Inside Track - 17 October 2016 - Professor Neil Morris

Director of Digital Learning Professor Neil Morris outlines the facilities and opportunities for student eduation provided by new digitally-enabled learning spaces at Leeds.


All universities have large, tiered lecture theatres.  They were designed in a time when didactic teaching was the preferred method of teaching and learning in higher education. They serve a purpose of mass education – a ‘one to many’ model where the teacher is the expert and the students are sat in rows absorbing information by writing down everything the teacher says.

Some will say that large lecture theatres can be used differently, and that you can engage learners in collaboration, interaction, discussion, problem-solving etc.  Indeed, I have said this in the past – but largely through the use of digital technologies such as electronic voting handsets and social media (e.g. Twitter) to augment the physical learning space.  But you can’t overcome the physical constraints of these spaces – the rows of seats all facing forward, the lack of working space, the lack of reliable ubiquitous technology, the lack of audio projection from the audience… the list goes on.

Conclusion: Flipped learning is not possible in traditional large, tiered lecture theatres.

So, enter learning spaces 2.0.  A number of universities have re-configured tiered lecture theatres to allow collaborative working – see David Hopkins’ excellent blog on this for examples across the sector. These are good spaces, and we looked at these when developing plans for our project, but I had particular aspirations to embed digital technology in these spaces to support flipped learning, which hasn’t been done before.

Meet our new collaborative, digitally-enabled learning spaces.


The room pictured is in our Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre building which houses 25 tiered lecture theatres, and required Leeds City Council and English Heritage permission to be altered due to its Grade 2* listing. This is one of three rooms we are launching this session – the other two are in Engineering and the Dental School, and have very similar formats.

Let me take you on a tour of the room, its functionality and its intended use. Firstly, the physical space.  The immediate challenge of re-configuring a tiered lecture theatre is the ‘rake’ – we have converted the floor into a series of levels, with multiple groups of students working on each level (including wheelchair users).  This arrangement maintains the tiered nature of the room, so that all users have good ‘line of sight’ to the front of the room, whilst providing space for groups of seats. The next challenge is maintaining the occupancy levels for the room – inevitably occupancy is reduced when you re-design these rooms – rows of seats is the most efficient use of space, and any other configuration will reduce space, but we have managed to lose only around 10-30% of seats, which I believe is an acceptable compromise for the benefits we have gained.

The layout of the furniture is similar to this style of rooms at other universities. Our architects Burwell Deakins designed ‘pods’ where five students would sit together around a trapezoid shaped desk, with all seats facing the front and the group. This arrangement allows the flexibility of students working in a group, but also able to focus on activity at the front of the room. Each of the desks is equipped with the following: internet-enabled touchscreen hybrid laptop, ‘touch to talk’ desk microphone, built-in speaker, spotlight, HDMI input, USB charging and power.

Let’s start with the microphones and speakers. If you want interaction, collaboration and student input, everyone in the room needs to be able to hear everyone else – so you need microphones at every desk. They are off by default and you push a button to talk but the person at the front of the room has control over all desk microphones (more on their control panel later). And remember that Leeds has the most sophisticated lecture capture system in the sector, and it is in full operation in these rooms, so student input is captured when the recording is enabled (this is covered by our audio and video recording policy, and in the student contract).

The touchscreen laptop is fixed by a security cable that is long enough to reach all members of the group, and it has a neat storage compartment at the back of the desk. Users can log in with their university credentials, and it has the normal student desktop image so they can access any of our systems. It also has DisplayNote installed (more on this later). So students can look things up, take notes, access resources/activities in the VLE, surf the web, share content with each other and do all the things you would normally do with a laptop.  The person at the front of the room can project from any of the laptops in the room using the AV control panel; in fact they can project two at once, as there is dual projection in all rooms (and this will be captured by the Mediasite lecture capture system as it has multiple video inputs). So, if students are working on an activity in groups during the session, their work can be displayed to the whole group at a touch of a button, for discussion and questions, etc.

Students can also bring their own devices to these rooms, and hook them up to the AV system, and they can charge their devices by USB or normal plug. You may be wondering why we went to the hassle and expense of installing a laptop on each desk…the reason is that not all of our students have mobile devices that would work in these rooms, and we wanted a level playing field where digitally-enabled group work is instantly possible for everyone in the room without any technical discussion. There are only two ways to achieve that: put the equipment in the room or give everyone an identical device…we went with the first option.

So that is the student side: they can sit passively and listen to a presentation from the front and they can work in groups; they have equipment at their fingertips and they have desk space to work. Didactic or collaborative learning, or most likely a mixture of the two now possible in an aesthetically pleasing, highly designed space. Now is probably a good point to mention informal learning. We normally think about our lecture theatres as places that are only used during ‘teaching time’. However, in doing this project, we have just increased our informal learning space across campus – the rooms will be available to students to use outside of teaching time, so they can work independently or in groups in these spaces, and can use the technology and the working space.

Many of you will be screaming ‘What about the teacher?’  ‘How will they use this room?’  ‘How will they cope with the technology?’ So, let’s talk about them. The first thing to say is that this project arose from teachers telling us that there isn’t enough flat-floored, flexible teaching space on campus, so this project is a response to that request. Also note that as a result of our lecture capture project, we have lots of teachers who want to do more flipped learning…they can now ‘see’ (literally) how passive didactic teaching is, and they want to use media capture tools to create digital content for pre-session viewing and to use contact time for active learning.  So we have a large group of people who want these rooms.

From the teachers’ perspective, these rooms are dual purpose; they can still be used perfectly well for didactic delivery – the teacher could come in, load their PowerPoint on the lectern PC, fire up the projector and talk for 50 minutes. However, they also have a range of other options to enrich the learning experience for their students.

The front of the room has a lectern-based PC, a control panel, lecture capture camera (fixed on back wall of the room), lecture capture recording light and pause button (see here if you are unfamiliar with lecture capture at Leeds), a visualiser, a blu-ray player, a lapel microphone, a very large height and tilt-adjustable digital whiteboard with SMART software, dual projectors and a presentation wall. There is no whiteboard or blackboard and no whiteboard pens or chalk.

Let’s start with the digital whiteboard because they are exciting. They are huge (45” - 55”), and they have a large stylus (whiteboard pen-sized).  They are mounted on an adjustable stand which moves up and down (via remote control) and from fully horizontal to full vertical.  You can easily find a comfortable writing position and they are an excellent replacement for the traditional whiteboard.  OK, so they are very large, have an adjustable angle and use a pen... the only benefit so far over the traditional whiteboard is the adjustable angle. What are the other benefits that outweigh the strong push to keep traditional whiteboard in these rooms? The teacher is facing the audience whilst writing, the content is captured as video (25fps) by the lecture capture system, the content can be zoomed, the content doesn’t have to be deleted when the board is full, and the software has a massive range of other tools and gadgets.  The default arrangement is that the digital whiteboard will project via one projector, and the room PC will project via the other projector … so you can project your slides (and annotate them via the touchscreen confidence monitor if you wish), and write or draw on the large digital whiteboard simultaneously…sounds just like a traditional lecture theatre, doesn’t it?

As an aside, this is an important point in technology-enhanced learning change management in higher education; change has to be easy and relevant for people to engage with it.  See my recently published toolkit with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education for more on this.

I promised to return to DisplayNote. This is a software tool that allows real-time collaboration and interaction between users on multiple devices. DisplayNote is installed in these collaborative rooms, and it will allow teachers to ‘send’ groups of students work to complete (eg, a diagram to complete) and then get it back to display to the larger group; this tool is for two-way collaboration and will be incredibly useful for group activity in these rooms.

I also promised to return to the AV control panel. It is a modified Creston panel that includes all the usual tools for selecting inputs, volumes (including microphone volume), etc. It has been modified to show a plan of all of the ‘pods’ and the touchscreen allows the user to select an individual pod to display their laptop screen or their own device on one (or both) of the in-room projectors. It also controls the desk-based microphones.

I’m sure you are wondering about staff confidence and competence to make the best use of these digitally-enabled rooms. This has been planned from the outset of the project, and we have had fantastic support from our Staff and Departmental Development Unit who have run bespoke professional development events for staff in Dentistry, Engineering and across the University, and for all staff booked in to use these rooms, in the run up to their launch. This professional development will now extend to in-room training for prospective users, and in-room support for users (someone will be present at the start of every session for the foreseeable future).

What do the teachers and students think of these new rooms? Well that is one question I can’t answer – literally as I write the first room is being used for a real teaching session for the first time. We will be evaluating the project in a variety of ways, including usage, in-room feedback systems, formal module evaluations, etc., and the Leeds Institute of Teaching Excellence will be running a formal evaluation project over the coming year. So watch this space for feedback on the success of this project. I know the rooms will be extremely popular with students and I suspect that staff will warm to them over the coming year; I predict that in a couple of years they will be fully booked throughout the year and staff will be pushing us for more.

I would like to end with thanks for all colleagues, vendors and contractors for all their support, hard work, imagination and drive to realise this vision. We are fortunate to have the support of some great partners and a fantastic team of colleagues within the University dedicated to enhance the student experience at Leeds.

For more information about this campus development at the University visit the Campus Developments website. These rooms are available for booking through the Timetabling system, so get in touch with your local timetable to book a slot to use it with your students.

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