Research in Wallenberg Hall

5. Conclusions

January 2007

5.1 Factors Affecting the Success of Wallenberg Hall

In assessing the degree to which Wallenberg Hall is successful in facilitating teaching and learning, it is helpful to think of the HPLS learning spaces as, in software terms, a platform rather than an application. By “platform,” we mean that the HPLS provide a set of general capacities that are teachers and students rely upon, in combination with more specialized resources, to construct courses. The success of Wallenberg Hall depends on whether the general capacities that Wallenberg Hall provides are the right ones – that is, whether they help teachers and students achieve their learning goals – and whether those capacities are expressed in a reliable and user-accessible way. Based on the limited evaluation we have undertaken to this point, it seems that Wallenberg Hall has been successful in achieving in serving as a platform for teaching and learning. In this section, we attempt to identify some of the factors, beyond the initial design of the classrooms, that may have contributed to this success, and to suggest the implications of this report’s finding for Wallenberg Hall, for Stanford, and for the use of technology to enhance classroom learning in higher education generally.

5.1.a Peopleware

One of our key findings is the central importance to Wallenberg Hall of what might be termed “peopleware” – that is, the pedagogical, technical, and administrative services provided by staff members associated with Wallenberg Hall. As discussed above, we have elected to treat Wallenberg Hall as a sociotechnical system in order to capture the interdependence of technology and human beings in constituting the HPLS platform. In particular, the “peopleware” component of Wallenberg Hall seems to play three functions: (1) as an alternative interface to the technology itself, (2) as a means of adapting the technical resources of the HPLS to class needs through incremental changes, and (3) as a knowledge capture and transfer vehicle for teachers.
In rough terms, the peopleware component of the HPLS in Wallenberg Hall consists of approximately 3 FTEs: a fulltime pedagogical support person (Dan Gilbert), who is the primary point of contact for teachers and is most intimately involved with classroom support; a portion of the work time of 3 technologists, including a systems manager, desktop and network support specialist, and a technology manager; and a portion of the work time of a building manager, who handles scheduling and other building issues. In addition, the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning, which runs Wallenberg Hall and has responsibility for the HPLS, devotes management time to planning, support, and supervision of staff members involved in supporting the HPLS.

Of the 12 interviews mentioning the technical and pedagogical support provided to them during their time teaching in Wallenberg Hall, all stressed its importance and all assessed the support they received positively. Interestingly, they did not seem to distinguish between technical and pedagogical support, but rather spoke of the two dimensions interchangeably. Several peopl mentioned the relief they felt at being confident that the technology would function properly and that able-bodied professionals were available on site, both to fix problems as they happened and to try to prevent problems before they occurred. Many emphasized their belief that Wallenberg Hall could not function without the support staff, and several mentioned explicitly that they did not believe that they could have successfully integrated technology into their teaching without the support that they received. One interviewee summed these views up simply, saying, “It's been actually really nice having—the staff here has been real supportive and proactive in making things work and wanting to solve problems.”

The most critical, and probably most expensive, use of peopleware is as an alternative user interface to that presented by the technology itself. This role is largely fulfilled by the pedagogical support person (Dan Gilbert). Gilbert meets with faculty members who are scheduled to teach in Wallenberg Hall for a preliminary meeting before their class begins in order to brief them on Wallenberg Hall’s facilities and to suggest, based on the content and teaching style of the class, how the HPLS facilities might best be used. Once the course has started, Gilbert sits in on nearly every class, providing instantly available support to the faculty member. This means that the teacher rarely has the experience of an unmediated interaction with the technology, which certainly contributes to its ease of use.

The second role of peopleware is to facilitate incremental changes in the technical capabilities of the classrooms in order to meet specific course needs. In a typical instance, a faculty member will request functionality that is “in the neighborhood” of what is possible with the deployed technology, but is not actually available. At this point, the availability of technical resources, including both system configuration and software programming, often makes it possible to bridge the gap and to develop at least some version of what the teacher requested. This capacity (which is also expensive, in the form of labor costs) contributes to an experience of the technical environment as flexible and enabling.

The third role of peopleware is to serve as an intermediary between faculty members to reduce the knowledge gulf that is otherwise produced by the individualistic organization of teaching in large research universities. Faculty members teaching in Wallenberg Hall have few naturally-occurring opportunities to observe each others’ teaching, and to learn from the experience of others. Wallenberg Hall staff members who work across courses can serve a kind of pollinating function, carrying innovations and adaptations from one course into others. This improves the chances of success of subsequent teachers, since they are able to benefit from the experience of earlier ones, and probably also improves the effectiveness of Wallenberg Hall staff, who are able to encourage repetition of successful practices and hence the overall reliability of the system.

5.1.b Wallenberg Hall in the Context of Stanford

Wallenberg Hall’s HPLS classrooms are unique among classrooms at Stanford (and in fact have few analogues at other universities). This raises the question of how the HPLS classrooms fit as part of Stanford’s “teaching stock” of classroom facilities. This question has two dimensions that we address here: the nature of faculty “demand” for teaching in Wallenberg Hall versus the supply of classroom teaching time slots; and the potential status of Wallenberg Hall as a model for innovation in other classrooms at Stanford.

Faculty members who teach in Wallenberg Hall are almost always eager to return, creating a growing demand for a fixed resource (classroom teaching time slots – of course, this resource could be increased by scheduling classes in unused times, but there is a limit to how possible this is in the overall context of University course scheduling). In addition to a general sense that teaching in Wallenberg Hall contributes to learning, faculty members face the practical imperative of wishing to draw again on the work that they have performed in preparing for class, given our finding that teachers almost always substantially modify their courses in teaching them in Wallenberg Hall. This factor contributes to the urgency of the demand for classroom space for faculty who have already taught in Wallenberg Hall, at the same time as it may also play a dampening effect for prospective faculty, who may be reluctant to teach in Wallenberg Hall without a commitment that they can repeat their courses. This issue will have to be carefully managed in order to avoid creating a closed group of Wallenberg Hall teachers.

Alternatively, this demand could be focused outwards, in the form of pressure to replicate, to some extent at least, the HPLS functionality in other classroom spaces at Stanford. Faculty pressure is the most likely stimulus for innovations in other areas at Stanford. However, it is not clear that the Wallenberg Hall model, with its strong emphasis on what we have called peopleware, can easily be replicated across the university, or in other institutions. It may be necessary to treat Wallenberg Hall as a more flexible incubator for teaching ideas and technical innovations that can then be exported to more fixed, less fully staffed locations.

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