Shaping the future of IU's learning spaces
A look at how smaller sandbox classrooms are useful proving grounds for new technologies and pedagogies.
What is a sandbox classroom?
"Sandbox classrooms are a place for us to try new things, both technologically and pedagogically," said James McGookey, director of Learning Spaces for UITS.
Classroom setup and function have come a long way in a very short time. With clever technologies unlocking new ways to teach and engage students, instructors have a lot of choices—perhaps too many choices, as not all will work for their particular needs, and many require too much time or expertise to attempt by themselves. That's why a sandbox environment, supported by people well-versed in both the technological and pedagogical aspects of active learning classrooms, is a helpful tool to have when trying new things.
To learn what works and what doesn't for instructors and students, IU has set up two "sandbox classrooms," known as ALCOVEs (Active Learning Classroom of Valuable Experiences), one at IU Bloomington in Woodburn Hall, and the other at IU Indianapolis in the Education/Social Work Building.
"The interesting thing about the ALCOVE is that we're thinking about how to take these concepts and tools and scale them out across the university," McGookey said. "We can take some fantastic ideas, we can implement them, and we can try them. The end goal is to scale out and apply what we've learned everywhere across our learning spaces."
We wanted to see these new technologies in real classes with real students and see what the hiccups might be before we started installing them in other classrooms or recommending them to departments that are creating their own spaces, or to our regional campuses.Kelly Scholl, Principal Active Learning Consultant
Before the ALCOVE existed, faculty could come to Collaboration Technologies and Classroom Support's offices to try out new technologies and give feedback. But it wasn't ideal, said Kelly Scholl, a principal active learning consultant for the group. For one thing, an office doesn't have any students in it. It wasn't a realistic environment in which to gauge success or failure.
"We wanted to see these new technologies in real classes with real students and see what the hiccups might be before we started installing them in other classrooms or recommending them to departments that are creating their own spaces, or to our regional campuses," Scholl said. "We meet with instructors who use the sandbox classrooms all the time to support them, but we specifically meet three times a semester to get structured feedback on what works, what they'd like to see added, and what's not working, so that we know what we can move forward with and what we shouldn't."
Several ideas have already taken hold and have gained widespread faculty support, like interactive, touch-enabled student displays. The displays are already set up in groups, so students can physically interact with the displays in small collaborative groups within the class. The team has also been testing technologies that enable HyFlex (hybrid-flexible) spaces for classes that are both hybrid and in person, like a ceiling mic that captures crystal-clear audio of everybody in the space, even if they're a low talker. "Untethering" instructors from a lectern has also been a hit with faculty, who can move around freely by using a mobile device to control the room and present course content.
Growing and evolving to meet more needs
While the idea of a sandbox classroom began with advancing and supporting instruction in the classroom, the goal has evolved to consider equity and inclusion as well. This past fall, students in classes held in the Indianapolis ALCOVE were offered laptops to ensure everyone could participate and use the technology.
"Students have devices, but they may not be appropriate, the batteries may be shot, they may not work properly," McGookey said. "As a pilot program, we've signed out quite a few laptops to students in our Indy classroom. This way, instructors know that all students have what they need. We worked with Dell to provide those laptops, and we made arrangements so students can go to Dell directly if there's a problem with their machine."
Student reaction to the pilot was positive. In response to a survey, students pointed out that the Dell devices allowed them to download software they couldn't download on a Mac, were faster than what they had, or worked better. Nearly 80 percent said they used the Dell device most or all of the time in their classes. Nearly 90 percent said the device filled a need or void they had in their educational path.
What to expect when using a sandbox classroom
Instructors who teach in one of the sandbox classrooms are guaranteed at least two semesters in the space, preferably with the same course or one that's very similar. The reason being, the first time an instructor uses the space, the learning curve can be very steep, and they're also trying to teach.
"When everything is new, it can be hard for instructors to figure out how to fully adapt their teaching to the learning space," Scholl said. "The second semester is often when we see instructors taking on more of the development of their course suited more to the classroom and its technologies, and we're able to see a lot of what they're able to do during that semester."
Technology support staff are physically present for the first couple of weeks of each semester to help instructors get used to the room and work out any initial problems.
"These are instructors who have thought about teaching to incorporate more active learning, but they haven't quite known what that next step should look like," Scholl said. "We want to make sure they feel supported. I'm available for individual consultations all semester, and we do group consults, too."
Sandbox classrooms only seat 30 students, but this is by design. Technology and room remodeling costs are typically high, so building out larger classrooms would be more expensive, as would the cost of updating them. The idea behind the sandbox classrooms is less about building the ideal classroom, which will be different for different classes, and more about testing technologies, Scholl said.
How to request to teach in a sandbox classroom
To request to be added to the waitlist for a sandbox classroom, fill out the "Request to Teach" form on the ALCOVE website, and you'll be contacted when space is available. Instructors may also reach out to Scholl directly to tour the space before they decide if they want to join the waitlist.
Learn more about ALCOVE sandbox classrooms