Monday, February 11, 2019

Learning to Teach in the New ANU Teaching Building

ANU Marie Reay Teaching Centre
Greetings from the Marie Reay Teaching Centre at the ANU Kambri complex, by lead architect Ninotschka Titchkosky of BVN, and constructed by Lendlease. The buildings opened in Canberra this morning. ANU Online, the central ed-tech unit, is running a series of workshops to teach the staff to use the new building for flipped and other forms of flexible learning.

In 2008 I gave my last lecture at ANU, having decided that more flexible forms of learning are needed. Since then I have been teaching online. But with the opening of the teaching center I have the facilities to go back into the classroom.

There is no point in spending millions of dollars on a new building with furniture on wheels, movable walls and flat floors,  and then use it for old fashioned "lectures". This requires "lecturers" come to terms with a different way of teaching. Also students need to understand that getting them to do things, is the essence of teaching.

The first workshop right now is by Dr Graeme Salter. We are sitting in one of the smaller rooms and Graeme is using some of the techniques he advocates, such as online polls to keep student attention, as part of the workshops. This is fun, with one participant saying they get students to imagine they are a tomato.

I have booked a room in the building to do flipped teaching in a few weeks time in a module on How to Write Job Application.

My first impressions of the building are good. This is a six story hi-tech wooden  building. The wooden beams are visible as part of the aesthetics of the building, along with wooden ceilings. There is an open staircase, with adjacent informal space for students, then classrooms around the outside. The classrooms have glass walls to the central areas, flat floors and retracting room dividers. The flip top tables are on wheels. This is a style of room previously best implemented at the University of Canberra Inspire Center

What I liked was that all the rooms in the Marie Reay Teaching Centre were rectangular, without any gimmicks. Many institutions install round, or oval shaped rooms, in an attempt to improve interaction, but these waste space and make it difficult to place desks and screens. Also institutions tend to want a tech-gimmick, just as a 3D room, or a giant ultra-high definition screen wall. These tend to be break, or are decommissioned after a few months, when the novelty wears off. 

The Marie Reay Teaching Centre is clearly aimed at flipped group learning. You could give a presentation, but there are no lecterns, to make it just that little bit more difficult to do so.

The wooden building doesn't look high tech, but the wifi, projectors, and sound reinforcement are all there and working. One thing to keep in mind is that all of the online resources of the institution are available in the classroom. So rather than finding some new online tools, those already available in the learning management system for students to use remotely, can be used live.in the classroom.

The only glitch so far is the display screen in the foyer has the image inverted. For a new building that is very good.

The classrooms have glass walls which gives a more open feel. But it may be a little distracting for the class when there are large number of people moving outside. The glass might need some more frosting, so the sense of openness is not lost, but there it is not like being in a fishbowl.

The classrooms could do with some small electronic screens on side and back walls, display what is on the main screens. Also the whiteboard on walls need some additional lighting. But these are minor matters.

I did question the decision to have the teaching rooms around the outside, and the informal spaces in the middle, without a direct view. But then I noticed the classrooms had been strategically placed, so the open areas get magnificent views across Canberra.

Walking past the new buildings I had a feeling of had been there before, although it just opened. Then I recalled walking the avenues at University of British Columbia,  Vancouver Campus, which I spent a week at l2015.

ANU has taken the approach with Kambri of retaining separate tiered lecture theatres and flat floor group work rooms. I spent several years trying to work out a design for a classroom combining the features of a lecture theatre and group work room. Early versions were limited by the need to accommodate power and data cables and, desktop computers. The advent of WiFi and portable devices removed those restrictions. Eventually I decided it was just not possible to reconcile the conflicting requirements, and better to have separate optimized rooms.

In 2015 I attended conferences in Hong Kong and Cambridge. Both of these were held in rooms with retractable tiered seating. A similar setup has now been installed in Kambri. This allows for a large lecture, or by retracting the seating, a large flat floor event.

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