- Is designed to educate more students, not necessarily educate students better.
- Is designed for teacher-to-student transmission with little personal interaction between students or teacher to student.
- Is teacher-centric. The technology, physical design, and acoustics seem designed so the instructor can be heard, seen, and understood and less that the students can be heard, seen, or understood.
- Assumes a positivistic approach to learning and teaching.
Located in the Eisenhower Auditorium area of campus, Thomas Building was named after Joab Thomas, former president of Penn State. Offering seating for over 700, 100 Thomas offers sophisticated multimedia and computer technology for professors and students along with technical support for its use. Orientation and training sessions are available for all room users, both university faculty and outside parties interested in renting the space. 100 Thomas is used extensively each semester by University classroom courses, but is also available for student organizations, colleges and departments to reserve through the Student Activities Office in 125D HUB.
Comfortable seating, wide aisles, easy access to well marked exits, storage areas, and more. In terms of ADA accessibility, the back row of seats can accommodate a wheel chair or other mobility-enhancer, however not one of those who used them had any visible impairments. They seemed to fill up faster than other sections of chairs (esp. the front rows). The space is a wedge-shape, with about a 60 degree angle to the front of the room. It has one large screen at the front, and two podiums at the very front. The walls are different rectangular modules of green and white. There is also a ADA section in the front row of each side. You may notice that there is a single chair on the aisle side. This is to “mark” the row and give the wheelchair person someone to sit with if desired. The wheelchair can take the elevator down to the bottom level and come in the side door. There is certainly a unified “vanishing point” of instruction that would exist behind the screen at the front of the room; this is where the instructor is supposed to be positioned. The clock is located there, and the projector and sole computer are locked in the line of that vanishing point.
Impact on Learning and Teaching
In this video, Dr. Shannon Sullivan, department head of Philosophy, discusses the challenges, the benefits, and the implications for student learning. She discusses her difficulty accessing/engaging students in the back of the room (where, in our observation, most students sit), her navigation of the room’s technology, and the inherent limitations of a amphitheater-style lecture room.
Based on our data, the room seems to be best fit for transmission-style, direct instruction from teacher to student. As addressed in the video, student-to-student interaction and teacher-to-student interaction are made difficult by the space, although there are certainly examples of ways to make the participation and engagement with and between students wide-spread.
The classroom has no windows, and was kept somewhat chilly on a cold winter’s day. Many students kept their hats, scarves, and/or jackets on. Others placed their outerwear in empty seats, taking up extra seats. Fluorescent overhead lights made the room incredibly bright, washing out the screen projection. A sign on the inside door of the classroom demanded “No Food or Drink Allowed,” but multiple trash and recycling containers were placed around the room. Sounds resonated and seemed to echo across the large space, making coughs, sneezes, and murmurs easily audible.
Impact on Learning
While the space is quite large, the lack of natural light creates a bunker-like atmosphere. Perhaps the colder climate and bright lights are meant to keep the students alert and focused (instead of falling asleep, a very likely situation in a large lecture hall–see Penn State Meme below). However, the lighting washed out the screen projection, making it more difficult to see digital presentations. The sheer number of trash cans and recycling bins easily accessible across the room challenged the no eating policy. Bodily functions are never pleasant to hear, and the profusion of coughing and sneezing was quite jarring.
Comments about the use of the room vary among students and instructors. One student felt that for a large lecture hall, the wide aisles and upholstered seats made the space quite comfortable. She suggested that if you choose to sit close to the front, it had the feeling of a smaller classroom. Another student felt that there were only certain parts of the room that are conducive to participating (the front rows of sections), although the GAs roam around the room with microphones so student responses and questions can be heard. When taking an exam, students were given alternately colored test booklets and after only 30 minutes, students began to get up, hand in their exams and walk through the hall to the exit.
Impact on Learning
If students have questions about the course content, asking can be difficult. You have to first have your need to ask a question acknowledged, then you must get the attention of a GA with a microphone. However, there are those bold enough to shout out a question from their seat, which two white males were observed doing. Would others be so audacious as to shout out? Two students interviewed, however, said that they had a good relationship with their instructor, having met with her on several occasions during office hours. The space, arguably, does not allow for close contact with the instructor. The lecture hall also does not lend itself to small group discussions.
Some professors have invited students to talk to the person beside them or stand and turn to a partner, but with 700 students, debriefing these experiences are difficult to personalize. When taking an exam, there were distractions as students finishing early begin to move to the front to hand in their testing materials and then exit to the rear. Thirty minutes into the exam, there was a lot of movement, clearly creating a distraction for those still working. From the instructors point of view, those who utilize 100 Thomas are often interested in using different types of media as part of their presentation. Professors, such as Sam Richardson, are able to use the space quite effectively by being willing to “walk” while instructing, asking for student participation and getting in close proximity to students. Amina, a teaching assistant in philosophy, illuminates these points from an instructional perspective.
100 Thomas offers a wide assortment of technology choices for instructors. A PC and Mac for projection purposes can both be running at the same time while also taking a texting survey. Music can be playing from an iPod or similar device as class is beginning by merely “plugging in” upon arrival. There is a microphone on the podium and also lapel mics are available. An interactive touch screen allows instructors to monitor their computer screen and interact as needed. The computer monitors are password protected for added safety. There are speakers behind the porous front screen, a large center channel speaker above the screen and two rows of round fill speakers embedded in the ceiling in the back to balance the sound throughout the space. Tools such as a digital document camera and laser pointers are also available. Clickers are also utilized in this space, but must be purchased by students. Settings to control the lighting have been modified to make the adjustment settings more user friendly. Outlets are located on both sides of the room and are also embedded in each student chair and in the ADA table space in the back of the room.
Impact on Learning
The plethora of technology available definitely provides an enhancement to learning in such a large space. Although there is often a significant amount of whispering and murmuring, the professor’s voice is still very audible through the microphone. PowerPoints are usually easy to follow, although one student shared that occasionally the PowerPoint doesn’t project properly and when that happens, it’s very difficult to follow the instructor’s lecture. Students are often able to purchase printouts of the PowerPoints ($20) but they are not eligible for buy-back. Clickers also impose a financial burden on students. Overall, the technology plays a central role in delivering the content and setting the stage for instruction in 100 Thomas.
Unexpected Issues or Positives
The sheer number of students visiting 100 Thomas every day makes it a target for solicitors. During one visit on a Thursday afternoon, a young woman from a sorority (who was not in the class being held) stationed herself at the front door and passed out fliers to a charity event. Her organization assigned different members to this duty on different days. The cavernous room was also once home to a bat, and animal services had to be called and classes were canceled until it was captured. Much of the room’s equipment is publicly accessible, and the supervisory technician spends time reorganizing the setup before classes start in the morning. The space is first come, first served when classes are not scheduled. Since outside scheduling is completed separated from class scheduling, double-bookings occur.
Impact on Learning
Although we are constantly bombarded with promotional materials, students may feel uncomfortable fending off hustlers while entering a classroom. On the other hand, this method of advertising appeals to those who block out other means of communication. Catching a bat is one of the coolest reasons for canceling classes, although professors may not have been as amused with missing course time. Movable and accessible equipment also has its shortfalls. The supervisory technician recalled a time when the tables and podiums were moved and one of the wires broke. One quick fix that could easily solve a common issue is instating a better scheduling system that avoids double-booking the room.
- Embed an amplification mechanism for student voices to be able to speak across to each other and be heard easily (ceiling mics/mics that pick up sound built into the railings, perhaps). Students need to be heard as much as being able to hear. This problem is illuminated by Jimmy, an undergraduate student.
- Create an aisle through the middle of the rows. This means more one more column of space and more access for instructor, professor, and teaching assistants to students. Students and instructors can have more one-on-one contact if space would enable it.
- Develop swivel and lock mechanisms on the chairs so students can easily create small groups between partners/trios/quartets within the spaces they are in.
- There’s a glare on the white board/paper projection that makes, based on your position, the board difficult to read. The light reflects at particular spots based on your angle. Perhaps put the lighting toward the front of the space on a dimmer.
- Several students in the back of class commented on their difficulty reading the board: “What’s that say? I can’t even read that”; “Can you make it bigger?”; “What’s that on the bottom left say?”
- There are long, wide tables in the back with built-in plugs in the back. These tables could easily be used for places of collaboration if they were smaller and had attached, swiveling chairs.