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Devices to Spur Interaction

Can interactive devices go beyond simply jazzing up lectures and actually transform what happens in the classroom?

Stony Brook University
Collaborative Learning Areas at Stony Brook University feature an assortment of multiseat tables, plugs for laptops, interactive whiteboards, and more. (Photo by Nick Batson)

This is the fifth installment in CT's six-part series on collaborative learning. Previous articles can be found via the links below:

With collaborative learning one of the hottest buzzwords in higher education today, it's tempting to believe that schools have taken to the concept like ducks to water. Sadly, that's not the case. The old-style lecture format has been employed for so long that faculty--even students--often struggle to transition to a more engaged approach to teaching and learning.

This story appeared in the March 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Among students, this difficulty is most apparent at community colleges, where enrollees range from recent high school graduates to adults learning new career skills. While younger students may be open to a collaborative-learning approach--and the tech tools that accompany it--many older students prefer the lecture format.

As for faculty, their resistance tends to cut across the spectrum of higher education. At Mesa Community College (AZ), for example, few instructors have followed the example of Sue Glascoe, a math instructor who implemented a flipped-classroom format that eliminates in-class lectures. "A couple of them were OK trying interactive whiteboards (IWBs) because they were still lecturing, so it was still in their comfort zone," explains Glascoe, who has been teaching for 16 years at the college level. But fewer faculty were willing to try other tech tools. "I realize it is a hard transition. I love lecturing, too. But I have come to see that the class is not about me."

Giving up lecturing is one thing. Mastering the technology is another. While success depends on many factors--the devices themselves, furniture, classroom layout--any effort is doomed if faculty find the interactive hardware difficult to use, or believe that it actually impedes their teaching.

For faculty who are comfortable with technology, collaborative-learning opportunities and approaches are innumerable. For others, though, simplicity is key. Here, CT looks at two categories of interactive devices--clickers and interactive displays--that can be utilized in class with little difficulty to forge more collaborative learning environments.

Classroom-response systems--aka clickers--are the devices that have drawn by far the most interest on campus as a way to foster collaboration. Derek Bruff, director of the Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the mathematics department at Vanderbilt University (TN), has done extensive research on teaching with clickers. The author of Teaching With Classroom Response Systems: Creating Active Learning Environments, Bruff uses clickers for both peer instruction and peer assessment.

With peer instruction, for example, he first poses a multiple-choice question to which his students respond individually. Bruff is able to review the spread of answers on a bar graph, but he doesn't share the results initially. He then asks students to pair up, discuss their answers, and vote again. Without revealing the correct answer, he asks them to talk about their answers.

"In a science class of 100, students are hesitant to ask a question." he explains. "This whole-class discussion gets them to talk about their ideas. If they think about it, work with a partner, and commit to an answer, they are more likely to volunteer why they think the correct answer is 'A.'"

Bruff has also experimented with clickers for peer assessment. While teaching a writing seminar for first-year students, he had them read one volunteer student's draft and assess it against a 12-category rubric that he created. "I got them to use clickers to rate the draft, and then got the class to discuss the reasons for their ratings," he says.

Students are often reluctant to critique each other's work, he adds, but clickers make it easier because the first phase is anonymous. In some categories of the rubric, students gave widely divergent assessments, prompting them to ask Bruff to clarify his expectations for the course. "We took 50 minutes on that one student's essay," he recalls, "but I think all the students benefited from the exercise."

Bruff admits that persuading humanities faculty to use clickers can be an uphill battle. For starters, humanities instructors are often not comfortable with technology, and many feel that the value to be gained from multiple-choice quizzes is limited. But clickers are finding a more receptive audience in knowledge-based disciplines.

Clickers are widely used in the sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, for example. "About five years ago, a survey found that 100 percent of large lecture classes in sciences use clickers," says Stephanie Chasteen, a teaching fellow in the Science Education Initiative at CU.

Some instructors use them simply to test whether students have understood a concept, but--like Bruff--Chasteen believes that clickers become much more useful when questions are designed to improve both student-to-student interaction and instructor-to-student interaction. "The key seems to be not to focus too much on getting the right answer, but to look for the reasoning behind how you got there," Chasteen says.

While using clickers in small classes is relatively straightforward, using them to foment discussion in large lecture halls takes real skill. It can be done, however. "I have been heartened to see faculty members get classes with as many as 200 students to raise hands and share ideas," says Chasteen.

The ability of clickers to give students the confidence to answer in class should not be underestimated. "I think it creates a safe space for students, because their vote with the clicker is anonymous," explains Bryan Henderson, a Ph.D. candidate in science education at Stanford University (CA) who has helped professors in the School of Education adopt clickers for their Data Analysis and Interpretation course. "Then they can talk with a peer novice-to-novice about the concept, which is a different type of conversation than one you have with a faculty member or expert."

Henderson believes classroom-response systems really can promote the kind of 21st-century learning skills that so many institutions purport to espouse. "It gets students to critique and reason and argue," he says.

As with any change in teaching approach, though, it takes time to get the balance right. Peer instruction tends to take up a lot of class time, leaving many instructors feeling pressure to get through all their course material. "But maybe you don't have to touch base on the whole textbook," adds Henderson. "Maybe it is more important to make sure students are grasping the fundamental concepts."

Interactive Displays
Although IWBs have become an integral part of many K-12 classrooms, they have not enjoyed nearly as much success in higher education. "Our experience is that organizations buy one and no one uses it," says Vanderbilt's Bruff. "We have one here in our center and even the faculty who are good with educational technology can never find a good use for it." His reasoning? If only the instructor is using the IWB, the result may be a livelier lecture--but it's still a lecture. The students are just passive spectators.

But IWBs can be part of a more collaborative, active learning experience, especially in science and business school classrooms and libraries. They are only one option, though, in an increasingly competitive marketplace that also encompasses interactive projectors, touch panels--and software solutions.

Stony Brook University (NY) saw the potential of IWBs to help students work together on projects outside class. Three years ago, it established three Collaborative Learning Areas (CoLAs) in library settings. These consist of multiseat tables or booths that accommodate five people comfortably, interactive SMART Boards, CopyCam boards, large tables with plugs for laptops, and dry-erase boards on wheels.

College of Business students use them extensively, says Gary Van Sise, director of educational technologies, noting that the CoLAs are booked from 11 a.m. until closing. The IWBs are used extensively by teaching assistants during sessions with students. They also see heavy use by students from the School of Education, who practice their presentations on them--the ability to use an IWB is part of the curriculum.

The success of the CoLAs as collaborative-learning spaces is reflected in the fact that students want them to be able to accommodate bigger groups. "They want even larger spaces for groups of eight or more, but finding the space for that is difficult," Van Sise says.

Instead of investing in IWBs or other interactive hardware, many universities are turning to software solutions such as Tidebreak to create classroom interactivity. In an era of BYOD, it's a solution that has a lot of merit, one that certainly appealed to the University of New Hampshire School of Business, which is experimenting with problem-based learning spaces.

"Rather than interactive whiteboards, [the school] is putting monitors all over the room and then providing screen-sharing software so that students sit in pods of four to eight with their own BYOD devices," explains Shane Long, a consultant with Waveguide Consulting, which is working with the university. "The professor can walk around and look at the monitors; if she sees something she likes, she can project it onto a large monitor at the front of the room."

A similar approach is being pursued in a classroom at the University of Notre Dame (IN). The classroom has a central cluster of monitors surrounded by tables and eight monitors mounted around the perimeter of the room. As students work on problems together, they control these monitors via wireless keyboards, explains Brian Burchett, manager of Technology Enhanced Learning Spaces.

"Using a Crestron touch panel, the professor can highlight one group's work by switching it to the monitors in the center of the room," he says. "It is much easier for the professor to see and hear what is going on in groups. There is a real sense of collegiality to the classroom."

Solutions like these work well in settings that are dedicated to collaborative instruction. For schools that want the flexibility to set up any classroom for collaborative learning, interactive projectors and mobile devices offer an excellent alternative. At Kirkwood Community College (IA), for example, the Epson iProjection app allows instructors to project iPad, iPhone, or iPod content wirelessly through the network into their classrooms. An instructor might pass iPads around to students and ask them to write responses to questions, which are then shown to the class via Epson 3LCD PowerLite projectors.

"The film classes are using iPads to stream Netflix right to their iPads and to the projector," says Allan Schau, the audiovisual coordinator for Kirkwood.

The setup also helps break down the walls of the classroom. For a course involving alternative energy, for instance, three students with a helmet cam go into a wind turbine to learn how to check wiring, and stream the experience live back to the class projector. "Everyone in class can learn from what the three of them are doing," Schau says. "It extends the classroom and speeds up the class."

Tech Tools for the Flipped Classroom

Sue Glascoe, a math instructor at Mesa Community College in Arizona, has changed how she teaches. You could say she's flipped out. Instead of lecturing her students from the front of the room, she now has her students work independently in groups of three or four. Making the switch to a flipped-classroom model is a lot easier said than done, though. It takes a lot of preparation and work, but Glascoe has discovered a variety of tech tools that make the new teaching model far easier and more productive.

During class time, for example, her students use an assortment of Livescribe smartpens, and eInstruction's Mobi (a mobile IWB) and CPS Pulse clickers to work on problems. Last semester, Glascoe added iPads and Apple TV to the mix, and set up a private YouTube channel. During a typical problem-solving assignment, student groups use an app called Doceri 2.0 to make videos of the work they are doing with their smartpens.

"When I call on a group, they send the video of how they solved the problem to the Apple TV at the front of the class for the rest of the students to watch," she explains. In addition, Glascoe poses questions for students to answer via their clickers. She can access the response data from anywhere in the room, helping her to tailor her instruction on the fly. "Students today are so different," Glascoe says. "Information is so accessible to them. They don't want to be lectured."

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