Space Hacking and Student Engagement

Outside learning spaces at UNC Charlotte.

So I went to THATCamp Piedmont in Davidson, NC in early May, and attended  Mark Sample’s Spacehacking panel.  The panel was full of faculty whose concerns were largely classroom based, and whose desires seemed to centered around how to shake things up physically in classrooms, so students are engaged, while at the same time meeting expectations that materials are presented by professor to students.  We brainstormed about furniture, digital tools, sitting and standing, taking the professor out of the front of the room (and the pedagogical challenges therein), expressed concerns about accessibility, and speculated about non-classroom-based work environments (like, the great outdoors!).

Calling something like a classroom a “learning space” implies that they are also “teaching spaces”–the direction of that teaching has traditionally been from professor to student, but increasingly we are asking students to teach each other, and occasionally to teach us about the materials we wish them to be engaged with.  Classrooms in university environments are frequently locked into particular configurations, especially the auditorium-style rooms with bolted-down chairs, immovable tables, and a very fixed focal point at the front of the room.  The room we were in during the panel (in the Center for Teaching and Learning in the E.H. Little Library at Davidson College) was very configurable, with desk-height tables on wheels, comfortable task chairs, and whiteboards along the entire perimeter of the room.  It still had a smart podium at one end of the room, requiring whoever was needing to present materials to treat that side of the room as the “front” (there was also a smartboard there).  It was also, apparently, not a terribly typical learning space at Davidson (though it was a very in-demand space!).

During the panel and after I was thinking about Atkins library spaces, and the changes we’ve already made that have resulted in big differences in student engagement in learning spaces.  For example, my colleague Heather McCullough, the head of our Digital Scholarship Lab, came across a group of students studying in our ground floor collaborative spaces during finals week.  There was one student at a whiteboard, outlining principles of Economics, being listened to by a group of his classmates.  The student’s classmates asked him,”how do you know this stuff??” He told them, “I did the practice problems in the back of the textbook.” And his classmates said, “Can you tell us how to do that?”  And so he did.  They were not doing this in a classroom, they were doing this in the library, sitting on couches and comfortable chairs, facing a whiteboard, feet up on the glass coffee table they were circled around.
Students teaching each other during finals week 2012

Now, faculty can choose to despair at the image of students at the end of the semester just figuring out the utility of the practice problems in the back of the textbook.  Or, they can choose (as I do) to be struck by the tableau of students teaching students not just the course material, but techniques for success in class, techniques that they can then take out of the current class they are enrolled in and apply to future situations.  Student engagement is happening in the library–they are engaged with their course materials, they are engaged with each other (and not just in a social way), they are engaged with the stuff of intellectual work, one of the most important reasons for them to come to university.

These students stacked tables to make the furniture work better for them

 If such engagement is not happening regularly in the classroom, or, if the kinds of engagement that faculty are experiencing in classrooms are not satisfying (either to faculty or to students), then how can we bring the engagement we see happening in the library into other parts of campus?  Could one part of the solution be a reconfiguration of space?

I’ve been trying to think about space in the library here at UNCC in terms of a concepts I’ve borrowed from my colleagues:   in environmental psychology, “behavior settings”, from architecture, “affordances,” and from my own field, anthropology, the idea of “places” as cultural constructs.  “Behavior settings” refer to the cluster of assumptions that particular environments suggest to people upon entering the space (think of those velvet ropes that lead up to service desks–we know we’re being set up to wait in line).   “Affordance” is a related concept (also used by people in Human-Computer Interaction), describing the range of possible activities/functions suggested by a particular space/piece of furniture/object.  For example, a chair suggests a limited range of options (sitting), where a staircase wide enough to accommodate seating as well as walking (as in this example at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke) can suggest a larger set of possibilities (sitting, walking, meeting, talking, etc).   Anthropologists approach “place” as the set of cultural meanings that are imposed by people onto physical spaces.  I think it’s useful to keep all three of these concepts in mind when contemplating creating spaces that meet the needs of both students and their instructors, at universities and elsewhere.

With our reconfiguration of our ground floor spaces (and I swear, we’re going to start reconfiguring other spaces as soon as we have the resources to do so!), we have been consistently paying attention to what students were trying to do, both on the ground floor as well as in other parts of the library.  We saw them trying to work in pairs or threes at traditional library carrels, we saw how overbooked our group study rooms were, we saw the syllabi requiring that students work in groups as a part of their coursework.  Those observations helped inform the decisions we made to dedicate most of the ground floor to collaborative work spaces.

In the same vein, paying attention to what faculty are trying to do when they are teaching should inform classroom design.  Faculty are already (as evidenced by the roomful of concerned professionals at THATCamp Piedmont) thinking about novel ways to reach their students in the classroom.  They should be partners with classroom support and facilities departments on campuses in planning classroom spaces, and experimenting with operationalizing those ideas with the help of different furniture, digital tools, and open minds.  I know that some faculty (I’m thinking of @georgeonline here) are already doing this at their respective institutions.

What’s happening on your campus to transform learning and teaching spaces?  What works and what doesn’t?