Monday, May 21, 2012

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?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Thanks to the generosity (via Twitter) of my colleague Andrew Asher (@aasher), I was alerted to the existence of Pierre Bourdieu's 1965 ethnography of French undergraduate university student behavior, Academic Discourses, including an essay entitled, "The Users of Lille University Library" (co-authored with Monique de Saint Martin).  In 1964, over 800 questionnaires were distributed to and filled out by students "from the sociology group in the Faculty of Arts at Lilles (p.132)," and the answers were then tallied and analyzed by Bordieu and his co-author.

What is most amazing to me (after the discovery that library ethnography has its roots not just in design ethnography, but also in the work of such a practitioner as Bourdieu!) is that the concerns expressed about undergraduate academic behavior appear to have changed not at all, not after over 40 years have passed, not in the transition from French academia to that of the US.  Bourdieu and his colleague asked questions about where the students lived, whether or not they were employed, where they prefer to study, what their favorite part of the library is--all of these questions are familiar to those of us doing library ethnography today.  He worries about their lack of attention to librarians:  "Students reject working through a librarian, rarely asking for assistance. 'It is very difficult,' a librarian says; 'there is a door to go through, they don't know, they dare not.' (p.132)"

 He says that students don't work in the library, because it does not suit their needs:  "Students in their great majority do nothing at the Library which they cannot do as well or better at home because, by unanimous consent, the Library is an unfavourable site for scholarly reflection (p.123)"  He goes on to say that "...most users of the Library only appear to be working rather than actually getting anything done (p.123)."  He does acknowledge that "students ...seem to want something from the Library which they cannot find at home, whether this is the real or imaginary encouragement to study induced by the 'atmosphere' of the Library or the psychological gratifications of contact with their peers, known or unknown, or a vague expectation of making these contacts (p.123)."

Bourdieu points out (with not a little dismay, I think) that "students misrecognize the particular function of the Library and more often treat it as a meeting-place or at best a study area. (p.123)."

He says that like it's a bad thing.

The work of academia that Bourdieu clearly hoped to see in the Library (reading, thinking) was actually, according to students, being done in spaces such as cafes, bedrooms, even on walks, "in circumstances where other, non-studious activities can be fit in (124)."

There are some interesting gendered observations he makes at the end--young women at the university saw the Library as a "beehive," whose activity both fostered and also got in the way of their getting work done, while men saw it as more of a "monastary," quiet and occasionally oppressively quiet.  Those differing views of the library are no longer easily assigned to particular gender identities, but do represent different poles of perspective on problematic spaces in the library.

In short, Bourdieu was confronted with students who were uncomfortable working in the library, who preferred to do their academic work where they were comfortable.  The students went to the library if their professors insisted (frequently to check out or refer to a book).  Their presence in the library had as much social as it did academic purpose.  Some students who did go to the library got things done, but also struggled to achieve balance between academic work and leisure time.

We have worked hard at UNC Charlotte to make the library a welcoming space that meets a wide variety of student needs, but there is still much work to be done.  Anxieties about whether or not students are getting to all of the resources they need to be successful also persist.

On the face of it, we are still grappling with much the same issues that Bourdieu and his colleagues described in the mid-1960s.

Bourdieu, P. (1994[1964]). Academic discourse: Linguistic misunderstanding and professorial power. Stanford, Calif: Stanford Univ. Press.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

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.