Opinion: Reimagining traditional learning spaces


ARE TRADITIONAL lecture theatres and learning spaces getting the best from our teachers and students? Digital Learning Director at the University of Leeds, Dr Neil Morris, writes about how a new collaborative model is transforming the landscape.

All universities have large tiered lecture theatres.  They were designed in a time when didactic teaching was the preferred method of teaching and learning in higher education. They serve a purpose of mass education – a ‘one to many’ model where the teacher is the expert and the students are sat in rows absorbing information by writing down everything the teacher says.

Some will say that large lecture theatres can be used differently, and that you can engage learners in collaboration, interaction, discussion, problem-solving etc.

Learning spaces 2.0

Indeed, I have said this in the past – but largely through the use of digital technologies such as electronic voting handsets and social media, e.g. Twitter, to augment the physical learning space.

But you can’t overcome the physical constraints of these spaces – the rows of seats all facing forward, the lack of working space, the lack of reliable ubiquitous technology, the lack of audio projection from the audience… the list goes on.

Conclusion: Flipped learning is not possible in traditional large tiered lecture theatres. So, enter learning spaces 2.0.

Embed technology

A number of universities have re-configured tiered lecture theatres to allow collaborative working – see David Hopkins’ excellent blog on this for examples across the sector.

These are good spaces, and we looked at these when developing plans for our project, but I had particular aspirations to embed digital technology in these spaces to support flipped learning, which hasn’t been done before.

Meet our new collaborative digitally-enabled learning spaces.

The new Roger Stevens lecture theatre at the University of Leeds

The room pictured is in our Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre building which houses 25 tiered lecture theatres, and required Leeds City Council and English Heritage permission to be altered due to its Grade 2* listing.

This is one of three rooms we are launching this session – the other two are in Engineering and the Dental School, and have very similar formats.

For a more in-depth walk through of how the lecture theatre works for both teachers and students go to the full version of this blog.

Effective design

What do the teachers and students think of these new rooms?  Well that is one question I can’t answer – literally as I write the first room has been used for a real teaching session for the first time.

We will be evaluating the project in a variety of ways, including usage, in-room feedback systems, formal module evaluations etc., and the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence will be running a formal evaluation project over the coming year.  So watch this space for feedback on the success of this project.

I know the rooms will be extremely popular with students and I suspect that staff will warm to them over the coming year; I predict that in a couple of years they will be fully booked throughout the year and staff will be pushing us for more.