Monday, May 31, 2010

Evaluating learning spaces, and assessing the need for new learning spaces

I've upgraded our Flashlight materials for evaluating learning spaces, and assessing needs for renovating or creating new learning spaces.  (Thanks to Larry MacPhee at Northern Arizona University, one of our subscribing institutions,  for prompting me to do this.)  By "learning space" I mean both physical facilities such as classrooms and libraries, and online spaces such as course management systems and conferencing systems (e.g., Adobe Connect, Elluminate, Wimba).

If you know Flashlight, you'll already have guessed that our approach to evaluating learning spaces is based on (1) finding out what people ideally want to do as they teach and learn, and (2) assessing whether current spaces make those particular activities hard, or easy.

The biggest challenge for needs assessment: helping faculty realize that new spaces could help them teach in ways they have never experienced.

My favorite example: imagine a class session of 100 students. The instructor divides the students into 20 groups of 5, with the following instructions: one of the students in each group should select three images (or videos) relating to the day's content. The images or videos might be X-rays, paintings, architectural drawings, film clips, or pages from a book. That student shows these images to the other four students. Then the group discusses how those images compare and contrast (with students pointing to elements of the images to make clear what they each mean). After a few minutes of discussion by these 20 small groups, the whole class reconvenes, and representatives from all of the groups show images and summarize the main points of their discussion. The students then vote on the best 5 presentations, in rank order.

  • How would students find and display these images large enough for the other four students to see? and then large enough for the whole class to see? 
  • How could a group of 5 hear one another amidst the road of all those other groups talking loudly enough to be heard? 
  • How could the chairs be rearranged quickly enough to break into small groups, and then to reconvene? 
  • How would the vote be conducted?
Because faculty never learned that way, and previously haven't taught that way, there's not much demand for new learning spaces to support this kind of flexible, image-intensive approach to discussion. The same thing is true of other teaching/learning activities that would be difficult or impossible in traditional facilities.

With no demand for change, expensive new learning spaces tend to be designed to support traditional teaching/learning activities. And, if the activities don't improve, neither do the outcomes.

So a requirement for effective evaluation of learning spaces is to first prepare the imagination of the people doing the evaluation. Make sure they have some idea of what could (become) easy before asking them how satisfied they are with a current learning space, or asking what they would like a new learning space to enable them to do.

I suggest that one way to do this is to pilot test new kinds of learning spaces with faculty most likely to take advantage of them. I don't mean expensive boutique spaces. Quite the contrary. I mean inexpensive new arrangements that could, if they became popular, be made available to many other faculty. For example, I'm pretty sure that the teaching-learning activity I described above could be carried out, online, with software already available to hundreds of institutions today. Once each new activity is piloted a few times, does it show signs of growing and evolving? Or does it fade? This kind of piloting of new teaching/learning activities is, I think, a crucial ingredient for the planning of renovated and new learning spaces.