An Overview of a New Active Learning Classroom

Almost three years ago my current employer, as part of a federal Title III grant, began renovating an old residence hall into new offices and classroom space.  Due to some physical restrictions in the space (into which I’ll get a bit further down), we ended up opting to have the large classroom space be our first active learning classroom on campus.  I thought it might be good to do this overview from the end to the beginning.  That way if you really just want to see the finished product, you can do that and get on with the rest of your day.

The Finished Room

Overview

Our new active learning classroom seats 72 people comfortably with a total capacity of 88.  With enough chairs we could probably squeeze 102 people in there, although at that point you wouldn’t be able to do anything other than lecture.  Each of the eight pods seats between eight and 14 people and has it’s own display that can show either instructor content or be used for group work.  The faculty station is in the middle of the room and has a blu-ray player (this is the first classroom to not have a VCR/DVD combo player in it), inputs for HDMI and VGA, options to connect wirelessly to the display system, and an iPad that does double duty as the control surface for the room and a wireless document camera.  Here’s a wide view of the room:

wide view of active learning classroom showing groups of tables and chairs with displays

The active learning classroom seats 72 comfortably (88 maximum) at eight pods with a faculty station in the center of the room.

The Faculty Station

The faculty station, as I mentioned, is in the middle of the room.  This was a somewhat intentional choice and somewhat driven by the particulars of the room.  Either way, it definitely forces both faculty and students to think about their roles and the ways physicality changes the way we interact with each other.  One of my favorite things about the faculty station is that it’s actually a standing desk.  We have four presets that should fit most any body type and allow faculty to sit and demonstrate things if they want.  And if the presets don’t work for someone, they can move the desk up and down in tenth of an inch increments.  Along with the blu-ray player, HDMI input, and VGA input, we needed to have a document camera, as we have some faculty who use them periodically.  We really didn’t want to give up desk space for something like that, so we found an inexpensive mounting base that allows an iPad to act as a document camera.  Since the base pivots, it also makes a handy stand for the iPad when it’s acting as the control surface for the room as well.

the faculty desk in the active learning classroom

The faculty station in the active learning classroom is located in the center of the room.

There are a total of four microphones in the system, although only two of them can be used at a time.  We have two lavaliere mics for faculty who don’t want to have something in their hands and two regular mics that can, if needed, be passed around the room.  The space is large enough that we recommend faculty use a mic, and we’ve leveled the sound such that it augments the faculty so that it feels like all the sound is coming from the faculty member rather than the walls.

The Pods

Because of the room shape, the pods are not all the same size.  Four of them seat 12 – 14 and four seat 6 – 8.  They are all the same functionally – each pod has a display and connections for VGA/HDMI as well as a wireless connection option.  All the tables are on wheels, although the table with the control panel is tethered to the wall.  And we have extra power at each pod (not in any pictures, as we added it later) so that every student can plug a device in.  So while technically you could rearrange the room, we suspect very few folks will actually do that, and it’s probably suboptimal to try.

one active learning pods with table, chairs, and display

Each pod seats between eight and 14 people and has a display that can show either faculty content or be used for group work.

Controlling the Room

We selected Extron to control all the displays and audio in the room.  From the faculty station you can either show content from the faculty station on all displays, have the students work in groups, or even show one group’s display to all the others.  The last option was a kind of expensive add on, but we really liked the idea that students could easily show their work to the whole class without having to do some song and dance at the faculty station.  Here are a couple of pictures of the control panel on the iPad.

We opted to do a simple and advanced screen just so that folks didn’t get overwhelmed.  The one draw back to this is that you can’t have one pod shown on all other pods from the simple interface.  So I’ve been encouraging faculty to just use the advanced panel even though it’s lots and lots of buttons.  If you’re really interested in the details of controlling the room, here’s a copy of our documentation (note that I am the hand model for all the demonstration photos).

The Genesis of the Project

OK, now that we mostly have the room tour out of the way, I figure some of you might be interested in how the room came to be.  As I mentioned in the beginning, there were some physical restrictions in the building that started us down this path – specifically the fact that the building has 7.5 foot ceilings on each floor.  One of the early drafts from the architect included a large classroom to seat 80 to 100 in a standard lecture hall format.  Given our experiences in classrooms with eight foot ceilings, we knew that between the limit to the size of a projected image and the people sitting in front of you that the back 75% of the classroom would not be able to see the screen at the front of the room.  So that was a non-starter.  We looked at hanging displays further back in the room, but with ceilings that short the displays would have ended up only five or so feet off the floor.  That was guaranteed to make the room feel very, very small, tight, and uncomfortable.

That’s when I finally grabbed my old drafting pencils (yes, I’m old enough that I only know how to draft with pencils and yes, I still have them) and started sketching.  While I liked the idea of round tables, the seating requirement of a minimum of 80 meant we couldn’t give up that much space to table tops.  In addition there was a desire to re-use as much furniture as possible from another location, and those were all rectangular tables.  So with those restrictions in mind we ended up with this design:

pencil layout drawing of active learning classroom

It was at this point we started talking to faculty.  I know.  That’s a bit backwards.  But in this case we had a physical challenge to solve in some way first before we could talk in any detail to the faculty.  So we showed them the space, explained the restrictions, and then talked about the solution we were proposing.  There were (and continue to be) some concerns about the inability to “lecture” in the room, but many faculty saw both the need for this to solve our problem as well as the possibilities.  To help alleviate as many of the concerns as we could, we partnered with our faculty center to develop a training program and perhaps even have a faculty fellow to work with faculty on the different pedagogical choices you might make in a space like this.  As you’ll see below, that continues to be one of our work in progress areas.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

Designing, building, and configuring a room like this has been both exceptionally exhilarating and very frustrating.  To close things out here are some of our challenges and lessons learned:

  • Build in plenty of time for shake out: No matter how much time you think you need to prepare faculty and finish testing the room, ask for twice that.  I had originally hoped we would have half a semester to shake out the bugs in the room, orient the faculty, and help them adjust their courses as needed.  We ended up having just over a week.  And I wish we would have had an entire semester.  To help with that, we are asking our registrar to not place anyone in this room without prior approval, and we’re asking faculty to go through a combo training/course development program (again, still a work in progress) before teaching in the space.  For our first semester, we’re basically doing this on the fly with the faculty in the room.  And we’re still working out some of the bugs as we go too.
  • Add power. Then add some more: In the original design, each pod had a couple of power outlets in with the control panel plus a few spare plugs on the wall.  After classes started we found out that one of the classes meets for 3+ hours and the students use their devices heavily (including for testing).  So we got some power towers online with 10 foot cords and placed them at each pod so that every seat now has access to at least one power outlet.  They don’t look as nice as I wish, but this summer we’re probably going to modify the tables slightly so that the cords can run under instead of on top of the tables.
  • Consider the furniture carefully: Due to budget constraints, we had to use some existing tables and get new ones to (mostly) match.  The tables we have are, unfortunately, not ideal for the space.  The legs are right at the edge of the tables, so it makes them hard to get together, and the head of table seating is very awkward.  The room will work fine, but I wish we could have had tables better suited for our seating and that were easier to tie tightly together (and uncouple and move when needed).
  • Don’t do the decision making in the order we did: I never, ever recommend you design a space and then go talk to the faculty, but in our case those were the cards we were dealt, and we made the best of the situation.  But I know in the end it will take longer to get more faculty on-board with this than if they were included earlier, and some of the faculty in the room now may end up disliking the experience.

Final Thoughts

This was a really interesting project that I think will have long term positive impacts at our institution.  We’re already starting to get some faculty asking about using the space, and we’ve even gotten some questions from administrative areas about using it for mini-retreats or smaller student orientation sessions.  We’re even doing our next board meeting in the room so the board members can see the space.  While there are certainly things I will do differently when we do the next one (and I’m really hoping there is a next one), over all the process and outcome were all we could’ve hoped for when we started.

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