By Dr. James P. Purdy, Associate Professor of English and University Writing Center Director, Duquesne University
As someone with a scholarly interest in the design of pedagogical spaces for writing instruction (e.g., see http://www.digitalwriting.org/ms/index.html for a link to Making Space: Writing Instruction, Infrastructure, and Multiliteracies, my in-press co-edited digital book with the University of Michigan Press on this topic), I was very excited to be scheduled to teach Writing for Digital Media in one of Duquesne’s new FlexTech classrooms in Spring 2015. This semester I also used another FlexTech classroom for a University Writing Center event.
Duquesne’s FlexTech classrooms have seating organized in pods with chairs around glass-top tables and wall-mounted computers, wall glassboards, instructor stations with larger touchscreen monitors (and cool, fresh color schemes!). The room where I taught my course, 551 College Hall, has four pods and accommodates 20 students. The other room I used, 442 Fisher Hall, is larger, seating 40 students around five pods and one conference table. More information on the classrooms is available on Duquesne’s Media Services website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5R7G1knN48.
I have learned much from teaching in the FlexTech classrooms and share here some of my reflections. While I’m drawing from my particular experiences, these reflections are intended to be relevant to teachers using other similar spaces. Your mileage may vary, of course—local context is crucial—but I hope these thoughts and ideas will be applicable and helpful.
The most exciting aspect of the space was the collaboration it afforded.
The up-to-date computer technology was super, but more exciting was that the seating arrangement encouraged more collaboration. Through its physical design the FlexTech classroom space helped to enact this approach by compelling students to look at, talk to, and write for one another (rather than only me).
Students appreciated opportunities to use their own computer technology.
Because digital writing and research spaces are now so personalized, students welcomed chances to work with their own tools in class.
With more and multiple spaces for writing, participation spread more fully across students.
As a teacher of writing-intensive courses, I frequently ask students to write in class. In the FlexTech spaces, students wrote more in class.
My class planning changed—and didn’t.
As the semester progressed, I intentionally designed activities to exploit the room’s technological, spatial, and material affordances (e.g., asking students to post group writing on the pod wall-mounted computers, to share question responses on the wall glassboards; to use the glass tabletops to write to generate ideas for discussion; to give presentations on digital writing and research tools using the large, front wall-mounted computer). However, I was careful not to ask students to use the room’s technologies or features for their own sake. Writing for Digital Media lent itself very well topically to use and critical exploration of the room, so most days included engagement with the computers and tables. But not all did. And I quickly learned that was okay.
Digital technology wasn’t always better.
Initially I was excited about the whiteboard app on the instructor machine that allowed for writing on the large wall-mounted monitor with a stylus or my finger. The digital technology was super for projecting texts, showing videos, and sharing directions, especially as each pod computer could show the content of my instructor computer, which made for easier reading for students. Writing “on the board,” however, didn’t require it, so I went back to the whiteboard. I found that writing with a marker on the glassboards ultimately worked better.
These spaces made writing fun.
Something about writing on tables with colored markers made writing enjoyable for everyone. Perhaps it was the novelty of the space and its setup. But capitalizing on such newness helped bring life and excitement to writing activities.
James P. Purdy teaches in the English Department and directs the University Writing Center at Duquesne. With Randall McClure, he edited two collections: The New Digital Scholar: Exploring and Enriching the Research and Writing Practices of NextGen Students, which was awarded the Silver Medal for Education in the Commentary/Theory Category for the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and The Next Digital Scholar: A Fresh Approach to the Common Core State Standards in Research and Writing, which was a finalist in the Educational/Academic Category at the 2014 USA Best Books Awards. With co-author Joyce R. Walker, he won the 2011 Ellen Nold Award for the Best Article in Computers and Composition Studies and the 2008 Kairos Best Webtext Award.