Saturday, February 07, 2015

Teaching spaces: "Analytics in a Studio"

My first semester at NTHU has been a great learning experience. I introduced and taught two new courses in our new Business Analytics concentration (data mining and forecasting). Both courses met once a week for a 3-hour session for a full semester (18 weeks). Although I've taught these courses in different forms, in different countries, and to different audiences, I had a special discovery this time. I discovered the critical role of the learning space on the quality of teaching and learning. Specifically for a topic that combines technical, creativity and communication skills.

"Case study" classroom
In my many years of experience as a student and later as a professor at multiple universities, I've experienced two types of spaces: a lecture hall and a "case study" classroom. While the latter is more conducive to in-class discussions, both spaces put the instructor (and his/her slides) in the front, separated from most the students, and place the students in rows. In both cases the instructor is typically standing or moving around, while the students are immobile. Not being exposed to alternatives, I am ashamed to say that I never doubted this arrangement. Until this semester.

Like all discoveries, it started from a challenge: the classroom allocated for my courses was a wide room with two long rows, hardly any space for the instructor and no visibility of the slides for most of the students on the sides. My courses had 20-30 students each. My first attempt was to rearrange the tables to create a U-shape, so that students could see each other and the slides. In hindsight, I was trying to create more of a "case study" environment. After one session I realized it didn't work. The U was too long and narrow and there was a feeling of suffocation. And stagnancy. One of my classes was transferred to a case-type classroom. I was relieved. But for the other class there was no such classroom available. I examined a few different classrooms, but they were all lecture halls suitable for larger audiences.

Teams tackle a challenge using a whiteboard
And then, I discovered "the studio". Intended for design workshops, this was a room with no tables or chairs, with walls that are whiteboards plus double-sided whiteboards on wheels. In a corner was a stack of hard sponge blocks and a few low foldable square tables. There's a projector and a screen. I decided to take the plunge with the data mining course, since it is designed as a blended course where class time is devoted to discussions and hands-on assignments and experiences. [Before coming to class, students read and watch videos, take a short quiz, and contribute to an online discussion].

Here is how we used the space: At least half of each session engaged teams of students in a problem/question that they needed to tackle using a whiteboard. The challenges I came up with emerged from the interaction with the students - from the online discussion board, from discussing the online quizzes, and from confusion/difficulties in the pre-designed in-class assignments. After each team worked on their board, we all moved from board to board, the team explained their approach, and I highlighted something about each solution/attempt. This provided great learning for everyone, including myself, since different teams usually approached the problems in different ways. And they encountered different problems or insights.
Students give feedback on other teams' proposals

The setup was also conducive for team project feedback. After each team presented their proposal, the other teams provided them feedback by writing on their "wall" (whiteboard). This personal touch - rather than an email or discussion board - seems to makes a difference in how the feedback is given and perceived.

Smartphones were often used to take photos of different boards - their own and well as others' boards.

Student demos software to others
During periods of the sessions where students needed to work on laptops, many chose to spread out on the floor - a more natural posture for many folks than sitting at a desk. Some used the sponges to place their laptops. A few used a square table where 4 people faced each other.

We also used the space to start class with a little stretching and yoga! The students liked the space. So did two colleagues (Prof. Rob Hyndman and Prof. Joao Moreira) who teach analytics courses at their universities and visited my courses. Some students complained at first about sitting on the hard floor, so I tried to make sure they don't sit for long, or at least not passively. My own "old school" bias made me forget how it feels to be passively sitting.

Visitor Prof. Moreira experiences the studio
Although I could see the incredible advantages during the semester, I waited till its end to write this post. My perspective now is that teaching analytics in a studio is revolutionary. The space supports deeper learning, beneficial collaboration both within groups and across groups, better personalization of the teaching level by stronger communication between the instructor and students, and overall a high-energy and positive experience for everyone. One reason that makes "analytics in a studio" so powerful is the creativity aspect in data analytics. You use statistical and data mining foundations, but the actual problem-solving requires creativity and out-of-the-box thought.

From my experience, the requirements for "analytics in a studio" to work are:
  1. Students must come prepared to class with the needed technical basics (e.g., via reading/video watching/etc.) 
  2. The instructor must be flexible in terms of the specifics taught. I came into class focused on 2-3 main points students needed to learn, I had in-class assignments, and designed teams-on-whiteboards challenges on-the-fly. 
  3. The instructor is no longer physically in the center, but s/he must be an effective integrator, challenger, and guide of the directions taken. This allows students to unleash their abilities, but in a constructive way. It also helps avoid a feeling of "what did we learn?"
How does "analytics in a studio" scale to larger audiences? I am not sure. While class sizes of many Analytics programs are growing to meet the demand, top programs and educators should carefully consider the benefits of smaller class sizes in terms of learning and learning experience. And they should carefully choose their spaces.