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Yesterday I tweeted this image of a new classroom.

First, some context. I visited the classrooms of a brand new building at a university campus. As there was very little foot traffic just after lunch, I decided to use the classroom like a student might.

I sat near the back where the door was and faced the instructor’s console. I worked in the room for an hour to let the experience soak in.

These rooms were already reviewed by critics and blatant design failures had been remedied. Or so they thought. I spotted some basics that were not addressed. I share a labelled version of the same photo I tweeted to highlight a few design mistakes.

Classroom critique.

A: The instructor’s console was awkwardly positioned

I get it — the console faced the glass wall so as to not replicate a lectern behind which an instructor might hide. I am for the idea of tutors learning how to be better facilitators instead of just deliverers of information.

I am not for a design that requires a facilitator to swivel 180 degrees to use the computer or visualiser and then turn back to face the class. A facilitator needs to constantly have eyes on his or her class to send and receive cues.

Even though such swivelling might be intermittent, a more involved presentation, e.g., the manipulation of a 3D object using the visualiser, will result having in the instructor’s back to the students.

Solutions: Swivel the console, not the instructor; provide professional development on facilitation strategies so that a properly-positioned console does not become a pedagogical crutch, fortress, or hideout.
 
 
B: Glass walls led to glare and buildup of heat

This was a corner classroom and three walls were almost entirely glass — the front (as shown), the left (not shown), and the back (where the door was).

Bright sunlight shone in from the front and left despite the leafy curtain.

I could not take the photo by panning from or to the left glass panel because the light was so bright. The glare might be reduced as the plants grow more thickly, but I cannot anticipate by how much.

Our Singapore sun is not forgiving. The glass walls created a greenhouse effect so that I started to sweat even though I was the only one in the room. Granted I had just facilitated a workshop elsewhere and was in a long-sleeved shirt. But imagine about 20 undergraduates in t-shirts and slippers getting a free sauna.

One solution: Provide pull-down shades to reduce the glare and heat.
 
 
C: Harsh and clinical lightning

Perhaps there was a green cast from the vegetation outside, so the room was equipped with bright white light.

I do not know if these were conventional fluorescent tubes or LEDs made to look like them. They cast a harsh light that reminded me of a hospital waiting room or the floor of a manufacturing plant.

As I write this, I am in a public library that has off-white lights to make the environment feel warm and welcoming. Visit any modern café and the lighting will be similar, if not warmer.

All three places have this in common — students studying — but only the latter two seem to leverage on psychology to make the user comfortable.

The positioning of the lights also created glare on the TV screens (E). If the students are sitting in the room with the TVs off, they will see the glare from the lights and the windows.

One solution: Opt for warmer white lights.
 
 
D: There were shared writing surfaces only on the right-side wall

The other walls were glass, so there were no boards on them. This meant that half the students did not have such surfaces. A facilitator would have to resort to using just half the classroom for board work.

I am all for using computers, mobile devices, and open online tools for cooperation, but some things are easier, faster, and more effective on a board.

One solution: Provide white boards on wheels for the other learning stations.
 
 
D and E: Peripheral boards and screens

The boards and TV were surfaces and screens for projecting media. These are fine for group-based cooperative activities.

However, they are terrible for whole-class presentations. Students are likely to look at the projections instead of the speaker.

I foresee students or the instructor using the board D as the main projection surface. When they do, they will have to position themselves awkwardly between the console (A) and the board, and/or walk distractingly between them.

Solutions: Provide a clear and logical primary projection surface. This might tempt instructors to keep lecturing, but that is what professional development sessions on alternative strategies are for.
 
 
F: Six seats per table

This was an example of a group table or learning station. In the relatively untouched rooms I visited earlier, I noticed that there were six seats around each table. This room had just been used and some seats were actually missing.

A designer probably thought that rounded triangle tables could comfortably seat two students on each side.

A better designer of cooperative work would realise that you need a small but odd-number of students for such work to be more efficient and effective. Groups larger than five make for slower progress; even-numbers leave no member to be a tie-breaker during decision-making.

One solution: Create seating for groups of five.

Closing thoughts
I will not share the other design faux pas that were part of the room prior to the initial round of criticisms. I will just point this out: It is far cheaper and more effective to hire a consultant to prevent these issues from seeing the light of day.

I hold my tongue when I use the rooms I am assigned for workshops. But when asked, I share mostly positive things and highlight one or two key corrections if I think my hosts can handle it.

The design of classrooms matters. While they affect budgets in the short-term, they affect learners and learning in the long run.

Lessons sometimes hide in the least obvious places. Take this tweet for instance. It provides a lesson on using white space.

With the white space, the message in two parts reads: You matter. Don’t give up. Without the white space, the signs read: You don’t matter. Give up.

There are many reasons for incorporating white space in any form of design. In the case of the signs, sufficient empty space helps you make sense of the intended message. Removing it provides an unintended joke.

White space helps create clarity. Something similar could be said about providing physical, temporal, or social space between you and a complex problem.

If you are too close to a problem or if you work so frequently with the nitty-gritty of an issue, it is often difficult to solve it because you cannot see where you need to go with it.

Distance from an issue might help you gain a new or broader perspective. Providing space between you and the seemingly unsolvable problem matters.

December is often a time to think of March. The march of time to be precise.

This photo is a variant of many before it, but I had not yet seen this version.

It could very well have been photoshopped, but the message it clear. Time, tide, and technology wait for no man.

Change matters.

Here is something I shared last year thanks to this CC-licensed photo.

My message then and now is the same: We can use technology to do the same things we have done before or to help us conquer the impossible. If we believe change matters, we will do the latter.

News outlets focus on the negative because it sells. When they do this, they make the world seem worse than it actually is.

We get almost daily reports about how vile Donald Trump is even though most decent human beings already know how vile he is. It is almost as if news channels want to up the ante.

In the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, most news outlets do not focus on the efforts of the ordinary people like the ones below.


Video source


Video source

What we choose to focus on and talk about matters. We can choose the negative, trivial, and unquestioned. We can also choose to focus on the positive, important, and critical.

The first choice is easy and popular while the second is not. Anything worthwhile is never easy. What focus matters to you?

This entry is part of my series of reflections on being an independent consultant. The previous parts were:

Today I share thoughts on a very obvious question and a less obvious issue.
 

Payment by GotCredit, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License   by  GotCredit 

 
The elephant in the room of any negotiation is getting paid what you are worth. How much do you charge? How do you convince others that you are worth that amount?

If you have been gainfully employed elsewhere before, you might start with your previous monthly salary as a baseline. It is a matter of mathematics to work out a daily or hourly rate. However, it is also important to take into account everything that you need to do and how infrequently you might work.

As I mentioned earlier, you might have to be your own “publicist, letter writer, content negotiator, Gebiz administrator, instructional designer, content creator, self-trainer, speech writer, event facilitator, social networker, programme evaluator, financial officer, and debt collector”. These are paid jobs too. Citing a rate for only the core work is not enough.

Being a consultant can also mean having lean spells in between work. These do not mean you are unproductive, but it does mean that you need to ride these out.

If the people you are negotiating with are not aware of these issues, you should have an open and logical conversation so they do not baulk at your fees. You should also listen to their concerns as they may have caps on what they can pay you.

If there is an elephant in the room, there is also a less obvious mouse.

Something I learnt early in my move to be an independent consultant was to look after my health. In full-time work, you can take medical leave and still draw a salary. If you fall ill as a consultant and are not available, you not only foot your own medical bills, you also do not get paid.

I took ill and was hospitalised right after I left gainful employment. I had an overseas engagement that I could not fulfil and this was not only damaging to my pocket but also to my reputation. The incident was a very valuable lesson that if I did not have my health, I could not have anything else.

This entry is the last in my second series of reflections on what I have learnt as a consultant. If I discover more that are worth sharing, I will add to the series in future.

CHANGE MATTERS
 
Change happens and often we appreciate to what extent only in hindsight.

For example, the photo above features a high density floppy disk that could hold just 1.2MB of data. The same photo, taken in 2007, also shows a microSD card that holds 2GB of data. Today microSD cards that hold 64 or 128GB of data are commonplace.

In 1956, a 5MB drive was the size of a piano. Now we can hold a 4TB pocket drive in the palm of our hand. In the not too distant future, we might use DNA to store data.

Change matters and it is difficult to see possibilities because we are creatures of limited vision.

Giving credit where it is due also matters. Here is the original CC-licensed photo with which I made this image quote.
 

mrbrown shared this photo (which was shared in a HWZ forum).

Does it matter that an “e” was replaced with an “a” to turn “merry” into “marry”?

Some might say that it was a forgivable oversight since most would understand that the banner was a festive wish and not an exhortation to tie the knot.

But a public banner is not a tweet limited by character count or bound by more liberal (mis)spelling rules and its own set of abbreviations.

A banner, be it from a political party or child care centre, is subject to public scrutiny. It is no wonder that it got the reception it did online. The banner has since been removed, but not without the costs financial and reputational.

A technology-assisted spellcheck would not have detected “marry” as an error since the word is legitimate. But the fact that the spelling error was not detected should still be a cause for worry.

It matters that there was insufficient proofreading or a lack of pride in work that allowed the mistake to see the light of day. It matters that there was so little ownership of the work that the mistake was not spotted and corrected along the production line.

Prepared traditionally, the banner production line might be several people long. With today’s technology, the production line might consist of just one person. The technology can make the process more efficient, but it cannot make the people care.


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