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Taking Next-Gen Classrooms Beyond the Pilot

How the University of Minnesota moved its Active Learning Classroom concept to prime time.

In early 2008, after piloting two Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) for only one full semester, the University of Minnesota had a decision to make: Should the new classroom format be incorporated into the design of its new Science Teaching and Student Services (STSS) building? Since faculty, students, and researchers all agreed that the ALC format was making a difference in teaching and learning, the answer was an unqualified yes. "The data collected during that one semester convinced us to move forward with 10 ALC spaces in the new STSS building," recalled Jeremy Todd, director of the Office of Classroom Management.

But the new classrooms would not simply duplicate the piloted setup. Once the decision was made to take the ALC concept mainstream, Todd and his team focused on ways to fine-tune the technology and design of the spaces for the new building.

Technology-Enabled Classroom Design, Version 1
The ALC pilot rooms put the university at the forefront of next-generation classroom design. Constructed in 2007, the rooms were inspired by the Student-Centered Active Learning Project for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) at North Carolina State University and MIT's Technology-Assisted Active Learning (TEAL) project. Both programs create spaces conducive to hands-on learning and small-group interactions among students, by utilizing modular furniture, perimeter-spanning whiteboards, and multiple LCD displays linked to student and faculty laptops throughout the room.

Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota are used for courses covering a wide range of subjects, including engineering, humanities, and social sciences.
Active Learning Classrooms at the University of Minnesota are used for courses covering a wide range of subjects, including engineering, humanities, and social sciences.

The SCALE-UP and TEAL models were a natural fit for Minnesota's Projection Capable Classroom (PCC) technology standard, an existing set of classroom AV design criteria intended to provide faculty and staff with an easy-to-use, standard interface. The PCC standard is based on an AMX control system and has been implemented campuswide in 300 general-purpose classrooms. "We expanded the SCALE-UP and TEAL concepts and the PCC standard by bringing the technology controls down to the student level, and allowing students to [collaborate] while the instructors and faculty move through the space," explained Todd.

The ALC pilot spaces feature large round tables that each seat nine students, switchable laptop-based technology, multiple fixed flat-panel displays, a centered teaching station with an AMX control system, and a 360-degree glass marker board around the perimeter of the classroom.

Small Changes Make a Big Difference
The new SSTS building opened in August 2010, and the differences between its 10 ALC classrooms and the two ALC pilot spaces are subtle but significant. Instead of glass marker boards, the SSTS ALCs feature porcelain steel marker boards. This change provided a substantial cost savings, while having relatively little impact on the effectiveness of the room. And instead of using coaxial cable, the audio and video signals in the new spaces are distributed from the student tables to the control panel system over Cat 5. "It's kind of a low-tech issue," noted Todd, "but it means that we're running much smaller cable bundles underneath the flooring, so we have more flexibility in how we distribute the signals within the space."

Some of the changes solved ergonomic and practical issues that arose during the pilot. In the original ALC design, the LCD monitors were placed above the perimeter of marker boards. In the 10 new spaces, the monitors have been lowered--breaking up the marker boards but providing a better viewing angle for students. Coat hooks were added below the monitors because "in Minnesota, students have a lot of winter gear," Todd explained. "There's a lot of activity in these rooms, and students need to be able to really work at the table."

The new ALCs also feature touchpanel controls at the student laptop switches that allow students to select which laptop to display on their LCD monitor and to select the display's aspect ratio. Each touchpanel includes a "request assistance" button that illuminates an LED indicator above the LCD display, allowing faculty members to see which students need help during small-group work.

In the STSS building, Minnesota wanted to encourage students to work in the ALCs throughout the day, whenever the classrooms weren't occupied by a course or event. Small touchpanel displays, located outside the door of each ALC, connect to the university's scheduling system, making it easy for students to see the room's activity for the day. "It was amazing to see the comments from the student perspective," Todd said. "They appreciate knowing that they are encouraged to access that space, and having the information right there to see when the room is available."

Faculty Research: Improved Outcomes for Students
While Todd and his team were fine-tuning the ALC technology and design, faculty and researchers teaching in the pilot spaces continued to study the impact of these learning spaces on student success. In one study, faculty compared the performance of students learning in an ALC to that of students in a traditional classroom, using the students' ACT test scores as a predictive indicator. "The students in the Active Learning Classrooms outperformed the students who took the course, with the same professor, in a traditional classroom," Todd said.

The ALC spaces are being used by many disciplines, from computer science and mechanical engineering to psychology and Spanish. The room design has been especially effective in biology, where it's been described as a "foundation-changer" and is now the primary classroom setting for the Foundations of Biology course that is taken by all biological science majors during freshman or sophomore year. As students work in small teams on short- and long-term projects, the professor's role becomes that of a mentor and guide rather than a lecturer. "The professors are now there to help the students become intelligent consumers of scientific information," Todd said.

After its first semester in the space, the biology department realized that student productivity and output were tremendous. "Faculty are having the freshman and sophomore students who take the introductory course create intellectual property journals for the work they produce," Todd said. "I really recommend that biology programs take a look at what the University of Minnesota biology department has achieved in this space."

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