The Waiting Room
Yesterday morning I sat in a waiting room for a routine blood test as part of my check-up. The room was crowded, warm, staffed by unsympathetic people who treated the patients like things they had to do, refusing to move clipboards (used to distinguish those with appointments from those without) from one window to another, instead forcing the patients to go to the other window. There were no plants or life in the room, just bad paintings of flowers at their peak. Amid the occasional thumping hum of some machine behind the wall, people sat silently, all hiding in books, knitting, or their electronic devices. The only smile was a woman in a poster hanging on the wall, smugly inviting you to make an appointment next time. The display with the comments cards (“Your Opinion Matters to Us”) didn’t have any cards. Every time someone left, which they did with alacrity, the door automatically slammed behind them.
That place didn’t have to be so horrible. The control was held by the women behind the desk. They determined the tone in an already oppressive setting, and everyone else just shut down in response. Since I’m not the kind of person who could add my sunny disposition to this setting (I wanted to either scream or say “god, isn’t this awful?” to everyone), I shut down too.
Now, I admit, the waiting room of a phlebotomy lab is not supposed to be a learning environment, but I couldn’t help wondering, “wow, do students see my classroom like that? a sterile, unwelcoming environment with dragons in control?” We were all utterly dependent on a system over which we had little control, and we knew it. So then I come home and see these pictures posted by Bob Bell in the Moodle forum this week, with the photo of students in a 19th century classroom juxtaposed with one of students facing the presenter in today’s classroom.
That’s when it occurred to me: it’s ALL environment, the environment created by the setting and the people within it. Teaching is environmental engineering. I joke with my students when we move the chairs, that after class we have to put them back in the “standard” position, all facing the front. It chafes that my “presentation screen” is stuck at the front of the room; only students with laptops have internet access, and they are facing me so I can’t see what they see. Everything about the way our classrooms are structured encourages presentation and passivity. Wonder what would happen if we all came in one day and the desks were gone, replaced with pillows and decorative rugs on the carpet, colorful cloth walls and a plate of couscous for sharing? We’d do different things, I bet.
When I enrolled in this class, I was seeking that kind of unusual learning space. Self-directed learning? engineer your own environment? learn from such cool dudes whose work I respect so very much? I’m in.
We come to this class, where I just know things will be different. And they have been. But a couple of environmental elements have reasserted themselves anyway.
One is in the synchronous meetings. I hoped the live sessions would be highly interactive, and I’m sure our instructors did too. But the focus is always on some sort of presentation, the lecture mode, but with backchannel chat and questions. Our instructors and their guests present, with slides they control. We listen, and are invited to comment with open microphones, but we students do not set the subjects for discussion and it’s hard to take the lead.
Another aspect of the traditional environment is text depedence. An image (as we see above) can show a lot, but I have seen them used only rarely on the blogs and in the forums. In presentations, most of the slides are text based. The videos we have in the “readings” are all presentations, watching people stand and talk, or talk with slides with text. Even the CMaps (visuals!) are have been text, connected with arrows that have text in the middle. (This is in the interest of the explanatory text inside the arrows, and the alternative would be a mindmap, where we could have images. But a mind map, we learned, isn’t a concept map, so it would be very difficult to create a concept map based on multimedia instead of text.) When we join synchronously, the Elluminate whiteboard or Ustream window is too often blank, and only the moderators can access them. By the time a multi-window environment seemed accessible in the October 31 Ustream session, no one outside the moderators were accustomed to the possibility of entering the conversation as full video and audio participants. After awhile, I just wanna say “show me!”:
Some of this, of course, is technological. We can’t really have everyone together, on video, on one screen, promoting a sense of group equality. Or get Elluminate to truly allow more than one microphone open without echoing (I know it says up to 10, but it just ain’t so). I can bring my comfy pillows, but there’s nowhere to put them. The multimedia experiences happen outside the class (Second Life, creative slideshows or videos) and must be brought into the “room” somehow, so it’s awkward, especially since there isn’t really a central room, in the interest of decentralization, although The Daily had to be manufactured anyway to help fill that gap.
Next time around, maybe the technology will have moved forward, and be used in such a way as to create a playground inside a classroom. Maybe RSS feeds will somehow be visual as well as textual. Maybe there will be more equal participation, not just in the freedom to post and say what you want, but in encouragement of interactivity via more than blogs and forums (post/respond). Open class meetings where everyone attending is expected to bring something for show and tell. Central course pages that can be created by the students, with us adding feeds and media ourselves to the “main” classroom (I never got the feeling we were supposed to touch the wiki). And for the grading, way more emphasis on the participation/community aspect (now worth 10%), and less on formal papers and concept maps (now worth 50%).
As you’ve seen, I’m not very good at knitting silently, nor do I wish to complain — I’ve learned amazing things in this class so far! And I hope our instructors will take my critique in the spirit it is intended. If not, I’ll go to the other window to sign the clipboard. ;-)