Collaborative learning? We all were…

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By Dr Kenny McAlpine, Senior Lecturer, AMG

I’m never quite sure how one is supposed to feel when confronted with a new room for the first time. Unmoved, usually, although I was once completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of chintz that filled every available nook and cranny in the living room of a chap I bought a Hammond Organ from a few years back. Somewhat uncharacteristically, then, I found myself feeling a heady mix of excitement and apprehension this morning as I counted down to a training session in the new Collaborative Learning Suite in 3508.

First impressions were good. Despite my youthful aspect, the result of a decent set of genes, my mum’s steak pie and a relatively easy paper round, I’m old enough to remember that space as it was. In fact, one of my first tutorial rooms back in 1999 when I started at Abertay was 3509, a dreary little cupboard-like space with no natural light and a strange smell, somewhere between mildew and sour milk. Today, it is thankfully odour-free and knocked-through to create a surprisingly spacious bright new room.

The front wall is glass-fronted, which provides a welcome break to the solid cream walls of the corridor as you approach; not quite the shimmer of Queen Elsa’s ice palace, perhaps, but a comparative visual treat nonetheless. At the back of the room, the view draws your eye low over the rooftops to the mouth of the silvery Tay beyond. Make no mistake, 3508 is a very pleasant place to be.

After a sandwich lunch, I settled down with about a dozen colleagues to explore the reason the new room exists; the collaborative learning technology. I think it’s probably fair to say that, at the moment, at least, it’s not quite completely seamless. I was accessing the display hub via a custom app on my iPhone. It worked easily enough, and I could log on and chuck graphics, video and text onto the screen without too much trouble, but some of my colleagues around the table struggled for quite a while to get past the institutional firewall, and, even after they had successfully negotiated that technical hurdle, found it all enough of a faff to get in the way of use.

We also managed to crash it.

Twice.

Such things are just snagging issues, though, and will be sorted quite quickly. I could tell from the furrows etched across Nathan’s brow, for example, that he would soon be working hard to iron out the networking problems, and that new interface will, I think, just take a little time to get used to.

Sitting back and watching us all try to work together, however, it also struck me that our approach to collaboration didn’t always align with the technology’s programmed model of collaborative activity. One of the things I love about working in small creative groups, is the sense of frenzied activity it creates. There’s something really invigorating about the free flow of ideas bouncing back and forward, but it can be busy and boisterous, and that wasn’t something that the technology like very much.

The system currently seems to prioritise whomever has clicked most recently, and so attempting to contribute to a group session seems to wrest control away from others who might similarly be trying to contribute. At times it felt a bit like a petulant child snatching a favourite toy from a playmate, and I can imagine it wearing pretty thin, pretty quickly.

I’m sure that such issues are not insurmountable, and it may just require a new form of tech-etiquette – techiquette? – to work, but it brought home to me the idea that we can’t just expect to translate what we currently do in the classroom to the new technology and expect it to work exactly as it did before. The collaborative learning suite offers real potential and opportunity, but to make the most of it, we’re all going to have to figure it out.

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