21st Century Classroom | Feature

Tech Basics for Active, Collaborative Learning

University of Oklahoma The Core active learning classroom
University of Oklahoma's The Core active-learning classroom (photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma)

Classrooms designed for active and collaborative learning are transforming the teaching and learning experience for students and faculty.

While every active-learning classroom is unique — based on the physical space itself and the needs of students and faculty — there are features common to many of them. Typically, the instructor has a podium at the center of the room. Surrounding the podium are large, round tables that each seat six to nine students. Movable chairs allow students to easily shift between small groups of three to larger groups of six or nine. Each student table may have its own large display or interactive whiteboard for collaborative work and sharing, and many of the rooms also feature writable walls, where students can collaborate on virtually any vertical surface in the room.

This classroom design enables instructors to spend a few minutes guiding the whole class from the center of the room, and then quickly transition students into collaborative work without needing to reconfigure the furniture or organize students into groups. The instructor's central position also allows him or her to reach any table within only a few steps and interact with the students as they solve problems or work on projects together.

What colleges and universities are using these types of classrooms?

Some of the pioneers in active and collaborative classrooms are the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) Project at North Carolina State University and the Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classrooms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other colleges and universities frequently use the examples set by SCALE-UP, TEAL and others as a starting point for their own classroom plans, and then tailoring the designs to suit their individual needs.

The University of Oklahoma (OU) created its first active-learning classroom, nicknamed The Core, in 2012. The classroom design is based on the SCALE-UP model and features six round tables, each with nine chairs and a 50-inch display for student collaboration.

McGill University in Quebec has 13 active learning classrooms, the first of which was created in 2009. The university used the National Survey of Student Engagement's (NSSE) benchmarks to develop its own design principles for its active learning classrooms, while also drawing on examples from other institutions, such as the SCALE-UP project.

The Construction Management program at Minnesota State University, Mankato uses a collaborative-learning classroom for project-based learning. Students sit in groups of five or six, each with a 40-inch monitor, and work together on projects as a team, just as they will do in the workplace.

Dawson College in Quebec created its first technology-rich classroom for collaborative learning in 2012. Its design is based on the SCALE-UP and TEAL models, but instead of round tables seating six to nine students, the room uses oval tables seating five to six students with a Smart Board on one side of each table.

How can technology support active and collaborative learning?

While it's possible to design classrooms for active and collaborative learning without technology, most use technology to enhance learning. Typically, there is a large display or interactive whiteboard at each student table and one or two more in the center for the instructor. The only requirement is that the devices have to be large and they have to be shared. "You just can't share one of those 25-inch monitors with four or five other people," said Brian Wasserman, chairperson of the Construction Management department at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "Somebody's standing, somebody's doing absolutely nothing, or you're doing two of the same projects next to each other that aren't on the same screen."

"The technology is really about content sharing, so it's about sharing with your group, it's about sharing with the classroom and it's about working collaboratively," added Erin Wolfe, director of the University Research Cabinet at the University of Oklahoma.

At Dawson College, each table has a Smart Board for students to use collaboratively. "When you work on a Smart Board, it's an extremely public activity. Everybody around the room can look in an instant and see what everybody else is doing on the Smart Boards," said Chris Whittaker, physics professor and science program coordinator at the college. "And that creates a social pressure that, when done properly, is a positive influence in terms of collaborative work. Students will see something going on on a Smart Board across the room, and they'll go over and they'll talk to that group, and then they'll come back and share it with their own group."

Whittaker thinks personal devices, such as iPads, detract from collaboration in the classroom. "Personal devices are very personal," he said, "and if you're trying to get real collaboration, a personal device is actually counterproductive. I love my iPad, I love my computers, but when you're trying to develop collaborative learning spaces, they can actually be counterproductive. You can get all kinds of apps where you can share things, but it's still not the same [as working together on a shared screen]."

At McGill University, screens at the tables enable instructors and students to share work across the entire classroom, adding another layer of collaboration. "All of the classrooms have the ability to draw upon any particular student that's projecting in the room and project [the student's work] everywhere," said Adam Finkelstein, educational developer for Teaching and Learning Services at McGill. "So not only do we have interaction within the group, but now we have interactions going on between groups."

Instructors at McGill also have access to multiple audiovisual sources, "so they can project two different types of things at the same time," said Finkelstein. "It could be a document camera and their laptop. It could be a laptop and a desktop. It could be a DVD and any other combination, or it could be student work that is being projected."

And when every table has its own big display, all of the students can easily see whatever the teacher is projecting. "If you're in the back of any classroom, you can't really read that document, you can barely see things," said Wasserman. But in the active and collaborative classroom, "they're looking at their 40-inch monitors, so whatever I'm showing them on the monitor is very clear right there."

What are the benefits of technology-rich classrooms for active and collaborative learning?

Benefits of active-learning classrooms include:

  • Large classes feel like small classes. "You can have larger numbers of students, but it doesn't feel like the total number is rising. A class of 80, where you have eight students at a table, doesn't feel like a class of 80. It feels like a class of eight because you have seven other people at your table, and you're working together on something, and you might be interacting with other groups, but it doesn't feel that big," said Finkelstein. "You can scale up interaction without losing that interactivity."
  • Classes are more conducive to interaction between students and professors. "The students really like that in these classes they know their professor," said Wolfe. "Whereas in a lecture hall, they really don't get to know their professor, and they don't necessarily feel comfortable just asking a candid question. But if [the professor is] standing right next to you, you're much more encouraged to ask questions and to get the professor's opinion of what he thinks about things, which is a much richer experience in a class."
  • Instructors have the flexibility to quickly and easily switch between lecture and activity. "These types of spaces give you incredible flexibility in terms of the types of learning that you can do, because you can move from a 10-minute lecture into an activity and right back again without reconfiguring the room," said Finkelstein. "You just seamlessly move from one activity to another."
  • The classrooms support different learning styles. "If you're really looking at universal design, in terms of a place that embodies everything about universal design, it's really these classrooms," said Finkelstein. "They support many different types of learning."
  • Students are engaged in the learning process. "Students are more willing to raise their hands, to really engage in the class," said Wolfe, adding that instructors have noted improved student attendance in these classes. "Students know they'll be missed if they're gone because their group will notice that they're missing as opposed to a larger lecture class."
  • Team-based learning better prepares students for the workplace. Noted Wasserman, "The goal of team-based learning is to have students working on problems in class where they're taking outside information, applying it to problems, in a collaborative environment with other students, synthesizing that information and reporting back, because that's what they're going to be doing in the workplace."

Tips for implementation

It's important to design a classroom that suits your school's unique needs, and to realize that a single classroom can't do everything effectively. "I think that there's no formula for them. For me, the active learning classrooms are really variations on a theme. The theme is central podium, round tables, moveable chairs, screen sharing, writable walls," said Finkelstein. He also encourages people to visit as many other schools as possible "to get ideas from them so that then you can implement what is going to work best on your own campus."

Once the implementation process begins, proceed slowly and deliberately. "Try to do it incrementally," said Wolfe. "Don't just cut and paste different classroom designs without being very clear about what your goals are." She also notes that pedagogical change is hard, and it's important to make sure that the administration understands that it will not happen overnight.

Even after the active and collaborative learning classroom is in place, faculty development and support can mean the difference between success and failure. Dawson College has had great results from its community of practice, which is a group of faculty members who teach in the active-learning classroom and meet regularly to share their successes and failures. "We meet every two weeks. We support each other, we do best practices exchanges, we also do a 'your best failure,' and so we talk about the things that don't work because that's really important," said Whittaker. "There's got to be a really nice place, safe place where you can say, 'boy I tried this and it just failed, what did I do wrong?' and get some support from your colleagues."

The results are worth it: "The teacher can be at the center of the room but not be the center of the room, not the center of attention," said Whitaker. "Which is really, really nice because it's quite difficult to be a teacher in an active learning space. You're having to do a lot more than when you lecture. You have to take on multiple roles: some coaching, some modeling. There's information transfer, but you're monitoring groups, you're making sure that everybody is on task and making sure that everybody's keeping up with each other. So you've got this really wonderful situation where you can stand, and I do this quite often and I smile at it when it comes up, but I'll be standing in the very middle of the classroom, literally for 20 minutes at a time, and nobody's looking at me, and they're all working on the Smart Boards, struggling at understanding, pushing. It's a nice arrangement."

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