In 2003, I came to the UT Libraries with a passion for teaching students to think critically about information. Informed by the literature and best practices in information literacy instruction, I was ready to work with my classes as a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage, facilitating peer-to-peer learning and incorporating active learning into class plans. I hadn’t thought about how the physical spaces in which I taught could help or hinder my teaching approaches. And then I walked into our library classroom—row after row of tables, all facing front. Each had its own computer with a giant monitor. I had a little space at the front to stand behind an instructor lectern and in front of a large projection screen. Even though the room was designed for individual work and lecture, I was determined to stick to my preferred approach to teaching. So I did my best, having students work in groups by talking down rows at each other; coaching students by crouching down between workstations; and walking around in the limited space available in the aisles rather than standing at the front.
So even on those less than ideal teaching days when I’m feeling tired or uninspired, or in those situations when my students are unnervingly quiet, I have to stay committed to the kind of teaching the rooms were designed to accommodate.
Over the years, my colleagues and I made incremental improvements to our existing classrooms. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I was able to design brand new teaching spaces for the Libraries as part of the PCL Learning Commons. I had a lot of ideas about what not to do and a lot of information about unmet needs. I explored projects at other universities (SCALE-UP at NCSU, Active Learning Classrooms at UMN and others), read a lot and talked to my colleagues around the country who were thinking about these same issues.
Then we got to work and in Fall 2015, the PCL Learning Commons opened with four Learning Labs. Each Learning Lab has tables, chairs and instructor podiums on casters designed to be easy to move into any configuration. There are no fixed computers, but instead instructors wheel in a cart of laptops for use during the class. At least three walls in each Learning Lab have displays (flat panels and/or screens) so that there is no designated front of the room. AirMedia lets students easily connect their laptops to the displays and collaborate in groups. This technology also allows instructors to share their own laptop screen around to all the displays, or share a student’s screen around, facilitating peer-to-peer and active learning. We used a lot of glass to make the teaching and learning happening in the Libraries obvious, contributing to the feeling of a vibrant and engaged community of learners.
It was both exciting and nerve-wracking to begin teaching in the Learning Labs. It felt risky to rely almost exclusively on wireless, but it has worked out quite well. Having all the furniture on wheels, including the instructor podium, means you never know what the room will look like when you get there. And while teaching in rooms like this facilitates the kind of teaching many of us want to do, it also makes that kind of teaching required. So even on those less than ideal teaching days when I’m feeling tired or uninspired, or in those situations when my students are unnervingly quiet, I have to stay committed to the kind of teaching the rooms were designed to accommodate. Lecturing in a room like that doesn’t work.
While the Learning Labs are busy serving the dual purpose of teaching space for Libraries staff and Learning Commons partners, and open collaborative study space for students, it is important to us to extend their use to faculty who want to experiment with their teaching in ways traditional classrooms make difficult. Faculty can request a Learning Lab for up to two times per semester and librarians are available to work with them to design class sessions and assignments that take full advantage of the technology. Anyone can also stop by the entry level of PCL, which is open 24/5, to check out the Learning Labs in person or contact me with any questions.
Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning Services, University of Texas Libraries
Michele’s research interests are information literacy and critical thinking about information to include assessing student learning.