Research in Wallenberg Hall

4. The Experience of Teaching and Learning in Wallenberg Hall

January 2007

In this section of the report, we will consider the experience of teaching and learning in Wallenberg Hall, drawing largely on 14 interviews with 15 professors and lectures who taught in Wallenberg Hall (two people who co-taught a course were interviewed simultaneously). The interviews were conducted shortly after they finished teaching their class. The interviews were transcribed and coded by topic.

4.a Overall impressions of Wallenberg Hall

Teachers strongly prefer Wallenberg Hall to alternative spaces elsewhere at Stanford. All 31 passages (from 11 interviews) that were coded as making an explicit comparison between teaching spaces in Wallenberg Hall and other teaching spaces indicated that Wallenberg Hall was preferred to the alternative learning space. This unanimity is surprising because interviewees freely discussed the shortcomings of the learning spaces in Wallenberg Hall (see below). This result may be an artifact of the interviewing process, but it is nonetheless an encouraging result. One teacher said, “It is such a leap ahead just to have... just consistency, just cleanliness and, you know, relatively recent upgrades.” Another described the experience of trying something new: “I would have never been able to do it in another room and I did it only because I was sitting here and the machines were sitting here and I said, let's see what I can do with this.” Yet another contrasted her experience with support in other spaces, “I mean everybody here has actually been really helpful. I mean that—that's been a big plus actually because a lot of other places they are reluctant, ‘Oh, you want projector?’”

This is not to say that instructors found no fault with Wallenberg Hall. The aspects that faculty criticized are quite diverse. Most of the problems mentioned fall into other categories as well. A arbitrary sample gives a flavor of these comments: lack of storage space, “everybody comes in with backpacks full of stuff and they plunk it down on the floor or they put it on the table and then there is no place to work”; difficulty hearing in the Wallenberg Learning Theater, “the downside of the space is that the acoustics aren't—you don't have an intimate feeling when you're in here... because the sound just goes away”; the look of the rooms, “I would like to see the classrooms be less white on white”; placement of outlets, “that box in the hole in the floor shouldn't be the only place to get your IP and your projector connection”; and lack of printers in the room, “many times during class, we did things and we needed to print and we couldn't print! And it was, we had to run up to the fourth floor, find some way to get into the fourth floor and get a printer.” Some of the complaints are justified, while others are based on unrealistic expectations. Some identify real inadequacies of the learning spaces, while others reflect a professor's incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of the space and its capabilities. Regardless, each is worth considering, as it represents an area in which teachers felt their needs were not being met.

A number of interviewees mentioned that they feel that the rooms are particularly well designed for group work, discussion, and project based classes. Some saw this as a positive, noting that such rooms are severely lacking on campus. At least one saw this as a potential mismatch to her lecture-oriented class.

Surprisingly, explicit mention of learning as an outcome was infrequent, occurring in only three interviews. This is more likely reflects the interview and coding process then anything about Wallenberg Hall itself. Among those few who did mention learning, the opinion was split about whether or not the learning spaces themselves could be credited with enhancing student learning outcomes.

Ten interviews contained explicit mention of the idea of flexibility of the spaces. Some teachers appreciated the ease with which the rooms can be reconfigured, primarily because different configurations are believed to lend themselves to different activities. At least one professor believed the flexible space helped create a more collegial atmosphere in her class. Another mentioned that the dynamic nature of the room encouraged him to break out of established patterns and try something new. Another felt that the fact that the room was not always in the same configuration at the start of class was a challenge to students, preventing them from having their own “spot” in the room. With this exception in mind, the general view seemed to be that flexibility was valuable, perhaps in part because it could be leveraged or ignored as desired.

4.b Affective dimensions of teaching and learning in Wallenberg Hall

Learning is an activity that engages the emotions as well as the intellect. The “feeling” of being in a space can play a powerful role in facilitating learning, and in particular the experience of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”. In terms of the architecture and room fittings, the Wallenberg Hall HPLSs can be described as cool and subdued, though the presence of substantial amounts of wood (particularly in the Peter Wallenberg Learning theater) serve to add warmth. The Swedish connection, through the funding by the Wallenberg Foundations and other contacts, can be discerned in a restrained, simple aesthetic in the selection of colors for walls (off-white) and carpeting (mottled grey). There were mixed feelings expressed directly about the appearance of the rooms. Five instructors had positive comments, saying that the room appeared to be a “special place,” and that students appreciated that. Three people commented that their room had somewhat of a “clinical,” perhaps sterile feel to it.

In addition to these features of the space, it is important to consider the possibility that teaching and learning in Wallenberg Hall is experienced as a special privilege, and that this may itself affect the emotional state of teachers and students – and in particular, that it may lead to greater feelings of motivation, excitement, and so on. While these reactions are not necessarily inauthentic, they do depend on aspects of the Wallenberg Hall experience that are not attributable to the substance of the technology, and hence may be transitory.

A number of teachers referred to the space in terms of intimacy. Some enjoyed the spatial feel of the classroom they taught in. As one teacher said, “as a teacher, we fall in love with the actual smaller classroom area. It's a little tighter. You're closer to your folks—your students, and it is so functional.” The majority of comments on intimacy were positive, but some expressed ambivalence. One teacher, for example, felt that the presence of laptops interfered with intimacy, saying, “it's somewhat hard to build a sense of intimacy where you are using your eyes to connect with your students ... everybody is playing, probably looking at their email for all I know.”
Another theme mentioned by a few interviewees was discussion of inhibition or intimidation. There was no consensus on this matter. One worried their students would be intimidated by the space, but another explicitly denied anything inhibiting about the space. One felt students did not “feel free enough” to participate in reconfiguring the space, and thus felt like they never knew where to sit, while another mentioned a cooperative atmosphere that lent students a certain ownership over the space. Quite a few teachers mentioned that they felt that the prototypical teacher in their department, namely one who is not tech-savvy, is likely to be intimidated by the technology in the rooms.

Six interviewees mentioned student motivation as a possible outcome of holding their class in Wallenberg Hall. Everyone who mentioned motivation did so in a positive light. One said, “I think that one of the great things about the space is that it, again, disrupts the assumption, the formal assumptions that students have... about the relationship to a classroom space, and it really makes them much more engaged that and, I think, the ‘do’ part of learning is so critical and you can't help but do here.” Another, referring to the Wallenberg Learning Theater, said “the central hall is a relatively formal place compared to [our previous classroom], and I thought the students really sharpened up their presentations, maybe because of the room itself.” In general, there was a suggestion that the learning spaces were exciting, both to students and to faculty, and that this excitement led to motivation.

4.c Teaching in Wallenberg Hall

Teaching in Wallenberg Hall presents challenges and opportunities. In general, faculty members find Wallenberg Hall conducive to teaching, especially for what might be called active learning. One said, “You have to let them learn. If you're teaching all the time they don't get much time to learn. So that’s something this space helps you do. Let them do things in there.” Asked about the advice they would give to the university, one teacher replied this way, “My advice to the university is that if you want better teaching, make these teaching tools ubiquitous.” Describing his class, one teacher said, “I would divide them up and configure them and, you know, I've taught in traditional classrooms and that's hard to do.”

A common sentiment among the seven interviewees who mentioned teaching preparation was that teaching effectively in these technology-enhanced classrooms requires extra preparation. Estimates on how much preparation was necessary varied greatly. One teacher went so far as to say, “I think to use it properly you need a year of preparation and planning to try it,” while another, at least with regard to the technology itself, said “I think anyone who is going to use it … should probably plan on spending a couple of hours beforehand, learning how to, you know, trying to different things.” Most likely, these differences reflect a varying focus on revising curricula versus learning to use technology, as well as differences in beliefs about the amount of change necessary. There was not complete consensus on the need for more preparation. One professor said, “I'll cite the use of this room as having afforded me the luxury—help afford the luxury of minimum preparation.”

Three teachers described how they felt the technology allowed them to be more spontaneous in their teaching. One professor summed up her experience nicely: “It’s funny because I thought I prepared for my class but then I came in the room and all of this stuff is sitting here and as I discovered it, I started using it. So the night before class I say, oh, we can really use those computers to do a writing activity, side by side writing activity and then have people read each other’s writing, kind of like they do in the writing program but that’s not something I planned in the course beforehand but when I got here and I saw that, that’s something someone did, suddenly, I found a way to make it really useful in my own class.” Other claims of spontaneity were more modest, if still notable, such as the impromptu excess of a web site to answer a question that arose during class.

Five teachers mentioned their desire to learn about and learn from other teachers' experiences teaching in Wallenberg Hall. They had many ideas about ways to do this, and several of these have been implemented in the time since the interviews occurred. There was also a generally expressed understanding that the scarcity of professors' time presents a challenge to efforts to share examples of pedagogy. While the desire for sharing was not unanimous, the relative frequency with which it was mentioned suggests a worthwhile avenue for future development.

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