January 11, 2007

Smashing the mould

Writing about web page http://education.independent.co.uk/higher/article2141963.ece

Not just breaking the mould, mind you: smashing it.  An article on learning spaces at Warwick in the Independent today talks about the Reinvention Studio and the Learning Grid:-

Do you fancy studying in a large space containing no table but, instead, a heated rubber floor on which you can loll, soft plastic squares on which you sit, a Le Corbusier reclining chair on which one person can lie, and a projector? This is what some students are doing at Warwick, Tony Blair's favourite university, and one that sees itself in the vanguard of innovation in teaching and learning.

Warwick has opened what it calls a Reinvention Centre, in which students are handed a laptop and a tablet and undertake research as part of the university's attempt to redesign teaching. The idea is to create a place where students can work together, think, talk, write and be scholarly, using all the latest technology - and at the same time free up their minds to be original.

Do the students have to hand the laptop and the tablet back again, I wonder?  Do they all get the same tablet or is there one each?

The article is equally complimentary about the Learning Grid:-

Warwick is unusual in that it has been rethinking its library spaces. Two years ago it opened the Learning Grid, a £1m futuristic space in which students can work either on their own or in groups. The Grid won the Jason Farradane Award in 2006, an international award for innovation in library services

I like the idea that the Grid is "futuristic".  It makes me think of sixties sci-fi movies, which is the look we should be aiming for in all our learning spaces, it seems to me: something like this, perhaps:-

UFO TV show

- 20 comments by 5 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Simon Harper

    I guess there’s little chance they’re going to hand the tablet back. Isn’t it more likely they’re going to swallow it straight away, washed down with a pint of purple ;-)

    11 Jan 2007, 17:32

  2. Why haven’t they mentioned the best thing about the learning grid? The simple fact you can eat and drink while studying on campus :)

    11 Jan 2007, 19:18

  3. John Dale

    Um, they did!

    So, it is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and students are able to use their mobile phones. They may also eat (cold food) in the Learning Grid and drink cold drinks but they are not allowed to sleep or drink alcohol there.

    In fact, we don’t have a rule which says only cold drinks. But other than that, it’s all true.

    11 Jan 2007, 21:55

  4. Mathew Mannion

    I was gonna say, the Thou Must Not Drinketh Hot Drinks commandment is made kinda redundant by selling (vastly overpriced) coffee just across the way…

    Ah, to be a student again.

    12 Jan 2007, 01:59

  5. Robert O'Toole

    Sensationalist journalism makes my job harder! Associating technology with terms like ‘smashing the mould’ actually has a negative effect. Most people don’t want their moulds smashed.

    To get beyond the early adopters to the less adventurous majority, gentle, incremental, and thoughtful development is required, along with friendly and reassuring language.

    That doesn’t mean that we can’t introduce new learning environments, like the Grid, just that we should avoid making crazy claims about them. The Grid is good because it already fits with the way in which many people want to work: sitting comfortably, chatting occasionaly, mingling in and out of social conversation, coffee or Coke within easy reach etc. It doesn’t need to be pitched as ‘the end of education as we know it’.

    Should I share my forthright opinions of journalists? Or would that be a bad career move?

    12 Jan 2007, 10:03

  6. John Dale

    It turns out that there’s also a Leader article in the same edition of the Independent discussing the same topic and mentioning Warwick once again:-

    The idea of a classroom without tables and chairs may seem ridiculous – an example of the sort of excesses that gave universities a bad name in the 1960s and 1970s. But, if it encourages students to become more involved and to get stuck into research, it is worth trying. However unlikely it may seem, some undergraduates prefer to tap away at their laptops sitting on the floor. The floor of Warwick’s Reinvention Centre has an inviting heated rubber floor, not to mention a Le Corbusier reclining chair. If this enables undergraduates to take control of their learning, well and good. It seems a far cry from the conventional lecture theatre or seminar room with the lecturer playing God and the undergraduates in the role of passive consumers.

    Actually, my reaction when I first looked into the Reinvention Centre is that a Corbusier recliner surrounded by dozens of low cushions is about as close to a lecturer playing God (or at least a Roman emperor) as you can get.

    12 Jan 2007, 16:45

  7. I was in the Reinvention Centre this morning for a lecture followed by a seminar.

    In the seminar students presented their individual mini-projects. They were very good. Better I fear than what I’ve done!

    Certainly the Reinvention Centre is far better than the pokey little room in which I have my other seminar (EO.21)

    12 Jan 2007, 18:18

  8. Thats what I get for not reading the article :S

    12 Jan 2007, 23:37

  9. Matthew

    Is there any evidence that having no chairs “encourages students to become more involved and to get stuck into research”?

    I’m pretty confident that my research would suffer if I no longer had a chair in my office.

    14 Jan 2007, 20:42

  10. I’m pretty confident that my research would suffer if I no longer had a chair in my office.

    But I bet you never feel the need to change the way your office is arranged.

    It’s not unusual for the optimal room arrangement for the people using a seminar room between 9-10 to be quite different from the optimum for the people using it from 10-11. Generally tables are not very useful for people listening to lecturers or participating in seminars, and they do make it difficult to re-arrange the seating plan.

    Of course the amount of research/praticals a department puts in its undergraduate degrees is quite another matter. I know someone who took 100% social theory at Warwick 30 years ago. The current view in the Sociology department is that is far too much.

    15 Jan 2007, 12:03

  11. Sara Lever

    Hmmn, the only time I looked into the reinvention centre and there were actually people having a lecture in there, they were sat on the floor using the long plastic benches as tables in which they were trying to right notes, but struggling cos they really needed chairs and tables in a traditional seminar type configuration. Rather like that scene in Men In Black, where Will Smith is sitting in a round chair trying to do an exam with a paper and no handy table…..just call me an old cynic.

    15 Jan 2007, 12:42

  12. Matthew

    Fundamentally the problem with the Reinvention Centre is twofold:

    1. They spent £140,000 turning a room with chairs in, into a room without chairs in.
    2. They go around forcing inane slogans (such as “negating the negation”) on everybody.

    These two facts mean that the place is widely regarded as ludicrous.

    Perhaps they really do do great stuff. But unfortunately points 1 and 2 have already decimated their credibility, so they’ll never get any credit for it even if they do.

    15 Jan 2007, 20:03

  13. Robert O'Toole

    Conversation oveheard in the Humanities elevator yesterday:

    English Dept Student 1: “You used the Reinvention Centre?”.
    English Dept Student 2: “Yeah, it was the best thing i’ve ever done”.

    It didn’t sound like irony, but I may now simply be too old to detect irony spoken by anyone under 21.

    17 Jan 2007, 12:03

  14. John Dale

    Hmm. So the place is widely regarded as ludicrous, and yet it was the best thing that at least one student has ever done. Curious.

    It is tempting, I think, to dismiss the idea of a non-traditional space – no tables, no chairs, unusual ambience – as being gimmicky or a waste of money. And if we were trying to convert all our small group teaching spaces to work in this way,then I think we’d be pretty stupid. But is it really the case that every seminar room needs to work in the traditional tables-and-chairs way? Might there not be some seminars which are run in less traditional ways? In which case a space which supports those seminars could be a good and useful thing, and something which those lecturers who want to exploit will seek out, and others will steer clear of. Sounds fine to me.

    18 Jan 2007, 17:18

  15. Robert O'Toole

    non-traditional space – no tables, no chairs, unusual ambience

    Actually that sounds very similar to one of our very popular seminar spaces, the area in the Arts Centre on the floor above the cafe. It does have chairs and tables, but of the size and shape puts the user very close to the ground. When I was a student (philosophy 91-93) we regularly used that area for seminars, including “formal” module seminars but also the kind of self-organised seminar that in philosophy is called a “reading group”. Such activities are essential to philosophy. That’s the kind of space that people often like to hold them in.

    The space is to some extent reconfigrable, which is necessary, as we wouldn’t know numbers in advance, or what kind of session it would be – sometimes they are very centred and focussed, sometimes they spin off into separate conversations.

    Designers of traditional seminar spaces seem to have no idea about this. All we get are classrooms, which is fine for a certain type of seminar – the kind of seminar in which people are presenting work and ideas that are closer to completion, requiring people to be focussed and ordered. I suppose that the Reinvention space is more concerned with the kinds of activity that help students to reach those results. These formative activities are, in my experience, more informal and less predicatable in how they use time and space.

    19 Jan 2007, 10:11

  16. Robert O'Toole

    Er, I mean philosophy 91-94 not 91-93. Obviously our “informal” activities had an effect on my long term memory. Either that or I spent the evening drinking sloe gin with Mr Stevens.

    19 Jan 2007, 10:13

  17. Robert O'Toole

    the place is widely regarded as ludicrous

    That’s a big nasty claim. Not the sort of thing you should say without evidence. Is there any evidence for it?

    Here’s my expericence of the Reinvention Centre. I recently worked with a group of History of Art students on a module that happens in the new space, as well as within the Learning Grid (for their independent activities). They seemed to be really excited and invigorated by the new way of working. So what you may ask, why should that matter?

    Have you ever experienced the phenomena known as the “seminar vaccum”? It’s common in the Arts. Get a group of students in a traditional seminar room, expecting them to have have formed cohesive expressible ideas on some specified topic (or to form them very quickly). One might imagine that smart young people would be able to just say coherent and relevant things. But often that doesn’t happen. Instead their self confidence is sucked into a great big black hole in the middle of the room, and crushed without mercy. Quite often the young teaching postgrad in charge of the session is equally crushed. There are always a few students who can say something intelligable about anything. Their the ones who end up dominating all of the seminars, and then go on to get firsts.

    Most people struggle to produce relevant expressible ideas, especially in subjects that demand a high level of original thinking alongside an ability to comprehend difficult texts. Putting them straight into a formal seminar setting ince a week, a setting that seems to exect the presentation of complete and coherent ideas, is the wrong approach. A better approach is to give them more comfortable, less demanding and more configurable spaces and events in which they can go through the process of bringing new ideas into being and working out how to express them. Accompany that with teaching them thinking, communication and study skills, and then you can expect them at some point to be able to go into a formal seminar room with well worked out arguments that they can express with confidence. The combination of the Reinvention Cantre, the Learning Grid and the formal seminar room mayt well prove to be very effective.

    That then is the real purpose of these informal and reconfigurable spaces.

    Interestingly, this is also an argument that I use to explain the role of Warwick Blogs in the research based learning process. It’s about the process of forming perspectives and new ideas. It’s about getting a chance to learn and practice the skills of original, critical, reflective and expermental writing. Often people tell me that Warwick Blogs has no academic use. They don’t see complete formal academic content. These people are missing the point. Just getting people to write, no matter what it is, is a big win.

    19 Jan 2007, 10:35

  18. Robert O'Toole

    Thankfully it’s also a space in which my woeful spelling doesn’t mater.

    19 Jan 2007, 10:45

  19. Matthew

    Not the sort of thing you should say without evidence. Is there any evidence for it?

    There is plenty of anecdotal evidence for it. No one I have spoken to on the subject has thought highly of the scheme. I don’t want to break any confidences, so won’t go into any detail, but the issue has cropped up at departmental meetings.

    In any event, I don’t substantially disagree with anything you say in your posts above. The objection is not with rearranging teaching spaces if it improves your teaching, the objection is with spending £140,000 on removing the chairs from a room, and then telling everybody that you’ve negated the negation.

    Btw, it amused me slightly to read your description of teaching in the Arts Centre, as I used to do sessions like that in the Surfers Bar (before it was expensively “reinvented”, of course).

    All we get are classrooms, which is fine for a certain type of seminar – the kind of seminar in which people are presenting work

    I think it is a real mistake to think that the only thing you can do in a classroom is present work to the class. Every day, in every school in Britain, teachers are creatively using classrooms to promote learning (often, incidentally, by rearranging the furniture). Are you really saying that university lecturers are incapable of doing the same? That view doesn’t say much for the quality of Warwick’s teaching staff.

    19 Jan 2007, 21:18

  20. Robert O'Toole

    No, it’s not the lecturers that are the problem, it’s the rooms. In the Humanities Building they are cramped and stuffed full with furniture. I’ve even taught in one with a disabled student who could barely get into the room.

    22 Jan 2007, 10:33

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