On the ground floor of Building 27, at the Clayton Campus, an NGLS is under construction. The new space is known by the acronym PACE (Physics and Astronomy Collaborative-learning Environment)... notice the hyphen, it indicates the significant effort required to fit appropriate wording to a snappy acronym!

It is not just “new labs” or “new lecture theatres” it represents a new paradigm in a variety of ways. The most significant change is our intention to stop delivering lectures, stop delivering labs and combine all of this teaching into the Studio spaces being constructed in this area.

The approach is most closely based on SCALE-UP where classes are run with a maximum of around 100 students. Students are seated at circular tables, 2m in diameter, each seating nine students in teams of three. There is no front to the classroom. The instructor controls the room from a podium near the centre and tries to minimise the amount of time they are talking, and maximise the amount of time students are working. It can support theoretical and hands-on (lab) activities. It provides an environment in which to indulge in (and that naturally encourages) a variety of pedagogical strategies such as: student-centred learning, blended learning, flipped classroom, team-based learning, peer-instruction, just-in-time teaching.

Existing physics "Studio" at MIT.

The School of Physics is hoping to have its NGLS up and running for Semester 1, 2014. However, as the excitement builds, nerves increase. A space alone does not awesome teaching guarantee (apologies Yoda). When we inhabit PACE we will be faced with practical hurdles related to the daily running of the space and a myriad of obstacles to the teaching methodologies we wish to introduce. It will not be simple. Many challenges face us:

  • Finding the time to create new activities - the new space will require the creation of new teaching activities. How will we resource this when staff are already time poor?

  • Increased staffing requirements? - you cannot fit as many students into a Studio as you can into mega-lecture theatres. So, we will be adding to the problem of time poor staff by increasing the number of teaching sessions that need to be staffed!

  • Timetabling - to introduce an increased number of novel sessions into a Faculty timetable which has just been recently updated will be tricky, to say the least.

  • Intransigence of existing practices - while many in the School are keen to embrace new teaching practices, there are still questions to be answered (and rightly so) about the efficacy of whatever pedagogical changes are introduced. What advantages do they bring, what evidence is there of improved outcomes?

  • Sustainability – however much everyone is on board with embracing innovative teaching practices, it is always much easier to regress to the comfort of the familiar. There are examples of similar approaches taken at other institutions where, as soon as key people have moved on, business as usual resumed.

  • Student expectations - students have been known to challenge simple changes such as required pre-reading and the introduction of interactivity in lectures through such technology as clickers. This will be a whole new ball-game.

  • How do we assess any improved outcomes related to the use of the new space; and the challenge here is not just trying to find suitable assessment tools to do this, but also finding anyone with the time to do this!

... and that is just to mention a few of the challenges we face.

We will likely fail many times and in many ways; but each time we will pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again. So why would we want to put ourselves through this?

Computer render of how one of the new PACE "Studios" will look.

Since the dawn of time educators have known that simply telling someone something is not teaching, and students have known that simply listening to someone is not learning.

Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand
Step back and I can lead
My adaptation of other people's adaptations of an old Chinese proverb?

So as responsible educators we refuse to persist in the notion that to stand-and-deliver at the front of a lecture theatre is making the best use of the valuable, limited face-face time we have with students.

Many others have shown this sort of model can work. MIT topped the 2013 QS World Rankings and this is how they deliver Physics teaching. If they can do it. So can we.