In this first interview of our series on teaching faculty who have used the Learn Lab, I met with Annette Hestres Garcia. Annette is a doctoral student in Penn State’s College of Education, and she teaches a Virtual Tutoring class in the Learn Lab of our studio. Although she’s been teaching the class for a few years, the Learn Lab is a relatively new venue as she has only been using it for the last couple of semesters. In general, her Virtual Tutoring class is geared towards Education majors and typically enrolls about 12-15 students. Students enrolled in the class offer tutoring to K-12 students at various middle and high schools in the Philadelphia area.
Annette began our conversation by providing some context for how she implements the class and explained that it generally follows three phases. The first phase generally involves a combination of lecture and discussion of readings oriented towards tutoring pedagogy. As a complement to the readings, she also provides the students with links to various apps designed to support online tutoring. This provides the foundation for the next phase where the students experiment with and evaluate these apps based on what they’ve learned through the readings, as well as points raised by Annette and the students’ prior tutoring experiences. In the third phase, the class shifts to the applied component, that is, the actual virtual tutoring of middle and high school students in the Philadelphia area.
In sharing some of her thoughts on the Learn Lab space, Annette pointed to three aspects: multiple projection screens, the more open layout, and flooring. The multiple projection screens come in handy, Annette explained, because a core activity in the class involves discussing features of different tutoring apps and games. As students are situated at tables where each comes equipped with a corresponding projection screen, students can easily share and broadcast demos of a software tool on multiple screens across the entire space. This makes it easier for groups to see the details of the software interface being projected on the screen than might otherwise not be possible if there were only one main screen as is often the case in a traditionally configured classroom.
Another aspect of the space that Annette has found helpful is the more open space and conspicuous absence of traditional classroom desks. She found that a more open space was helpful in affording the students to create more space between them and the other tutors. In this class where a central activity involves all students engaged in the very applied activity of tutoring, one of the challenges that the student-tutors face is cross-talk. In a conventional classroom, the volume of the tutors’ talk can easily carry across the room and so if they are in close proximity to one another, then the tutor contends with the challenge of filtering out all the other tutors’ voices in the background so she can concentrate on listening to the remote student being tutored. Annette further explained that this can be a challenge even if the students are wearing headphones. However, the more open and larger space in the Learn Lab combined with the absence of traditional classroom desks provided her students with the important affordance of being able to disperse more widely across the space and create implied, informal tutoring zones. In other words, the more open space allowed the students create a type of spatial buffer, which helped to substantially reduce the problem of cross-talk.
The third aspect of the space that Annette and the students have found beneficial is something that at first glance seems somewhat minor but actually proved very important in terms of the acoustics: the type of flooring used. In the previous classroom, there was a tile floor, which dramatically increased the level of ambient noise in the room (e.g., cross-talk), and therefore, added another layer of complication for the students to contend with. But in the Learn Lab there was carpet, which made a dramatic difference in reducing the acoustic bounce of tutors’ voices. This made it much easier for tutors to focus on the voices of their tutees and perhaps also minimize the potential for any ill will generated by the problem of contending with loud ambient voices.
So overall, three key factors that have contributed to Annette’s favorable impression of the space are its multiple projection screens for facilitating discussion of web-based materials, its open layout for accommodating informal work zones and the carpet which reduces ambient noise – a factor very important for her virtual tutoring class.