Education is a Contact Sport

Our next post is by guest contributor, Jason Downs, an academic from the Business College at RMIT University. Jason has kindly shared a post from his own blog ‘Education is a Contact Sport‘ which was published in March 2012.

Jason Downs

So, last night I ran my first tutorial in the prototype project space in room 108.08.22. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you about the ‘good and the bad’ of teaching in a new space and how (or if) I am going to change my teaching practises as a result of being in it.

But first, some background:

RMIT have invested about $250m in building a brand new, state-of-the-art facility to house the College of Business. I’m going on a tour of the building next week, so I’ll be able to report more then, but by all accounts it’s pretty cool. Certainly the outside looks futuristic… 

SAB (© Jason Downs)

One of the things I’m looking forward to is teaching in new spaces that have been designed to help students learn in a manner that will support collaboration, interaction and conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I like to hear the sound of my own voice as much as the next lecturer, and when I went through Uni I never felt I was an equal participant in the learning process; mostly I felt I was being lectured *at* or taught *to*. That model of education was pretty common back in the day and it mostly forms my experiential knowledge of Uni teaching practises (sad, I know). So deliberately trying something new and letting go of the ‘control’ of the class and taking more of a facilitation role than a didactic speaking role is going to be a new experience for me. Should be a whole bunch of fun.The building has a mix of spaces including those that are described by phrases like: lectorial space; project space; conversation space; discursive theatre; interactive tutorial space; small business space; virtual enterprise space; enterprise and entrepreneurship room; virtual advertising agency; treasury training room; interactive lecture spaces… Some of these spaces are configured for class sizes of about 30 students, others are configured for up to 300 students. In some the furniture is total removable; in others it’s fixed to the floors but designed to be used in such a way that small groups can be formed out of much larger populations of students.

Inside #Eight22 (© Jason Downs)

The Project Space that RMIT have built in our old building to give us a feel for what to expect (which I’m calling #Eight22 after it’s room number), consists of 5 ‘pods’ around each of which six students can comfortably sit. Each pod is triangular in shape which means that the students sit facing each other. This naturally encourages interaction between each student within each pod. The good about this: last night was the first time that the students had met each other and they were going to have to work in groups for one of their assignments. Getting to know each other was easy when they could all sit and face each other rather than all lined up in rows like in a ‘traditional’ tutorial space. A great start.

Each pod has its own large screen and a traditional whiteboard. The theory is that eventually, students will be able to use super flash, new, wireless software to project straight from their laptops to the screens. Each pod can control their own screen and hook up any student’s laptop (or tablet or whatever) and the facilitator can elect to share any screen with all the other pods, or just some, or any combination thereof. Imagine, 30 students all working on their digital devices trying to solve a problem individually, then coming together as a group to debate the best solution by projecting it to a screen and further refining their ideas, then once they have decided, being able to share their solution with the rest of the class. Awesome. Count me in.

While this might be what we can expect, the space is so brand new that the tech hasn’t been installed yet (I’m told it’s coming REALLY SOON). So last night all I could do was project my slides up onto each screen. The good about this: the students are close to the screens and so they can see the slides easily. The bad about this: it still encourages this idea of the teacher being in control of the ‘knowledge’ and projecting it *at* the students who sit there passively (even if they are closer) to ‘receive’ my slides. Not very progressive.

And then there is still the fact that the facilitator gets to elect which screens to share with the rest of the class. I’m still a bit fuzzy on whether the STUDENTS can elect to project their stuff to other students (either via the screens or directly over the wireless network) so the move from teacher centric to student centric might still take a bit of extra effort from the teacher. If I really want to transform my teaching praxis, habits will need to be broken; control will need to be given over. That will be interesting.

So in summary: I liked it. The promise of what can be done in that space is great, and I love that there is plenty of space to get the students up and moving around. They can easily position themselves in front of any whiteboard, any screen, any pod, any student. My aim is to reduce the amount of time that I spend talking at the students and increase the amount of time I spend talking with them. I’ll have to re-think the way I create my slides (or even if I am going to use them at all) and start to think about teaching as a series of triggers to facilitate discussion based on theory, application, critical analysis and shared experience of the learning process. I know I should have been doing this already, but this space really lends itself to doing that sort of thing. I’m glad I’ve been given the opportunity to teach in it.

What do the students think? Well, it’s still early days, but one of my favourite questions from a student when he walked in was: “Where’s the front of the room?” My answer: “Wherever you sit”.

He smiled.

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