Monday, December 17, 2007

Sunshine, blended learning and thin client computers

Greetings from sunny Queensland where I am looking at blended learning techniques for a couple of days. On Friday I visited Dr Kathy Lynch at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Kathy has a background in using computers for business and learning, VR and mobile computing, interface design and evaluation. But what was most relevant was her work on innovative learning spaces, with studio-based teaching and learning. She has also researched the preferences of students for other teaching methods.

Studio Based Learning

Kathy talked about using a studio based or Bauhaus style of teaching at Monash University:

... the integration and encouragement by artisans / craftsmen as mentors to their students / apprentices together with the cooperative work and combination of their skills; the melding of craft and tools in a simulated workplace; and the establishment of contacts with industry (Flores, 2000). The idea of students learning from a ‘master’ in a cooperative and a simulated professional environment are at the crux of the pedagogy for the degree. ...

From: Are we there yet? IT graduates - Bauhaus style, by Lynch, K., Barnden, A., Carbone, A., & Gonsalvez, C., ASCILITE 2002
This stuck a particular chord with me as I gave a seminar presentation to the students of the "New" Bauhaus, based in Dessau Germany on hi tech design. I visited the Bauhaus museum in Berlin a few years ago. But it did not occur to me to look at their teaching techniques.

What Kathy has been doing with studio based learning is similar to what happens with the flexible learning centers I have been looking at. The lecture theaters and tutorial rooms are replaced with a suite of rooms which, as Kathy suggests can be made to look like a modern business office. There are computer equipped rooms for different levels of formality, from informal cafe style to mini lecture rooms. Some rooms have provision for student's laptops, whereas others are equipped for computers for each student.

Sunshine Coast University is currently building a new business orientated facility at their USC Noosa Centre, which will be impressive when compelte (in the main street). The Library is already equipped with clusters of computers.

Some insights from Kathy:
  1. Business-like surroundings: The students appreciate an atmosphere which looks like the sort of business they would like to work in. The furniture, decor and fittings should reflect this business atmosphere, rather than that of a school. The walls can have works of art, the furniture can be bright and the floor polished wood rather than dull carpet. A reception area can give a sense of arriving (even if it is not staffed with a receptionist). The cafe can be equpped with a two door dishwasher allowing students to feel ownership of the space. The "boardbroom" can be equipped with a large table and executive type chairs.
  2. Comfortable work areas: One issue is to provide spaces for students to work alone and together without being disturbed by others. This can be done by having different areas to suite different work. The Cafe area can have a bench around the wall allowing students to sit at a laptop or paperwork for individual work, withing the hubbub of the area. Tables in the cafe can sit groups. Private rooms can hold small groups for more privacy. The computer equipped rooms can have different types of tables for individual and group work. Kathy suggested movable partitions to allow some more privacy for groups in such rooms. However, she also cautioned about furniture which is supposed to be movable, but which is too cumbersome to do so.
  3. Content design a big cost: Kathy pointed out that while furniture and computers may appear a large cost and take long term planning, the cost and complexity of preparing the course content may be the limiting factor. True studio learning requires changing from a system where the course is arranged in modules to suit the teachers, into one arranged to suit the students. This requires lecturers to coordinate the contributions so that the student has one consistent body of material. Also computer based content needs to be developed and tested. Creating online learning simulations takes much more effort than traditional chalk and talk. In my own case I am attempting to bridge the gap between traditional lectures an evolutionary process bridging the two, taking existing content and making the minimum of changes to allow it to be used for blended learning. In this way the course content can be used for traditional lectures and tutorials, can be used for distance education or in a studio.
There are still considerable impediments to such spaces being widely available. Computers are becoming cheaper, smaller and having wireless data. But computers still need power cabling and take up desk space. Spaces designed for individual one-student one-computer can be difficult to reconfigure for group work or for teacher instruction.

In terms of something which I can take back to apply at ANU about blended learning:
  1. Respectable: Use of computer assisted learning spaces is academically respectable and there is a body of research and practical experience behind it. This is not just a new fad.
  2. IT Problems: There are unsolved problems with the arrangement of computers and communications for learning spaces. These are difficult enough and interesting enough problems for university IT researchers to investigate. This is not just a matter of buying some off the shelf equipment. In particular I believe that thin client computers can make a contribution to lower cost and more flexible learning spaces.
  3. Content Problems: Creating content for the studio environment and maintaining it, is a challenge for universities, particularly the more traditional ones. This will require new skills from the staff and a level of coordination.
DCS at ANU is looking to remodel some of its existing computer labs. These currently have three straight rows of grey laminate benches with a desktop computer for each student and cabling built into the benches. The first option I considered was to replace these with MIT iCampuus TEAL style round tables seating nine students each. However, these tables are designed for a much larger space, seating 100 students, whereas the ANU environment would have 25 or 50 students. Also the round tables would be fixed in place by the computer cables. Even if a raised floor was used, which would allow the cables to be moved, this would be a relatively fixed design.

The next option I looked at was to keep the same basic room design, with three rows of fixed benches, but curve the benches. Creating a wave shape (sinusoidal) to the benches would allow students to sit in a curved section for individual work and then change to sitting around the outside of the curve for group work. This design could retain the same fixed benches, with simplified cabling arrangements.

The existing benches are 900 mm deep, which is more than required. This could be replaced with a straight section 450 to 600 mm deep, then a curved section 300 to mm deep and about 900 mm wide. Each student could have about 1200 mm of bench space. Instead of sitting facing the wall, the students could sit at 45 degrees. One arrangement would have two students sitting back to back in a recess. This would have the advantage of allowing a large space which could then be used for a group. It would have the disadvantage of half the group facing away from the front of the room. An alternative would be to have one person per space, all facing 45 degrees to the front of the room, much like sleeper seats in the business class cabin of an aircraft.

The center bench could be made similarly. One insight from Kathy was that the center bench was used differently in such spaces. The class will work individually or in small groups around the outside of the room and then come together around the large center table for group work.

Thin Clients and Other Universities

On my way out USC I stopped at their innovation center to visit thin client startup company, ThinLinX (see coming post). Kathy suggested visiting the University of Queensland, Ipswich campus, but I only got as far as the main Brisbane one (see coming post). But I have been to the Ipswich one before and see such features as a stream running though the Library floor and the A/V studio in a former insane asylum morgue.

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