Friday, 9 January 2009

Huge learning spaces

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in a visit to the latest prototype Learning Plaza at the New Line Learning Academy in Maidstone, Kent, along with a number of colleagues from Barking and Dagenham and elsewhere. The visit was hosted by Lanway, the technology integrators for the project.

Essentially the Learning Plaza is a huge rectangular cavernous space with room for 90+ pupils, plush carpet and wheelable tables, chairs and raised benching units. Perhaps the most striking feature in walking into the space is the huge 'cinemascope' style projection screen with accompanying twin (and very noisy) projectors. At one end of the space was an impressive video wall made up of nine 40" active panels (although the frames were thick and intrusive), and at the other end a single very large high definition panel. The lighting in the room was fully programmable so that different colours and intensity could be set for different moods. All of this technology was controlled by a single hand held device, so that all of the different inputs (e.g. visualiser, laptops, video conferencing) could be targeted at any or all of the displays. In the case of the wide centre projection screen, two different images could be displayed side by side if required, or one large centered image.

All of this technology was expertly demonstrated to the visitors, but as the event was in the evening there were no teachers or pupils to show how it might be used in lessons. I hope there might be an opportunity in the future to see some teaching and learning going on.

What were my impressions? Well the first one was astonishment at being asked to take off our shoes - a policy that was explained to us as 'creating a business environment'. Personally I have never been in a business environment in which people pad about in their socks, even in Japan. Perhaps they should just be honest about the need to keep the carpets nice. The second impression was the 'wow' factor at the size of the central screen with its twin projectors, although this quickly turned to disappointment at the poor quality of its low contrast image, and the fact that nobody has yet thought about how to get the image aspect ratios right. Nothing wrong with the image quality of the video wall though, just the intrusive screen frames, which was a shame as panels exist with extremely narrow frames for this purpose.

Overall though, I think the thoughts many of us were wrestling with were to do with practical pedagogical issues, and the difficulties there might be in getting prolonged and high quality dialogue in a space with so many pupils and presumably a range of activities happening simultaneously. There is no doubt that the bigger the space the more flexibility you have, which is why in Barking and Dagenham we hope that BSF will give us bigger classrooms. There is often the need to get large numbers of pupils together at one time for demonstrations, lectures, performances etc, but a classroom which is sound-proofed and can be arranged in a horseshoe is best suited for the dialogic teaching we are aspiring to, and which the Learning Plaza most certainly wouldn't allow.

Our ICT Output Specification for BSF indicates a wish for split screen technology - the ability to display, for example, and object on the visualiser and a video side by side. Having now seen this at the Learning Plaza, I am even more keen that the money will stretch to it.

Many thanks to Lanway and the New Line Learning Academy for allowing us to visit.

This is a link to an article in 'The Independent':