a recent face-lift. Triangulated within these projects was the Wendt Library, a squat, Brutalist-style building.

Despite its long-term status as the neighborhood eyesore, the library now is gaining a more positive architectural reputation. The entire fourth floor of the library, known officially as Wendt Commons, has become a space for teaching and learning experiments and also is home to a staff dedicated to developing technology-aided, “inverted” courses related to STEM disciplines.

At the time of my initial press release, WisCEL was in its infancy, and the team behind the “collaboratory” had only recently obtained a grant to expand to College Library. Now, WisCEL-related renovations at College are complete, and the WisCEL spaces at both libraries are active sites that host multiple introductory courses, mostly related to math. And this year, WisCEL was included on Interim Chancellor David Ward’s Educational Innovation list.

The program is clearly growing, so this week I touched base with WisCEL Director John Booske, an electrical and computer engineering professor.

“We are seeing some remarkable progress in some of the WisCEL courses towards the ‘success for all’ goal, so we are excited about this preliminary evidence that we—and the pioneering, brave instructors we are supporting in WisCEL—are on the right track,” he said.

In some ways WisCEL’s growth seems at odds with recent efforts at UW-Madison to expand virtual class offerings via MOOCs. The MOOC push has garnered press attention and political approval, though virtual learning is not a new topic of conversation on campus. For example, at a WID event in late October 2012, Director David Krakauer and other panelists dreamed of an educational experience free of a physical campus altogether. (Krakauer also was in the news again this week talking about MOOCs.)

Are initiatives related to reforming classroom architecture, then, simply a stopgap until the full fruition of virtual education?  The main forces behind WisCEL don’t think so. According to Booske, WisCEL instructors may choose to experiment personally with online materials and instruction, but any online-only efforts are distinct from their WisCEL-related courses.

“WisCEL's mission does and will continue to focus on the learning of on-campus students,” Booske said. “We are focused on our primary mission, which is ‘success for all,’ where ‘all’ for us means on-campus learners. That's [an] ambitious enough goal without spreading ourselves too thin to also think about MOOCs.”

For now, at least, physical classrooms are still an educational mainstay. In terms of circling this discussion back to journalism education, an increased emphasis on class architecture and student-centered “learning environments” could be valuable in many of our own courses. J202 is the most obvious example of this. The computer lab-style environment is well designed for a teaching assistant to stand at the front of the room and write on a white board, then walk around and coach individual students over their shoulders.

However, the current U-shape doesn’t allow for students to comfortably circle up for group work, spread out draft papers or set laptops close together for peer editing. Students essentially sit side-by-side in a cubicle format, with little shared real estate. If they do work collaboratively on print designs, video projects or web sites, one student ends up “driving” the mouse and keyboard while the others can only point and try to describe what they’d like to see.

An alternative environment could, for example, allow multiple students to work on a large screen at the same time via multiple mice or mirrored or dual monitors, which could create larger virtual spaces for creative work. Even more simply, an open room design could allow students to sit together more casually, which would facilitate more fluid group brainstorming and better resemble a newsroom or communications office environment. In the current U-shape, it’s all too easy for students on the edges of the room to hide behind screens and check out of group discussions entirely.

The WisCEL team is beginning to experiment with non-STEM courses. Currently two integrated liberal studies courses and a business course are available via WisCEL centers. (Booske said STEM instructors were the first willing to work with WisCEL, which is why these course “got in the door first.”)

However, while WisCEL is open to partnerships with social science and humanities instructors, Booske was somewhat cautious about major expansion. He said more WisCEL centers would be necessary, as well as an increased awareness of best practices for developing courses in non-traditional classroom environments.
“We are working on this,” he said. “But it involves resource investments, and that takes time and a great deal of complex logistical planning and leadership from many very individuals, all of whom are pleased and eager to see further opportunities for improved learning open up to all our students.”

While WisCEL’s growth plan is limited for now, perhaps it’s a good idea for SJMC instructors to start developing our own experimental classroom structures. Inverted pyramid chairs, anyone?

--Sandra Knisely

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