Tag Archives: #thatcamp

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?

The ephemera of academic work.

Last week I went to hear Mary Flanagan speak about play, creativity, games, and how to think about social change in the context of game design and production.   And this weekend, I’ll be attending another THATCamp, this one THATCamp Piedmont, at Davidson College just up the road.  The prospect of going to another unconference, the content of Flanagan’s talk, plus the recent experience of opening our new north entrance spaces at Atkins library, have been making me think a great deal (even if I haven’t been blogging that amount) about the material nature of our thought processes–or, frequently, the lack thereof.

What I mean is, there are times when students walk into the library with nothing in their hands but ideas in their heads, with a need to share those ideas (and get inspired by new ones) with colleagues.  The physical environment they need for idea sharing is one that we’ve provided in the library:  furniture near whiteboards.

They can sit on couches, chairs, or at tables, and either use the whiteboards we’ve provided that can be moved around, or settle in spaces where you can write on the walls.  Sometimes (many times) they bring laptops in with them, sometimes they bring books and notes with them.  They work in groups, or they work alone.  

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards needs to go with them when they leave–if they are sketching out a work plan for a group project, if they are outlining a rough draft for a paper, if they are taking a problem set and solutions home.  They often take pictures of the whiteboard (and the information they intend to curate) with their smartphones.  This (on the right) is a good example of an elaborate study guide, using not just a whiteboard but also post-its.  This diagram of the heart stayed on this whiteboard for several days during final exams last semester.  We are actually thinking hard about what it would look like to have smart whiteboards, that could allow for the saving and sending of the stuff that students write down.

Sometimes, what they write on the whiteboards is not the important product of the study session.  When they need whiteboards to help them think, when the product is greater understanding that they can take with them in immaterial ways, there is no need to save the ephemera of their academic work.  What they write down will not be transformed immediately into another thing, does not need to be curated in the same way that a rough draft or a presentation outline would be.  We don’t need to always assume that they need to take it with them

The hard part is that we in the library don’t know which kind of work a student is engaging in at any given time–that’s why it is terribly important to build flexible spaces, that allow for patrons to have real choices about the work they need to do.

It is in thinking about the ephemera of academic work that I was confronted by a design flaw in our new T1 Vision tables, in our north entrance study spaces.  These tables (shows upper left) have a touch-screen embedded in the table that can be divided into four, as well as a large sharing screen on the adjacent partition.  The large screen for sharing is only activated when a device is plugged in (or, in only a few cases in the touch-table applications).  So, in this photo, the student has plugged in her laptop, and what is on the laptop is shown large on the screen for her study partners to see.  If one of her study partners found something while browsing the web on the touch-table that she wanted to share, that’s currently not possible. And that does not fit with the way students work–they need to be able to share and think about things that come up during the session, not just what they have with them when they arrive at the library.  The T1 tables dole out sharing capability as if the stuff that is savable/curatable is more worth sharing than the ephemera, and that is not true.

Sometimes, academic work does not produce a material artifact.  Sometimes, play does not take place in a score-keeping game, sometimes, play is open-ended, sometimes there are no winners or losers.  But thinking is important, creativity is important, and it’s crucial for the library to produce and equip spaces that don’t just allow our students to write papers and pass exams, but also for them to think, to share ideas, to brainstorm, to bounce ridiculous notions off of each other that may go nowhere.

That’s a “knowledge cloud,” according to the student who drew that.  Thanks, Daniel W.

THATCamp, Digital Humanities, Hammers and Nails

Hey, y’all, I went to THATCampSE in Athens GA this weekend, and it was very cool.

In addition to getting the chance to reconnect with friends and colleagues, I had the opportunity to meet entirely new people and think about unfamiliar things–or at least, about familiar things that I really need to think about in new ways.  While in Athens, I got to engage in conversations about pedagogy, human interaction, graduate training, and digital libraries.  I learned about tools I can use in teaching (and other contexts), and connected with a set of scholars I hope will be collaborators and co-conspirators in projects I haven’t even come up with yet.

I was struck by the history of THATCamp (as presented by @amandafrench in her opening remarks at the start of the meeting) as an oppositional un-conference that would be all of the things that traditional conferences like MLA are NOT:  fun, informal, unstructured, unhierarchical.  THATCamp schedules are made the day of the conference.  THATCampers come from many different fields and disciplines.  THATCampers are academics, applied practitioners, veterans in their respective fields, and novices.  THATCampers are humanists, programmers, hackers, and luddites.

THATCamps have also been happening for a while, so there is an increasing number of THATCampers who are “repeat offenders.”   The intense feeling of being new-to-it-all (where “it” could be Digital Humanities, THATCamp, or just the particular group of people who arrived at THATCamp SE) was palpable, and fun.  How long can it last?  And is it what THATCamps of the future will look like?   How could some of that energy be transferred to more traditional conferences in the humanities?  How could traditional conferences learn from some of the things that are already happening around them, or in other fields, to give practitioners the opportunities for fun and connection that they are clearly craving in inventing things like THATCamp.  There are things that get built during THATCamps now–what more can THATCampers do to build on what has gone before, so it’s not just about the new and novel, but about building something that can inform future endeavors?

It makes me think of the big AAA conferences, and how people’s experiences transform through time.  It’s almost developmental:  graduate students present formal papers, young scholars finishing grad school attend job placement events and network like crazy.  Established scholars only go into panels as discussants, and senior scholars attend discussions and business meetings.  The ones who’ve really made it in the field (or, those who figure things out before the rest of us do) never leave the bar, cafe, or book room, and spend the conference doing the real scholarly work of reconnecting with colleagues over a meal, a drink, the enjoyable experience of seeing each other face to face after years/months/decades and diving back into a relationship that has been sustained via email, Facebook, Twitter, or even phone calls.   People tweet in concert with panels and other discussions at conferences (the “backchannel”)–even at MLA.  These things are not just possible but in practice in many corners of academia.   So, it will be interesting to see what the future of THATCamp holds, when the relatively fragile oppositional identity of THATCampers transforms into something more robust and defined on its own terms.

At the risk of sounding like I really like my hammer and see nothing but nails, I was struck again by the utility of the Visitors and Residents paradigm.  Where V&R helps me is in thinking of the variety of ways people engaged with the “digital” part of the DH umbrella we were all playing under this weekend.  Many people, especially those with previous THATCamp experience, had already put profiles on the website, started following fellow THATCampers on Twitter, proposed sessions for the Camp, in Athens, etc.  Those people were already THATCamp residents–they were Campers in a way that was visible on the internet not just to the people they would be sharing physical space with in Athens, but also with (potentially) anyone following the #thatcamp hashtag on twitter.  At least one of the “residents” has already blogged about the experience.

Some clearly approached THATCamp as a visitor–they were less visible on the web in their participation, but attended and proposed sessions, and did a lot of unconferencing in face-to-face ways.  Perhaps some of them are writing about it now, and it will end up in a publication (online or otherwise).   Perhaps they will simply talk about the experiences, the tools they learned about, etc with their colleagues, or share in other less-digitally visible ways.

Does that mean the residents are doing it right, and visitors wrong?  No, I don’t think so.  These are ends of a continuum.  There is a range of ways to effectively engage with THATCamp, just as there is a range of effective ways to engage with the internet.  And while the community being built through the collective experiences of THATCamp is very visible online, so much of the work is done in face to face contexts augmented with online tools like social media and other collaboration facilitators (making manifest @amanda french’s suggestion on Friday that “if it’s only online, it only half exists.”).  These digital tools do not take away the need for face to face interactions, but they can transform our starting point in those interactions.  The conference can begin before we get there, and continue long after we are gone.

I likewise wonder about this brave and increasingly less-new world of Digital Humanities.  I think there’s probably a visitor-resident continuum in that community, too, with one end where the digital = the tools people engage with to enhance or go deeper into relatively traditional humanities content, and the other end of the continuum is where the digital = utterly transformative not just in what can be done in terms of analyzing content, but also in revolutionizing the very meaning of what it is to be a scholar in the humanities.

It’s not just the “humanists” who are dealing with that potential transformation–these tools are turning the social sciences, arts, and STEM disciplines upside-down, too.  THATCamp-type comings-together can encourage our engagement with this (forgive me) new normal, where disciplinary boundaries are not walls but starting points, where technology gives us not just tools but new places to go with our work.