Since a year or so I am interested in the subject of what is referred to as “Learning spaces”. I am right now involved in a project (initiated by 4TU CEE and Designlab) whereby we are experimenting with different setups of lecture rooms on our campus. We are trying to find out how students experience these setups. Those setups are quite low tech by the way, but still there is already lot’s to learn from that. But I am also interested on the newest technology, as you might know. And I am always interested in what other universities are doing with this subject of Learning spaces.
On 13 June I experienced the new virtual classroom of the KU Leuven during a study visit. The study visit was organized by SURF. Around 20 people of us physically traveled to Belgium, and also around 20 people were virtual visitors, just like me. It was an interesting experience! Please read on if you’d like to know my experience and my thoughts.
First of all we were provided an introduction by Piet Desmet, vice-rector van de KU Leuven, Campus Kulak Kortrijk. He painted the bigger picture. Those are the main ingredients of that:
- The board of the university really has and had a future vision on education. Going digital is a key ingredient of their vision. Especially interesting in this regard is that they want to invest in using technology in regular education (contactonderwijs).
- KU Leuven has 14 campuses in 10 locations across Flanders (Vlaanderen). Lots of education activities and classes are physically done on several of those locations. KU Leuven came to the conclusion that there must be a better way than physically delivering practically the same classes across the different campuses.
- They are aware that innovating within the regular processes and departments is very difficult. So they created what DeSmet called a sandbox for innovation, at the Kulak campus. This has been called the Technology-Enhanced COllaborative Learning (TECOL) project. This project has been launched in June 2016.
- To create the right technology and to test things out they have partnered with commercial parties, being Barco and Televic. On the Kulak campus they together have invested in all kinds of technology in several (class)rooms. Those classrooms are used in regular education situations.
- In parallel KU Leuven created a research agenda. So everything that is done in those classrooms is quite thoroughly researched. Interesting fact: they are using the Design-based research approach that was developed by McKenney and Reeves.
After this introduction by DeSmet, more details were then presented by Ine Windey. She is the project manager of the TECOL project. In the project they are researching five scenarios, with five different classroom setups with a lot of technology. They are called (a) interactive lecture, (b) collaborative learning spaces, (c) multilocation learning, (d) asynchronous online platform and (e) open learning center. Check out the gallery below for some more information on those setups. Ine shared some first results from their research, mainly on the interactive lecture. The study visit itself was focused at experiencing items b and c.
My virtual experience was with the (c) multilocation learning setup. As the name suggests this a setup whereby multiple locations are connected with each other. Basically at Kulak this is used for classes where some of the students are not physically present at the location. So, those students login to the “system” and they are virtually present in the classroom. This picture gives you the idea of how the lecturer sees this:
So, the virtual students are visible for the lecturer at the back of the room on several screens. The physical room itself is quite small, it holds around 20 to 25 people as you can see. The system in this case has 3 cameras, and it can also send out the screen of the PC that is used by the lecturer for his presentation.
Experience and evaluation
There are lots of things to say about my experience with this setup for multilocation learning! These are just some of my observations:
- The systems only works from the Google Chrome browser. Why that is, is not clear to me.
The hard- and software that is used is called WeConnect from Barco.The system used is called Lecture+ from IMEC. But I am not sure if the features that we have seen and used are also available on the market commercially right now. For me the software was quite easy to navigate, after a few minutes.
- What you cannot see in the picture above is that there is a special desk for a so-called operator. The operator is quite necessary in the current setup, according to Ine. The operator is able to control which signal is sent to the virtual students, and is also the moderator in the chat channels that are available to the virtual students (see below). If this is really necessary, then this really makes it quite costly.
- The remote student has lots of possibilities. You can switch cameras, so that brings some control to you as a student. In this case the system was equipped with three cameras.
- The remote student can virtually raise a hand, whereby the lecturer really can respond to you as if you were sitting in the classroom. This is something that I didn’t use much, because it puts you really on the spot right away. And suddenly almost everyone in the physical classroom turns their head to see where the sound is coming from. This also might be quite distracting for the lecturer as well, unless you are properly prepared for that.
- As a remote student you can also ask a so-called ‘Silent question’. Those questions are shared across the remote students. And they can upvote on these. The operator keeps an eye on those questions, and can show those to the lecturer and students in the physical classroom, and then the lecturer could actually respond to those questions.
- The silent question is also something that was applied in the interactive lecture setup (where every student used a tablet or smartphone for voting and the silent questions). I think this is a very powerful feature that I haven’t seen anywhere else so far. It gives those shy students the opportunity to ask a question. But what was a bit awkward is that the people that are actually in the classroom do not have this possibility.
- You can also start a private chat with one of the fellow remote students. There is also a separate chat channel for support (which is watched by the operator, as you can imagine).
- The lecturer can also start a quick poll for the remote students. But again: students in the physical classroom cannot participate.
I really liked the clear vision of KU Leuven that was presented and the way this was operationalized and supported with the TECOL project. On another level, I also liked the concept of the “Silent question”. All in all I came to the conclusion (again!) that for these kind of innovations to properly work, the lecturer is the key to success. He or she needs to know what is possible. He should be able to try something different, taking some risks. In the class itself the lecturer needs to balance his attention between the remote students, and the students sitting in front of him. And this balancing act is by no means easy. And if these kind of solutions really still need an operator, then I wonder how we can really scale this up in practice.
So, all in all it was a very informative experience. I’d really like to know how this Barco system compares to BigBlueButton or BlueJeans. Or what about the Kramer Via solution? If you have some remarks on that, please let me know!
Some more pictures and screenshots are in this gallery (the Barco system allows the remote students to easily download these):