On Wednesday nights this semester I teach ENGL 201U, Critical Writing and Research, at the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. The class is offered face-to-face for 15 weeks, although there are online requirements. I teach the class in Jepson Hall G20, a collaborative computer lab originally designed for English writing classes (and recently redesigned for film studies) in consultation with our Writing Center director, Dr. Joe Essid. The classroom is rectangular, with two standard door entrances and a bank of windows facing an inner hallway. The classroom has no outside view; it’s an internal room in the basement of the building. One of the long walls holds the projection screen, which is served by a bright, relatively new, widescreen, high definition projector. The instructor station and computer, where the controls of the projection unit are housed, is in a corner opposite the projection screen, which means an instructor who uses the screen must navigate multimedia presentations and components from the “back” corner of the classroom. There is no wireless keyboard or wireless “clicker” for navigation.
Students in my class sit at a computer workstations situated around large round tables. There are 6 or 7 workstations per table, but my class has only 13 students, so space is never a problem. I expect them to log into their computer workstations and to open our course syllabus, a shared Google Document. Students engage in online activities via their workstation computers multiple times during every class session. They sometimes view additional material on the projection screen that may not be available on their own screens, although I’ve minimized instances when projection-screen-only material exists. I alternately sit or stand at the back of the room at the instructor computer, navigating various online resources, sit or stand at a portable highboy table that generally holds my text and notes, and walk around the classroom.
The first night of class, I walked the students through a rhetorical analysis of the classroom environment. This is something I’ve been doing with students since I taught high school English, and I’m always fascinated at the reaction to “reading” a room. In this case, our classroom is equipped with top-of-the-line technology (placement of the instructor console aside), painted attractively and professionally, not institutionally (dark-grained woodstain has that effect), brightly lit, and arranged for optimal online collaboration. Personal collaboration with those sitting within one or two seats of each other is also optimal, but the height of the iMac monitors makes cross-table collaboration (and, frankly, lecturing) almost impossible. Our analysis concluded that the room was designed with collaborative, computer-aided instructional experiences in mind. Its design and color match the other classrooms in the building, many of which are also computer classrooms or computer labs, and it fits into the small private liberal arts college oeuvre.
That’s our learning environment. Following Bateson’s (1972/1987) logic, the classroom environment is an ecological unit, a distributed intelligence, that works together toward learning. Individuals cannot and should not be separated from the collective in this environment; the environment itself affords distributed, collaborative learning (p. 470). The affordances of the environment can be mapped among students and their interactions with technology, instructor, text, and furnishings.
iMacs afford students “trace-making” abilities (Gibson, 1979/1986) that enable them to participate in instructional activities by writing answers in Google Drive. iMacs also enable them to collaborate in peer reading sessions and to provide meaningful written feedback to one another. These affordances are often combined with the affordances of clear instructions, models for writing, and learning activities found in their textbooks. Textbooks also afford homework and portfolio project assignments, significant aspects of the course.
Furnishings afford collaboration, vital to discursive formation. Whether the collaboration is formal (part of learning activity) or informal (sharing common experiences and the like), the result is strengthening of discursive ties among the members of the class. I join in such collaborations whenever appropriate and possible to continue building stronger ties. Round tables ensure students are able to talk with one another (although the iMac monitor heights removes the collaborative affordance across each table). The data projector and screen enable me as instructor to display instructions or resources that students can then use in their independent and collaborative work, affording additional trace-making without requiring students to have multiple monitors. And even the monitor size afford multiple windows to be open, enabling additional collaboration with the larger Internet through searching and copying data in one window and interacting with, revising, even sampling that collected data in another window.
Of course, the furnishing also afford plenty of distractions. Large monitor sizes and fast Internet connections also afford non-instructional resources to be viewed, downloaded, and manipulated. However, I consider this affordance to be part and parcel of a 21st century connected classroom, and I seek to engage the “non-instructional” materials in the instructional experience as texts to be read and analyzed. So when NCAA March Madness breaks out and games are streamed and watch, I will work to bring such material into the ecology of the classroom in a meaningful way. To me, this is the challenge and goal of 21st century instruction. The streaming game is part of the ecology of the class, too, and I can ignore it, attempt to ban it, or incorporate it into the instructional objectives of the class. After all, I am also part of the ecology and among the affordances into the classroom.
Bateson, G. (1987/1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc.
Gibson, J. J. (1979/1986). The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.