Teaching to the space

This term I am teaching in Carleton’s “interactive classroom”, more commonly referred to as the Sandbox. This is my first time teaching in this particular classroom, although I’ve admired it from afar since it opened for business in 2011.

The classroom is set up for collaboration. It’s a long, narrow room with 8 round tables, 6 chairs per table. Each table has a microphone, a large wall-mounted monitor, and a hookup to the projection system so that students can hook their laptops, etc to the monitor. (As the instructor, I can theoretically project this input onto the projection screen too, although I haven’t tried to do that yet.) The room also has whiteboards on 3 of the 4 walls (the 4th, narrow wall has windows), allowing each table access to plenty of drawing/scribbling space. There’s a teaching station in the middle of the room which also hooks up into the room’s projection system.

The setup of this room is perfect for the type of class I’m teaching. My class, Software Design, focuses on the art and science and practical aspects of programming, design, and development. It’s the perfect class for flipping, since much of the content is best covered by doing and not by telling. It’s also the perfect class for collaboration of all sorts: small group discussions, code reviews, design critiques, etc.

So, now that we’re five weeks in, how is the classroom working out? Is it everything I envisioned it would be and more? Or am I desperately wishing for a more conventional space? I thought this would be a good time to evaluate the good, the bad, and the ugly of this little interactive space experiment.

The good

I’ll start off by saying that there’s a lot to like about the space and overall I’m really enjoying teaching in it. The students have really utilized the space well from the start. Sure, they sometimes still play with the microphones before class starts, but in the first class meeting students were already playing around with the laptop hookups and using the whiteboards. The tables are excellent for discussions. One thing I didn’t anticipate is how loud the room gets during group activities (there are 38 students in the class, so we fill most of the room), but I think the round tables help everyone hear and participate (and focus!).

The room layout is also a good visual cue for me. As I’ve mentioned before, one thing I still struggle with in my flipped classrooms is just shutting up already and letting the students get to work. Seeing the students all set up and ready to collaborate reminds me (most of the time, not always) to make my remarks brief so that the students can get to the task(s) at hand. The layout also makes it easy for me to visit each group during collaborative work and to interact with everyone in the group. It’s harder to hide/not participate at a small, round table! There’s definitely a community and a camaraderie in the classroom, and a pretty relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, and I think the space plays a large role in that climate.

Basically, the room makes collaborative work so easy and natural that it seems a shame to “waste” it on lecturing, so I’m more mindful of how I structure my class meetings. My pedagogy has really benefited from the space as a result.

The bad

There are some definite quirks of the room that take some getting used to. Luckily many of these quirks can be creatively managed.

First, with the teaching station in the middle of the room, I have my back to about a third of the class when I stand there. This forces me to walk around the room, which I tend to do anyway when I talk, so not a big deal. But it is problematic if I have to do a demo, or write notes (see next paragraph). I made a few jokes early in the term about my “rudeness”, so I don’t think the students mind too much, but it’s a bit off-putting to me.

Second, even though the room has tons of whiteboard space, the glare and sight lines mean that there’s no good spot for ME to write notes for the class. This is the biggest drawback, because I primarily teach using the board (I only use slides for complex diagrams and discussion questions.) So I don’t write on the board—I write notes on a tablet PC which is projected to the main screens in the room. It works, but it’s not the most natural thing in the world for me, which means I don’t write as much in terms of notes, summaries, etc. as I usually do on a typical board. Which means I think much more carefully about the points I do write/project for the class, so I guess that’s a net win.

Third, the room gets surprisingly loud. Now, I definitely don’t have a problem with vocal projection (I inherited my grandmother’s lack of brain/mouth filter and lack of an “indoor voice”), but even I have a hard time getting people to simmer down when I want to move on from an activity. There’s enough of a delay on the lights that flashing the lights doesn’t work well. I’m still working on a good mechanism to quiet down the room without destroying my voice in the process. (Suggestions welcome!)

The ugly

There’s a lot of collaborative work we can do without computers in this course. However, at the end of the day this is a SOFTWARE design course, and every so often it makes sense to do collaborative work on computers (duh). There are no computers in the space other than the one at the teaching station, and students don’t reliably bring their laptops to class. This means that we end up sometimes meeting in the classroom and sometimes meeting in the computer lab—which is all the way across campus, in my building. (For instance, last week we met in the classroom on Monday and in the lab on Wednesday and Friday.) Now, there is a lab in the same building, but there was not enough time to get the software I needed installed in this lab before the start of classes, hence this imperfect solution. I do try to announce well in advance and multiple times when we have a classroom switch, but students are understandably annoyed when they accidentally go to the wrong room (it’s a 10 minute mistake—the time it takes to walk across campus). Also, I would much rather have the students working on computers in the classroom space, to facilitate cross-pair sharing and discussion (which is harder to pull off in the lab, set up like a conventional computer lab—long and narrow, computers in rows).

The verdict

The room is quirky, and I wish it had dedicated computers, but it works, and works very well for this class. Here’s the most telling testimonial: I’m teaching this same class next spring, and I’ve already put in a request for a room switch so that I can teach the class in this room again. (Hopefully this will give me enough lead time to get the proper software in the computer lab in the same building.) I’m enjoying the way the space challenges my approach to class planning and to pedagogy, and I’m really enjoying the classroom climate fostered by the space. It will be interesting to get my students’ perspective on their mid-term evaluations—I am curious to see if their experience of the space is as positive as mine. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed the chance to try out a new-to-me space and break out of my normal teaching routine!


2 thoughts on “Teaching to the space

  1. What an interesting space!

    One suggestion about getting back class attention after an activity – I’ve tried using an obnoxiously loud kitchen timer – it kind of helps that it’s a bright green plastic kids one with a lion on top! – and setting it at the start of a group activity when I have a class plan to follow and know I want them to break off at a particular point to move on. I tell them it’s partly for my benefit – I don’t usually wear a watch and if I get involved in helping one group it’s easy to lose track of watching the clock. When the alarm goes off, they know they have 1-2 minutes to finish the task and that I’ll then need their attention, so they are keeping an eye on me and expecting me to gather them up, and it’s much easier to get their attention…


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