Weekly Teaching Note
Apr 23 2014
NYIT Faculty Discuss Learning Spaces: Physical, Virtual, Social, and Intellectual

“When I started putting the lecture materials online and giving the students exercises to do in class, it felt very strange to be “doing nothing” while the students were working on exercises. Eventually, I realized I was still lecturing, I was just doing it in between class sessions as opposed to during class sessions. I think it’s much harder to put together and post a good set of videos than it is to throw together some power points and recite them in front of the class. I was concerned that the students wouldn’t feel like they were getting their money’s worth if I didn’t stand up in front of them and talk, but that hasn’t been the case.” – Rich Simpson, SoECS

Last month, the Center for Teaching and Learning offered its fourth online workshop, on the topic of learning spaces. Virtual and social spaces are taking their place alongside the physical classroom as a locus for learning. As a result, we are compelled to expand our concept of where and how learning occurs. And what happens if you don’t have an “optimal” learning space? What if your classroom is small, or poorly lit? What if the students in a blended course don’t engage in the online component? What if the students don’t seem interested in working with each other? Interested in these and other questions, 21 NYIT faculty and staff members – from campuses in Central Islip, Manhattan, Nanjing, Old Westbury, and Vancouver – exchanged resources, ideas, and teaching strategies. Here are some highlights from the conversation.

Physical Space:

Workshop participants discussed the rooms in which they teach, describing a wide spectrum of layouts. Cheryl Hall, SoHP (NY), described how she is able to rearrange her rooms for different activities: “Since my courses vary in scope, the purpose of physical space varies for each. For lecture-based courses, the traditional classroom works well. However, when the lecture changes into a case study format, where students problem-solve in small groups, we modify the space accordingly. In addition, when our students are engaging in lab/practical sessions, the Physical Lab accommodates for that need and easily transitions from traditional classroom to the lab space.”

Not all classrooms are that flexible! One participant posed the question of how to get students to work in groups in rooms that are not conducive to rearranging the furniture. Sumiao Li, CAS (Nanjing), responded: “I actually have not had much problem turning such a space into a more interactive one. Some of my strategies are lecturing from the back of the classroom, walking back and forth in the isles, asking students to partner with whoever sit close, or by asking those in the front row to kneel on their chairs or to stand up behind the folded-up chairs so that they can face the students in the next row. Students are quite open to all of these methods.”

Rich Simpson, SoECS (NY), contrasted physical and virtual spaces: “For me, the biggest difference between physical learning spaces and virtual learning spaces is that physical learning spaces are shared synchronously (all the students are in the same place at the same time) while virtual learning spaces are asynchronous. Of course, our DL classrooms fall right in the middle, in that the students are ”together“ at the same time but not in the same physical space. In the DL classrooms, the biggest challenge I’ve had is finding activities that students can do together while in separate classrooms. I’ve had some luck with shared Google docs that everyone in the class can edit simultaneously, quizzes on socrative.com, and polls with polleverywhere.com.” Rich added that he uses student performance data from online quizzes to determine the content of a short lecture at the beginning of each class, to address any points of confusion before the students proceed to work on activities.

Virtual Space:

James Wyckoff, CAS (NY), pointed out that the ability to contribute to a conversation at different times can “expand” space and extend discussions beyond the limits of the physical classroom. He makes extensive use of social media in his classes, both as a form of communication and as a way to enrich the course with new materials. Danielle Apfelbaum, Library (NY), commented that his strategy “is priming [the students] to use social media in a constructive, professional way. So many important academic and professional conversations are taking place via Twitter; it’s an easy way for students to discover, follow, and (hopefully) participate in them.”

Rich Simpson brought up some of the challenges inherent in using virtual spaces: “Outside of class, the biggest challenge with virtual spaces seems to be fostering student interaction. Forums and message boards are pretty limited, and it’s rare to get many detailed discussions. I’m interested in using things like wiki’s and online mind-maps to foster some more constructive interaction, but I haven’t had a chance to try these in an actual class, yet. … I think the teacher’s role in shaping the social space of virtual environments is under-appreciated. Students know how to behave in a classroom setting. Many of them have little or no experience in a virtual learning environment. This is likely to change as more students get exposed to learning technologies in K–12, but for now it’s still an issue.”

Cheryl Hall described some of the benefits: “There are times that the space seems to ”come alive“ with the infusion of technology, even when the course may be occurring in a virtual space. For example, when I am using Zoom to interact with my students during their off-site clinical rotations, our casual discussions have come alive with the use of ”screen sharing“ of written questions or when providing tutorials for accessing professional/clinical resources. It’s so interesting to see how their interactivity with me and one another increases as the virtual learning space becomes more dynamic, rather than simply just showing up on the screen, as part of a course requirement.”

Social and Intellectual Spaces:

Social space is also important, whether in a physical or a virtual setting. Students who are comfortable with each other are more likely to challenge each other intellectually. Amy Bravo, Career Services (NY), points out that “Working in career services, we regularly get feedback from employers that our students have pretty strong content knowledge, but they lack ”soft skills.“ Among those are communication, confidence, team work, assertiveness and problem solving. I have found that by creating a social space within the classroom or in the community whereby students work on a real world problem affecting the public good, these skills are developed rather organically. I help guide that development via online technology like BB, YouTube, Jing, ZOOM and Facebook–whatever works for my particular group.”

One participant asked for suggestions on how to work with non-native English speakers who are struggling with required reading and writing assignments. Monique Taylor, Campus Dean (Nanjing), provided some good suggestions: “I am a great fan of using op-ed, short news and opposing viewpoints (especially in abridged forms found in course readers) for in-class reading. Just like thinking, reading for academic purposes is something I try not to take for granted with students. I do think with questions that dissect (title, chapter headings, initial paragraphs, concluding words, quotes chosen etc) we can help students tease meanings both surface and deep from texts we assign. Students also can use these short reading exercises as a starting point for thinking about how and why an issue matters, how various actors and institutions represent themselves and advance arguments/stake out positions. Pieces like this can be used to map back onto longer assigned essays and chapters as well as say provide answers to what would XXX theorist or author think? Students can practice at writing their own op-eds or position pieces representing groups or agencies that matter most in their intended professions.”

Dan Quigley, CAS (NY), offered ideas on both writing and thinking: “First, one thing you can do is to get them to think of writing more as a process. You might, for instance, allot class time to get them actually to do the writing in class…I use a ”5 minute forced timed writing.“ Students are given a prompt and told to write for 5 minutes without lifting pen from paper or for the fingers to stop moving on the keyboard. If they can’t think of something to write, they write, ”I can’t think, I can’t think…“ until something comes out. What usually comes out isn’t very good, so I then have them ”loop“ back on the original effort. I tell them, take one idea from what you just wrote and do another 5 minute forced writing on that topic.

So, while we are discussing learning spaces for our students, are we also thinking about carving out ”alone“ space, quiet reflective time for them? One would assume naturally that this should be done at home, but is that always possible? If they live in a dorm, is that a ”place“ to stop and think? To link this back to Amy’s question, can we designate class time and places for this to happen? So, instead of ‘Let’s all break into our groups,’ it might be ‘OK, find a corner to be in by yourself and think through this question…no talking!’”


Monique Taylor summed up the two weeks nicely: “I have really enjoyed talking and learning with you over this last stretch of days. The non-linear ways that our questions and dialogue have wended are for me a great example of how virtual space as a learning environment serves us–global colleagues in a global university–particularly well. I would say we all have lessons learned here that will work their way back to our own physical and virtual class spaces.”



Olena Zhadko, PhD
Manager, Course Development
Center for Teaching and Learning
New York Institute of Technology

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