Access Digital and Distributed Learning

Making flipped learning possible by reimagining traditional tiered lecture theatres

Posted on: 13 Feb 2017 | Views: 1105

Some will say that large lecture theatres can be used differently, and that you can engage learners in collaboration, interaction, discussion, problem-solving etc. Indeed, I have said this in the past – but largely through the use of digital technologies such as electronic voting handsets and social media (e.g. Twitter) to augment the physical learning space. But you can’t overcome the physical constraints of these spaces – the rows of seats all facing forward, the lack of working space, the lack of reliable ubiquitous technology, the lack of audio projection from the audience… the list goes on.

Conclusion: Flipped learning is not possible in traditional large tiered lecture theatres.

So, enter learning spaces 2.0. A number of universities have re-configured tiered lecture theatres to allow collaborative working – see David Hopkins’ excellent blog for examples across the sector. These are good spaces, and we looked at these when developing plans for our project, but I had particular aspirations to embed digital technology in these spaces to support flipped learning, which hasn’t been done before.

Meet our new collaborative digitally-enabled learning spaces.

The room pictured is in our Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre building which houses 25 tiered lecture theatres. This is one of three such rooms we have launched this session.

Let me take you on a tour of the room, its functionality and its intended use. Firstly, the physical space. The immediate challenge of re-configuring a tiered lecture theatre is the ‘rake’ – we converted the floor into a series of levels, with multiple groups of students working on each level (including wheelchair users). This arrangement maintains the tiered nature of the room, so that all users have good ‘line of sight’ to the front of the room, whilst providing space for groups of seats. The next challenge is maintaining the occupancy levels for the room – inevitably occupancy is reduced when you re-design these rooms – rows of seats is the most efficient use of space, and any other configuration will reduce space, but we have managed to only lose around 10-30% of seats, which I believe is an acceptable compromise for the benefits we have gained.

The layout of the furniture is similar to this style of rooms at other universities. Our architects designed ‘pods’ where 5 students would sit together around a trapezoid shaped desk, with all seats facing the front and the group. This arrangement allows the flexibility of students working in a group, but also able to focus on activity at the front of the room. Each of the desks is equipped with the following: Internet enabled touchscreen hybrid laptop, ‘touch to talk’ desk microphone, built in speaker, spotlight, HDMI input, USB charging and power.

The touchscreen laptop is fixed by a security cable that is long enough to reach all members of the group, and it has a neat storage compartment at the back of the desk. Users can login with their university credentials, and it has the normal student desktop image so they can access any of our systems. So students can look things up, take notes, access resources/activities in the VLE, surf the web, share content with each other and do all the things you would normally do with a laptop. The person at the front of the room can project from any of the laptops in the room using the AV control panel; in fact they can project two at once, as there is dual projection in all rooms (and this will be captured by our lecture capture system as it has multiple video inputs). So, if students are working on an activity in groups during the session, their work can be displayed to the whole group at a touch of a button, for discussion / questions etc.

From the teachers’ perspective, these rooms are dual purpose; they can still be used perfectly well for didactic delivery – the teacher could come in, load their PowerPoint on the lectern PC, fire up the projector and talk for 50 minutes. However, they also have a range of other options to enrich the learning experience for their students.

The front of the room has a lectern based PC, a control panel, lecture capture camera (fixed on back wall of the room), lecture capture recording light and pause button, visualiser, a blu-ray player, a lapel microphone, a very large height and tilt-adjustable digital whiteboard with SMART software, dual projectors and a presentation wall. There is no whiteboard or blackboard and no whiteboard pens or chalk.

The digital whiteboards are huge (45” - 55”), and they have a large stylus (whiteboard pen sized). They are mounted on an adjustable stand which moves up and down (via remote control) and from fully horizontal to full vertical. You can easily find a comfortable writing position and they are an excellent replacement for the traditional whiteboard. Ok, so they are very large, have an adjustable angle and use a pen… the only benefit so far over the traditional whiteboard is the adjustable angle. What are the other benefits that outweigh the strong push to keep traditional whiteboard in these rooms? The teacher is facing the audience whilst writing, the content is captured as video (25fps) by the lecture capture system, the content can be zoomed, the content doesn’t have to be deleted when the board is full, and the software has a massive range of other tools / gadgets.

Dr. Lee Edwards, Associate Professor, Communication Studies and PR, School of Media and Communication, held the first teaching session in the new Roger Stevens lecture theatre and commented: “The interactive technologies, intuitive control panels and touch screen make integrating technology into teaching a more interesting and rewarding experience for everyone. Students can access the VLE at their desks, use their interactive whiteboards to write and share work as a group, and their input can easily be integrated into the teaching process through the dual display system. It means I can create a learning environment that is varied and engaging, using different tools to help students develop and reflect on knowledge in new ways.”

It is really exciting to see these new spaces come to life – they are truly sector-leading innovative learning spaces that combine the best use of space and digital technology to offer a collaborative and interactive learning experience. I know the rooms will be extremely popular with students and I suspect that staff will warm to them over the coming year; I predict that in a couple of years they will be fully booked throughout the year and staff will be pushing us for more.