Guest Column: An Invitation to ‘Think Like an Instructor’

Terry Calhoun note: I’ve known Steve Ehrmann for many years. The work of he and his colleague at the TLT Group, Steve Gilbert, has been of great utility to the higher education organizations with which they have consulted and whose staff they have trained, and will continue to be important in years to come.

He starts off: “Let’s talk about what students do when they learn. How is that influenced by the designs of their classrooms, libraries, e-mail programs, and course management systems? Big questions, I know, so let me set the stage.” So, on to the stage setting and his call for ideas from you!<>

I wasn’t conscious of learning spaces back in 1967 when I started college. I majored in aeronautical and Astronautical engineering at MIT. Soon I realized that engineering education was not what I’d imagined. We undergraduates spent almost no time designing rocket engines, spacecraft, or spacecraft missions. Instead we sat silently in rows in rooms, listening to lectures about science and mathematics. Then we went back to our dorm rooms and read books that said pretty much the same thing as the lectures. In fact, my brighter classmates took twice as many courses as I, skipped most class sessions, did much of the homework, took all the quizzes and exams, and got A’s. I lost my ambition to become an engineer. I got my degree but by that time I’d already begun to take courses in the social sciences, where I ultimately got my doctorate.

In 1975, I first became conscious of how learning spaces could limit learning. By then, I was Director of Educational Research and Assistance at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Evergreen didn’t (and d'esn’t) teach “courses.” Instead, the dominant mode of instruction is an interdisciplinary “program.” A typical program, “Matter and Motion,” might engage a four-person faculty team and 85 students for a full academic year in the interdisciplinary study of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. That’s the only thing each member of the team teaches during that time, and the only thing those students study. This schedule gives faculty and students great flexibility – no schedule conflicts and plenty of time – so it’s ideal for working on projects, among other things. In Evergreen’s early years, however, its learning communities were mostly wedged into conventional classrooms, lecture halls, garages, and other spaces that had one thing in common: they weren’t designed for the needs of a 60-80 student learning community working on projects! [Today, some of Evergreen’s facilities to support its learning communities: a big room is surrounded by a variety of smaller rooms that can be used for discussion, project work, and project storage.]

By the 1980s, my interests had turned to educational uses of technology. “Technology” is a word that makes most people think “computers” or “the Web.” But classrooms – and all other kinds of learning spaces – are technologies, too. Technologies don’t “cause” any particular sort of learning to happen.

Imagine forty students in a room. What might an instructor and the students do with that learning space?

A. The instructor might lecture while the students take notes.

B. The instructor might ask the students to arrange their chairs in circles and debate a conceptually difficult, important question; that would be easier if the chairs can be moved.

Same technology in “A” and “B” but the learning outcomes are likely to be different because debating conceptually difficult questions can foster deeper learning more readily than can lectures alone. The faculty member’s choice of activity, the movable chairs, and the energy the students then choose to put into the discussion: all those factors influence learning outcomes.

Today many faculty realize that learning outcomes are mainly influenced by what students do. Let’s call this perspective “active learning.” Learning benefits when students debate important questions with one another, create projects, work in teams, test their ideas and work against the compelling reality of the real world, and so on.

Here’s where I need your help. Students discussing images together: this is something that ought to happen a lot when students are learning actively. Maybe each image is a painting, or a student sketch of the relationship of several ideas, or an X-ray, or a Web page, or a page from a novel. If the students are really engaging, each student needs to be able to talk about, and point to elements of, images while the other students watch and listen. “Look at this element of the X-ray, this word on the page, this arrow that should go here instead of there.”

Now imagine that you, the instructor, have a class of 30 students. You’d like to divide them into 10 groups of three students each to discuss images that the students have been working on. Then you’d like to call on one student from each of several of those groups to show the whole class what she and others in her group just saw in the images they were just discussing.

How would you do that? In a classroom? Of what sort? Or would you find it easier to do online? In a course management system? In a real-time conferencing system with application sharing and a shared whiteboard? Or would this be too difficult to do in any learning space at your institution? Do you do this? D'es a colleague? Please send your observations to me at .

I’m going to add the best of these observations to this web page: As you’ll see this page is part of a larger list of activities. Each such page describes an activity, plus physical and virtual learning spaces that make that activity relatively easy to do. I’d like your help in rewriting and adding to this web page. If I get enough good ideas, and Terry is willing, I’ll write another column later with links to what you’ve shown me.

Meanwhile, just to show you progress is possible, let me go back to the beginning: my undergraduate major. My old department at MIT has completely renovated its building in the last few years. The classrooms are not longer the focus of student activity. Now students have 24x7 access to facilities to create, design, implement and test their designs. To learn more about what MIT has done, start on this page:

Maybe you or a colleague can some addition to this page, too! Please forward the URL for this column to colleagues who may be able to help. I’m looking forward to hearing from you. Again, my e-mail address is .

Terry again: Well, I’m going to be watching closely at the replies Steve gets because this topic is of great interest not only to the folks in IT who have to support the technology in and around classrooms, but for those who fund, plan, design, and build those rooms – and the programs that take place in them. Another area that is of interest to those who design learning spaces and tools is that of recent brain imaging. If that interests you, you might enjoy checking out the SCUP webcast coming up on Tuesday, March 15 at 1 pm, Inward Journey Part II: Neuro-biology, Student Adaptive Capacities, and Campus Spatial and Strategic Archetypes.

See you next week!

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