The Power of Experience project started from the observation that although urban design principles aim to improve the experience of the urban environment, its teaching mostly takes place indoors, fully insulated from the city environment. By being situated out of context in an indoor environment, lectures run the risk of imparting only a limited understanding of the complexities generated by the intersection between urban form and social life that designers should address. As a consequence there is a risk of students directly transferring ‘accepted wisdom’ received during lectures rather than developing a deeper understanding of the spatial and social consequences of applied urban design principles.
The project proposed that the move from a ‘recipient’ to a ‘critical thinking’ approach to learning in disciplines of the built environment could be facilitated if students were given the opportunity to appraise urban design principles through a flexible situated experience where they became active participants in the knowledge building process. This experience was enabled by the adoption of a mobile learning approach involving the use of a wiki and mobile lectures that could be downloaded as podcasts and taken to urban
sites. The website Urban Design Experience (UDE) was designed to host the mobile lectures and is an open educational resource.
The approach was piloted in the module City Design and Development, a first year undergraduate module offered in the Department of Planning of the Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment at Oxford Brookes University. During the pilot semester students worked in groups and as a way to guarantee equality of access to the mobile lectures groups were given iPod Touchs.
The mobile lectures could be downloaded from iTunes directly to the devices and students could also use the iPods to capture photographs and videos to use in coursework. The coursework consisted of 1) a mix of site analysis though videos, printed reports and interactive PDFs (Portable Document Format), 2) a video showing the before and after of the area subject to the urban design proposal and 3) a series of reflective exercises to help students evaluate their development against this new approach. The wiki was developed to act both as a meeting point and as a host for the work that students produced in the module (https://wiki.brookes.ac.uk/display/poe/Home).
The following evaluations are based on how students and lecturers involved in the project perceived and dealt with the various technological and non-technological aspects of the mobile approach.
The learner’s evaluations were collected through a variety of methods: 1) answers to the reflective exercises about the students learning experience in the module, 2) answer to the reflective exercises attached to the mobile lectures 3) an end of semester interview with students in their working groups and 4) module evaluation forms. The lecturer’s perspective was based on a critical evaluation of the module by the two lecturers involved in the module – Laura Azevedo and Regina Lim.
From the learners’ perspective
From the learners’ perspective this module seems to have encouraged the development a variety of skills and created a motivation for independent learning. Although the module consisted of a variety of teaching and learning activities, the focus of the evaluation is on those that were mostly related to the mobile approach.
The first task in the wiki involved all students sharing their expectations for the upcoming module by posting a comment to the new environment. This achieved multiple objectives: the students had a chance to make their opinions known, the lecturer was given the opportunity to find out more about the students’ expectations and both parties were able to familiarise themselves with the new platform and the use of this particular aspect of technology in the course. This first virtual contact was considered fun and seemed to have facilitated interaction throughout the semester.
Students also mentioned the Independent Learning Area of the wiki as an important space to access useful links on how to improve the technology skills required in the module. Through the wiki students were also able to discuss and share with colleagues links that have helped them to advance in all aspects of the module.
Overall the wiki was found to have an important role in facilitating collaboration and rather than a chore became an important and exciting meeting place.
As advantages of mobile lectures over traditional classroom based lectures students highlighted the fact that they were shorter, online and accessible 24/7 which made their use more flexible – students could watch them in their own time and pace. The fact that the lectures were recorded locally, mostly in urban areas near the university was considered positive by students as they didn’t need to travel far to be able to experience the principles being discussed in the mobile lectures. The low cost of these short fieldtrips was also pointed as positive.
Finally students mentioned that the mobile lectures were considered an ideal activity as they encouraged the learning of urban design principles to develop from ‘experienced theory’. This experiential learning was considered to enable students to make more informed decisions in the task that required the application of experiencing urban design principles for the design of an urban area.
Videos and interactive PDFs
The module coursework required students to produce and edit videos that could potentially be used as mobile lectures. Several students mentioned the advantage of using video over essays as they could use a variety of media – text, still images, moving images, music, words and animations – to express design ideas. The multiple ways of expression were highlighted as a positive but demanding learning experience as students had to carefully consider which media to use, when and how in order to produce the five minutes video required with meaningful material to convey the message. A stronger reaction was observed in the production of Interactive PDF reports. Students recognised the skills and the effects of this technique as powerful to express their ideas but difficult to produce.
Feedback was provided on every stage, in written form or as written and audio comments on the wiki. Students evaluated the constant and varied feedback as helpful to improve their learning experience as they felt supported and encouraged throughout the module. There were also comments related to how the class felt as a team with everyone willing to participate, improve and help others.
The oral feedback as a wiki post was considered one of the most positive types of feedback, especially by international students. One features of the oral feedback that was agreed as positive by some of the students was that it allows students to ‘perceive’ the lecturer’s emotions through voice.
From the teachers’ perspective
From a teaching perspective the whole ‘digital and technological package’ that was developed to implement the mobile lectures seemed to increase levels of student engagement. It also had an impact on changing traditional power relationship between students and learners, creating a more dialogical environment where everyone had something to teach and learn. The module wiki was also considered to be a powerful environment to enable and stimulate this change.
By producing their assessed work in the format of a short video or interactive PDF, students moved from users to producers of mobile lectures and become potential contributors to the Urban Design Experience website. The active participation in the development of knowledge was found to be an encouragement to students to develop a more critical understanding of urban design in relation to previous semesters. A great sense of pride, independent of the quality of the work, was felt amongst the students both during the development of the videos and at the design studio crits.
Finally, apart from the impact on how urban design is taught and learnt at Brookes, the open educational character of the project also allowed its use in international contexts. Since the pilot of the project there have been mobile lectures produced and uploaded by students in Portugal and there are workshops scheduled to take place in April 2012 in three universities in Brazil to develop more mobile lectures.
The project was awarded an Innovation in Teaching Grant from the Centre for Education in the Built Environment/Higher Education Academy in October 2010. More details of the project can be found on the website www.urbandesignexperience.com.
This paper was presented at the Brookes Learning and Teaching Conference ‘Engaging learning through graduate attributes: staff and student perspectives’, 29 June 2011 at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford.