Learning environments: a review of some university classrooms

Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights. Madrid, Museo del Prado. Detail via @boschbot.

I have now been teaching at UBC for ten years. I’ve taught in 43 classrooms; some of them for more than one course, and some of them for courses that were in a different room for every class in a week. Another two will be added to the list in the coming academic year. It is time for some reviewing. Of these 45 rooms, nearly 65% (29) are or would be unsuitable for teaching languages, or indeed for teaching literature and culture in a more interactive integrated interpersonal human way.

Of the 52 classrooms in Arts / Buchanan and Swing Space that I’ve taught in and/or that would seat somewhere around 30-40 students, which is the usual class sizes that we’re looking at, 36 are inadequate and a further nine have iffy seating (small lecture theatres). That’s over 85%.

Four classrooms are a compromise. Adding them to the lecture-theatres—they should be placed in both categories as they’re an acceptable compromise—that’s 15, or 28%, that are acceptable.

Only three—nearly 6%—are comfortably fit for purpose. And that’s a fairly minimalist level of fitness, when you see the photos below. They’re not exactly what you’d call welcoming. Turning out the lights and putting on some music does help.

So: even with a generous (or lower) standard, 34% of Arts classrooms are suitable for teaching the several hundred language classes we offer every year, to several thousand students.

When looking at my classroom assignments for next year, I thought that it might be fun to have a look at other classrooms in the same buildings, to see if there were others that were better designed and equipped. And fun it was, albeit by a rather special or specialised definition of the word.

It was certainly revealing.

I. LESS THAN ONE WRITABLE BOARD, ON ONLY ONE WALL (24)

  • B 210, 211, 302, 304, 306, 309, 318
  • D 201, 204, 205, 207, 213, 216, 221, 228, 229, 301, 304, 307, 312, 313, 314, 316, 317
  • Some of these had a second board when I first taught there, but it was removed during “improvements.”
  • The one and only board is covered by the projector screen: at least 50% of the total area (seen from the point of view of anyone in the room except for the instructor). Once you account for other practicalities of usage, like not writing too close to the screen as otherwise students can’t see it, that removes at least 66% of the writable surface from use.
  • We tend to end up in these rooms because they have movable seating, of the kind that’s a chair with an attached flappy table that’s smaller than a standard sheet of paper, tablet, or laptop.
  • The use or need of writing on boards is often field-specific: e.gg. languages, logic, maths, physics, engineering. Classrooms should be equipped at a highest common denominator level, not lowest, so as to be flexible and adaptable, to be usable by the greatest number of faculty and courses in the widest range of academic fields.

Creative hacks, disruptions, and innovations to compensate? If using the marker-board in teaching, one has to use all the available space. While taking into account student sight-lines. This means two things: (1) Frequently erasing the board and writing afresh; I take photos of the board before erasing, and add them to class notes, posted on Canvas for students; students can of course also take their own photos of the board. (2) Writing right up to the top of the board.

When (as my excellent colleague SS point out) you add in that boards have been placed too high on the wall, their usability is further reduced. Writing at the top of the board is possible but tricky; it pulls on the neck muscles.

Here are two old photos from April 2017 that give you some idea of the board height problem. (These were taken in a GOOD classroom that was decently provisioned with boards.)

Bear in mind that I’m medium height for a woman (5’6” / 168 cm) and relatively flexible. Faculty, like other human beings, vary in flexibility and in height. Board usability is worse for shorter people.

This is an access issue.

A few years ago, writing on boards, especially above head-height, contributed to exacerbating an old injury (whiplash plus broken top right rib that set slightly off). A trapped nerve in the neck is painful and takes time to fix. Physiotherapy helped, and physiotherapists’ tips; for example, if I have to use the absolute top of the board, I try to remember to write left-handed. I erase the board left-handed. Strain on neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles is at least somewhat more evenly distributed this way. You might also see me sometimes doing a combination of physio exercises and standard warm-up / cool-down stretches after class. This is another reason, incidentally, for needing an hour’s break between classes. Now, I write on boards a lot (we’ll talk about other uses of boards in a moment, especially their usefulness to students in student-centred learning). I teach quite a lot: I’m teaching-stream faculty and usually teach three classes a term (winter session; one in the summer). I teach more, and use boards more, than would most research faculty in my department. While I might be more evenly distributing neck, shoulder, and back use: they’re still being used and worn down. Teaching faculty are at greater risk of physical wear and tear from board use.

This is a workplace health and safety issue. And access and accessibility.

Some of the Arts areas and courses that use boards the most in teaching are languages. These are also courses that tend to be taught by contingent or precarious workers, including graduate student TAs and sessional lecturers. These are the people in any given university who are the least likely to complain about their working conditions, for fear of repercussions. And these are also courses that are more likely to be taught by women, who are more likely, on average, to be shorter.

Board height combined with board covering is an access and equity issue.

But faculty aren’t the only people using boards in a classroom.

Dear UBC: what it this board-covering lunacy? It prioritises single medium static information. It assumes and prioritises PowerPoint, physically centred as the single communicative medium. An assumption—or rather, a presumption—it is arrogant and literally marginalises or erases other media, not to mention multiple simultaneous live natural human ones, the kinds that are done by real live human beings who do things in live motion in front of you, and invite you to join in; who weave long complex narrative and argumentative threads (remember, this is a university and we work with higher, advanced, and abstract ideas), which need space; who create magic as live improvisational performance with audience participation.

Magic. That is what a class is, and that’s part of what learning is. You actually see thought happen right in front of you, spun and woven out of thin air, the invisible made visible. It’s a miracle of transubstantiation. Can you get more magical is that? Sure, you could record it on video, but you wouldn’t capture and couldn’t replicate it. You have to be there. Teaching is like any other live creative performance art.

The extra boards aren’t just for the instructor.

That magic is co-created by students and instructor. Live audience participation isn’t just a gimmick for a virtuoso teacher to make their magic—and themself—look more brilliant.

The boards are also for students: for all of us in the room together engaged in the great adventure of learning. That also means students learning with one another, and from each other, and teaching the person who is teaching them. In a process that becomes a flow in which distinctions blur between teacher and taught, and such distinctions become absurd irrelevancies, as all are learners and learning.

English and French grammar offer a nice analogy about learning. These different approaches to spaces for learning are akin to the move from a transitive verb with a direct object (she teaches them: receiving passive learning) to a reflexive verb (she teaches herself, they teach themselves: responsible active learning) to a reciprocal verb (they teach one another: interactive). In older forms of French, the prefix entre– reinforces reciprocity and mutuality: ils s’entr’enseignent. Google that verb, and the main first examples of usage are from the late 16th to early 17th centuries and about Protestants teaching one another and learning from each other together, directly and networkily and in an equitable peer-to-peer open access questioning discursive way. As contrasted with that against which any kind of “protest” is “protesting”: an authoritative hierarchical doctrinaire orthodox catholicism, in which knowledge is controlled and mediated by a priesthood, with teaching going in one direction and learning in the other direction, unquestioning. (And before you ask: no, that kind of catholicism isn’t how knowledge, learning, and education worked in pre-Columbian Afro-Eurasia a.k.a. “the” Middle Ages, but that would be a tangent; I refer you to the work of scholar-colleagues like Irina Dumitrescu.)

That screen that obscures? It’s ridiculous.

It’s obscene. It’s a Victorian imperialist authoritarian approach to education. It has no place in this day or age, or indeed this place: UBC and the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.

It’s an outrage.

Worse, it’s a late capitalist dehumanisation of education. That obscurantist screen an exemplary case, translated into material reality, of mechanisation, instrumentalism, and commodification; it symbolises the reduction of humans, of knowledge, and of the living creative relationship between humans and knowledge. It’s not an innovation, other than in the corporate invasive and destructive abusage of the word that would be darkly witty if that whole NewSpeak weren’t so witlessly incapable of irony.

Whoever thought that this was a good idea has never taught (or taught well), never been to a well-taught class (I feel sorry for them if this is the case), lacks the ability to imagine either of these things (I sorrow for them, and rage against the people and areas of study or training that thus mutilated our board-coverers; while maintaining hope for their future healing through the magical power of education). Lacking in the imagination to see what using a board would be like from someone else’s point of view: faculty, students, any human being of a different height and/or flexibility from their own. But perhaps that’s what “disruptive agility” means?

Perhaps this was deliberate, just business as usual in The Inhumanities. Possibly evil? Perhaps this is just another instance of Arendt’s banality of evil. Or just banal unthinking. Perhaps the people who did this—because somewhere along the line actual individual persons are responsible—weren’t thinking sensitively, intelligently, hypothesising consequences and implications. Perhaps they weren’t thinking. Perhaps they didn’t care. Which of these “perhapses” is worst? Which is the least morally, politically, socially, and educationally repugnant?

A lack of boards is an impediment to active and interactive student-centred learning and to knowledge-centred, -making, -shaping, and -creating transformative learning. The space centres focus on the front of the class and on one single source of information. It assumes one direction of attention (and a passive one at that) and a single medium of communication. The room isn’t impossible, but it needs a lot of hacks to be made usable let alone a productive multiple mobile multimedia four-dimensional space that nurtures academic growth, so to speak, and that’s lively and hospitable and perhaps even enhances and enriches the student learning experience.

Don’t get me started on the colours, design, and interior decoration.

How would I fix this? Writable and wipeable surfaces on every wall, floor to ceiling. And in the corridors. In all teaching spaces and areas around them; turning a whole environment into an interactive learning space, not just limiting it to a small area of dictated narrow focus in a classroom. Not just the expensive augmented-reality glass version that also records everything inscribed on it: when I was at high school back in the 1980s, our art classrooms / studios / workspaces were painted with a kid-proof paint that could be washed off. I don’t know what the contemporary version is, but it could be worth while researching: not just through standard university and public institution suppliers, but using lateral thinking, like looking into suppliers for kindergartens?




This category includes the worst classroom design that I have ever seen in real life.

II. SWING SPACE: LESS THAN ONE WRITABLE BOARD, ON ONLY ONE WALL (12)

These classrooms were added to the pool of available rooms while Buchanan / Arts classrooms were being refurbished: electronics added or updated. We have a lot of surveys about our use of technology in our teaching; the word “technology” used in a limited way to refer to a set of digital tools and electronic devices purchased from external vendors by the university. I’m guessing that one reason for surveying is to create statistics to prove that the project was a success. Such things are of course fictions, and sometimes also sophisticated metafictions as a tasty treat if you’re really lucky. If only more people did Arts degrees—that is, in the literate qualitative end of the liberal arts and humanities—perhaps those creative juices could be deployed more constructively and usefully. But I digress.

  • 100% of the classrooms have inadequate board space.
  • However: every classroom where I taught in this building had at least one document camera, and some also had a movable traditional overhead projector.
  • SWNG 105, 106, 107, 109, 205, 207, 305, 307, 309, 405, 407, 409

SWNG rooms are long and narrow with little natural light. Barely more than a medieval arrow-slit. Too depressing to show you pictures. It would be irresponsible and needlessly cruel for me to do so; if in a meaningful life one aspires to do good, in its practical tempered lived experience it’s a more realistic ambition to learn the humility of avoiding hubris and aiming simply not to destroy, to do no harm, and to leave this place no worse than it was when one arrived. Treading lightly, conscientiously, carefully and caringly in these The Real Dark Ages.

So. In lieu of a picture of one of the rooms, here’s an example of exemplary intellectual and imaginative interaction in a multimedia multipurpose flexible workspace, one of whose purposes is learning, an integral part of which is the marginal: a mid-14th c. Occitan manuscript of the mid-13th c. scholar Bartolomeus Anglicus’s On the Properties of Things, an important and excellent book on, of, about, and for knowledge and learning.

III. WRITABLE BOARDS ON NEARLY TWO WALLS (4)

  • (including one board that’s mostly covered by the projector screen)
  • B 209, 303, 307, 308
  • Same comment as further up re. seating.





IV. WRITABLE BOARDS ON THREE WALLS (3)

  • B 141, 218, 310
  • The latter two also have movable seating; the former has standard (2’ x 4’?) tables, usually arranged in long rows with two students sat at each, lecture-style, but which can be moved around, put into squares, moved to the sides to create a performance space in the round, etc.



V. THE COMPROMISE: SMALL LECTURE THEATRES (9)

Problem: seating is fixed, and everyone’s movement is limited. I’ve taught languages in these kinds of rooms, and it’s manageable but you’ve got to be creative about using space, with everyone moving around more to the sides and the back row. This kind of space is still better than the first category.

  • B 208, 213, 215, 313, 315
  • D 217, 218, 219, 222

(a.k.a. document camera)

VI. SOME MORE ROOMS

A quick look around other buildings where I’ve taught. Ones that were very good are in bold and underlined, ones that were manageable (plenty of boards but fixed lecture-style seating) in bold.

IRVING K. BARBER LEARNING CENTRE

Awesome classrooms, though most are too small or too big for our purposes, or set up with a variation on fixed seating for debating or mock trials.

  • IBLC 185, 261
  • Space. Movable desks and chairs. Masses of boards. If you’re lucky, a kitchen corner too, so you can integrate some live action reflexive verbs, food preparation, etc. as task-based active learning.

ANTHROPOLOGY

One summer, I was teaching an intensive course in the afternoons and we ended up moving because the noise from summer-schools for visiting schoolchildren was too disruptive. It was appalling, next door and across the corridor and outside in the corridor. We moved outside as much as possible (into the Rose Garden to read poetry, for example) and then to a classroom far from Arts. I made a note of our lovely room so as to request it specifically for an end-of-term Festive Fayre Of Learning student poster presentation session in another course, for which it was perfect. The room was set up as a seminar room for about 20 students, though, so I can’t really count it here. It had boards on two full walls, windows on a third, and a divine view out into gardens.

CHEMISTRY

C 124: a very static amphitheatre though it had lovely wooden Jetsons-style chairs. A must-see on any architectural tour of mid-century high modernism; Fred Lasserre (Architecture, Art History & Visual Arts) used to have similar seating in its old ground-floor rooms before they were refurbished.

GEOGRAPHY

The first time that I taught in this building, it was only for one class because there was damp, mould, some light flooding, and a dramatic radiator that came to life and drowned out all attempts at intelligent audible life for a solid ten minutes. We moved elsewhere for the rest of term.

The second time was in GEOG 101, and it’s a good room with loads of boards. The desks are too tightly squeezed in the room to be movable, though chairs can be moved around for reconfiguration.

HENRY ANGUS (BUSINESS)

  • ANGU 235, 291, 295

Two really nice rooms along the lines of the floor-plan below, set up for working in pairs and small groups in which students look at each other and look around; and not just at me, a screen, or an electronic device right in front of them. No blank walls: screens EVERYWHERE and EVERYTHING (and everyone) can move. (Or sit still. That, too, is important.) So that students can be working severally: immediately in front of them, with one another, moving around groups, writing on boards. If you were to do eye-tracking and track physical movement and interactions in a class that makes good use of this space, you’d have a complex map with moving points and vectors in lots of directions. It would be a proper relational network.

This is learning-centred learning. It’s a sustainable ecosystem, rather than a simple vertical power structure with one ego at the top and based in relations—rather than relationships—of dominance and subservience, activity and passivity, imposing and receiving. Learning-centred learning isn’t patronising or patriarchal, not hegemonic or colonialist. This is decolonising education. It is flexible. It is fluid. It is flipped: centre and margins have flipped, and then some. Power hasn’t just moved to the previously powerless and vertical command-structure hierarchies aren’t just turned upside down; the latter are turned inside out, and the very idea of power is transcended. Instead: sharing, mutual aid, open access to knowledge, radical hospitality, respectful inclusive collaboration. At the same time, it’s still also what I’d call knowledge-centred learning: these ideal classrooms look decentralised because there is no longer a fixed static visible centre, what was a centre is now dispersed in that invisible network that is the knowledge being shared, made, reshaped, innovated, and continued. The idea of “learning-centred learning” includes knowledge in its centre—one sense of “learning”—and a simultaneous apparent decentralisation: dislocated, translated, transubstantiated, a “learning” that is an invisible active living process in motion.

These classrooms are full rich learning environments. They go beyond resistance from the margins. This is revolutionary marginalism.

It was heartening to see that a university’s most innovative classrooms are in the business school. Most of the rooms in this building are, however, unsuitable for courses in the literate humanities. They tend to be lecture-style fixed seating, directing the assembled gaze onto the sage on the stage. And then there’s this curious creature:

Unsustainability: anthropocene, capitalocene, cthulhucene, paedophagocene.

MATHEMATICS

I love maths classrooms. THEY HAVE BOARDS EVERYWHERE. And boards behind boards. Board heaven.

  • MATH 104, 202, 203, 204 (202-203 aren’t accessible)

NEVILLE SCARFE (EDUCATION)

I’ve taught in a couple of nice rooms here that had 2+ walls of boards, a pleasant atmosphere, and really good lighting.

  • SCRF 200, 201, 203, 204, 206, 1004, 1328

[UPDATED TO ADD] ORCHARD COMMONS

  • ORCH 3018, 4018

My friend and colleague the marvellous Dr Brianne Orr tells me that Orchard Commons has brilliant classrooms. I haven’t taught there, but they look perfect.

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NON-EXISTENT PLACES

The following have been rebuilt or are under reconstruction:

  • HEBB 13: fixed seating, insufficient boards. The Hebb seismic upgrade and redesign is worth reading about, and one of the better examples of learning spaces being redesigned in collaboration with faculty as the most relevant people concerned, as the space’s immediate active users, and as experts in the specific fields and the implications of their specificities for teaching and learning.
  • HENN 304 (Chemistry): one of the first rooms I taught in here, in autumn 2009. Epic. Back then, it had lots of chalkboards but no projector. I had to get to the building early, go down to the basement to see a man, and he’d let me borrow a projector. This needed to be carefully balanced on a chair on top of a table that had been moved out of the table-row arrangement so as to project an image onto the screen. This blocked the view of about a third of the class. The screen had a cord that was too short and that had a habit of getting caught on the top of the upper board, requiring yours truly to climb on a chair on top of another table to retrieve it. I’d then return the classroom to its prior state (trying neither to cut the class short nor to end it late) and return the equipment to its subterranean guardian. Here is what the room looks like now: there have been some improvements.

  • LASR 102, 104: midcentury classics. I mourn for the glorious old lecture theatres, which had more height and space, and made an instructor look small—you really had to dance around—dwarfed by ALL OF THE KNOWLEDGE on the multiple boards behind you. Rooms focussed and focussing attention on the knowledge itself, in knowledge-centred learning. The new seating gives more table room for working, but while the seats turn they’re no more movable. But the rooms are so characterless, sterile, flat, and dead.

  • LASR 105, the room in which I last taught in this building, had a weirdly low ceiling and odd acoustics; it could feel like a cave, which was cool in its own way. Its renovation has added MASSIVE boardage, and screens, and a document camera, and options for how you use that space and that can also be using more than one technology, tool, or technique at a time.

  • LASR renovations did also add this lovely thing:

VII. DEUS EX MACHINA

Insofar as there is any evidence of any discernible “design” let alone a deliberate, intelligent one: most UBC Arts classrooms, and most classrooms that are used for teaching languages and literature, are designed contrary to UBC’s own Learning Space Planning Design Guidelines (2018).

Continuing our Protestant, questioning, lifelong-learning thread of earlier: one wonders how much that cost. The exercise was in partnership with an external private consulting firm, whose selection and contracting presumably was on the basis of expertise and experience and went through transparent accountable public procurement. One wonders what if any the consultation was with faculty. Noting with interest some Phrasing such as this, straight out my favourite Anti-Protestant Bible, The Project Management Handbook:

The Planning Team will act to balance the interests of the University with the interests of the Client (i.e., faculty, department, or program) and provide direction to the design team.

(1.3.2, p. 3)

No faculty or indeed other member of the university would surely have let that pass, given that faculty ARE The University: UBC is a corporation (but not a business corporation / corporate business, that’s different: University Act 3 (4)) “composed of a chancellor, a convocation, a board, an Okanagan senate, a Vancouver senate, a council and faculties” (University Act 3 (2.1)). In international terms, a university is a body corporate of its members: faculty (including emeriti) and students (including alumni). In UBC’s terms, some of that idea translates to its Convocation and Senate. Faculties are a jurisprudential weak link. Faculty ARE NOT a “Client” of or in any other way separate from “the University.” Sections of the text such as this read as standard consultancy preambulatory boilerplate*. They should have been removed or amended by the University, this document being a university document and the project being, de facto if not de jure, a public-private partnership.

That having been said, and such quibbling trifling digressions aside, let’s return to the main issue. Most of the Guidelines are eminently sensible. From the point of view of someone with extensive experience teaching and learning, they’re sound. They’re not over-the-top or luxurious. They’re feasible. They don’t involve throwing lots of money at faddy frivolous gadgets. Sustainability, flexibility, and wellbeing are highlighted. A lot of work and care has gone into these guidelines: people’s time and energy. It would be a shame if that has been wasted. A waste of money, sure, but more worryingly a wanton cavalier waste of human resources accompanied by a disrespect for them.

So why haven’t they been put into practice? And why did a recent renovation of Arts / Buchanan classrooms remove features—multiple boards—that are specifically mentioned in the excerpts here below, when the opposite could and should have been done?

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RELATED

Image credits (memes and labelled images aside):

 

* On (pseudo-)consultation, its often troubling relationship with or perception as being replaceable by consultancy, and other con-words: see further in posts tagged “the c-word.” Here’s another recent example, via the BBC. It’s not nice, it doesn’t look good, and it damages one’s image and b***d.

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