In two forgotten home economics classrooms in the East Block of the Khanya Building at the Wits Education Campus at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Architects Of Justice have created an Adaptive Learning Environment (ALE), the eZone, which offers a glimpse of how future classrooms will be.
For the better part of five years, the School of Therapeutic Sciences at Wits has been evolving in its use of technology in preparation of a digital classroom environment. Aware of the changes in technology and connectivity, how quickly students are accepting new technologies and the rate they become proficient with these new technologies, Therapeutic Sciences teamed up with the Wits School of Educational to create the eZone. The eZone was conceptualised as a space to facilitate learning, using digital media and devices, with an intention to better equip learners and lecturers with the digital tools available in their professions by facilitating the exploration of learning and teaching through new technologies and software.
“The eZone is a flexible space that can be rearranged to accommodate individual study, group collaboration on projects as well as the more traditional classroom and examination setups,” explains Kuba Granicki from Architects Of Justice.
The Johannesburg-based practice had just finished the Wits Health Sciences library upgrade when they inherited two classrooms in an old technical building for the eZone. “The 420m2 classrooms date back to the 80s where home economics was taught. They were two home economics laboratories; one for cooking with 30 or so kitchen stations and the other equipped with sewing machines. There was even a loom in the one corner,” notes Granicki.
These forgotten classrooms had to be designed so as to be flexible, an environment which could easily be separated into a number of spaces, depending on the needs of the classroom. “From the start we knew we’d be dealing with as open a space as possible and we then looked at how we could divide it into as many manageable compartments or teaching areas that could then be easily ‘opened up’ again by moveable partitions,” says Granicki.
He notes that as Wits is a tertiary education provider it needs to provide for a wide and diverse amount of people and teachings, such proposals have to be rubber stamped by a number of different departments, where everything from paraplegic access to safety and security, are taken into consideration.
There were certain directives – the space needed to seat a certain number of students for examination purposes – but Architects Of Justice didn’t simply want to design the space around exams which take place once or twice a year. “I was introduced to Dr. Paula Barnard-Ashton who is in charge of eFundanathi – Learn with Us in the School of Therapeutic Sciences at Wits and she has been instrumental in implementing much of the new technology at the university, including the decision to change the university’s IT service infrastructure provider, and the eZone fell into this new provider’s services.”
A flexible, active learning space
“Our team recognised that computing spaces in higher education are confined to fixed desk, row-by-row computing,” said Barnard-Ashton in an interview with www.dailyadventures.com. “It took six years to raise the funds and find the location to create the eZone, which was officially opened in September 2017 as a technology rich, flexible, active learning space that uses mobile technologies for collaboration and content creation,” she explains.
Lecturers lead classes in the eZone using technology, rather than standing at the front of room delivering lectures. Students are fully engaged in the learning process and can also work on self-study projects in the eZone when it isn’t booked. “The eZone breaks the barriers of digital apartheid in South Africa as students have equal access to devices and high-speed Wi-Fi,” says Barnard-Ashton. Granicki agrees, “As a student, I can come in, choose a beanbag or a table, and am allowed to move my table over to someone else – which is where modular furniture was important – and whether I am at a table, a stool, or a long bench, I can choose what feels comfortable for me and what is appropriate for my task.” It is all about creating variety for the learners. While some of the older generation at Wits have noted that the bright colours could make it look like a primary school environment, for many of the learners, it is their favourite classroom, a place they feel comfortable and relaxed in.
Using technology to address some of the systemic education challenges in South Africa is a big part of Barnard-Ashton’s mission. They are using Skype in the Classroom, for example, to bring the hospital into class so that students can interact with patients and other clinicians in the real world. And the Physiotherapy department is using Teams and Staff OneNote to manage the increasing load of student administration data, record student support interviews and interventions, plan curricula adjustments, and make sure that all lecturers are informed.
“‘Massification’ is a mandate for transformation in the post-Apartheid South Africa,” she notes. “The government is mandating that universities accept higher numbers of students – particularly from ‘previously disadvantaged’ backgrounds, without expanding resources. The eZone provides the space and the mobile technology for students to engage with their learning activities so that no student is left behind,” she says.
Creating a blended learning environment
Granicki says that the eZone is a move in the direction of blended learning. “The classroom now focuses on the student and the lecturer falls into a facilitator role. Whereas before the facilitator would push out the entire curriculum, now the curriculum is becoming available digitally on an iPad, where students can watch lectures in their own time, and when they come back to the classroom with the facilitator, they are there to answer questions for those who have already gone over the material. The lecture can be replaced with a webinar, and students can interact with the lecturer via Twitter in real-time, instead of disturbing the class with a raised hand and a question – so that’s made a big change and the classroom has been ‘flipped’ around.”
Digital devices are essential for this change, and although students are welcome to bring their own, the eZone is equipped with 40 tablet devices and 120 laptops which students can use to login to their own dedicated virtual learning environment.
To facilitate the digitalisation of the classroom, Architects Of Justice had to bring fibre and Wi-Fi into a building which wasn’t built for it, and were honest about it in the design. “We brought in exposed cable trays and task lighting, and with so much mobile furniture, everything had to fit into a certain ceiling line so there wouldn’t be any collisions when moving elements around,” he says. Acoustic panels were placed sporadically within the space to dampen the sound and the floors are carpeted with high grade acoustic carpet. Although the space is passively ventilated, looking at how it was originally designed as a home economics room, the architects predicted that they would struggle to retain a comfortable indoor environment when the capacity was increased to 120 students, thus air conditioning had to be installed. “We also took ownership of the concourse which leads to the classroom, and it became another space that fell into the brief. We designed a wireless lounge where students can still have access to the eZone even when classes are still in progress.”
The project took two years to implement due to the fact that the #feesmustfall movement delayed its delivery for almost a full year. “It was just another example of some of the things you have to deal with as an architect which are totally out of your control. As Wits deals with over 35 000 students, their learning, safety and education are the priority,” he says.
Granicki concludes that although he wasn’t taught in this way growing up, he has been learning, along with the Department of Education, about how education is changing. “We are working hard to stay at the forefront and create environments which enable our new generations, generations which have been exposed to technology and the world in a completely different way to us, to best acquire knowledge.”
Architects: Architects Of Justice
Electrical Engineers: ELR Eksteen & Le Roux
Quantity Syrveyor: SBDS Quantity Surveyors
IT Specialists: Data Centric
Contractor: Murray & Dickson
Photographer: Dominic Barnardt Photography (www.dominicbarnardt.co.za)