21st Century Classroom | Feature
Tech Basics for Active, Collaborative Learning
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
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
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
What are the benefits of technology-rich classrooms for active and
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
- 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."