Smart Classroom

How to Build an Active Learning Program

How can IT leaders encourage the creating and use of active learning spaces on campus? Focus on overall goals and outcomes before the technology.

How should IT leaders engage their campus partners to bring the benefits of technological innovation to the classroom? How can they lead efforts to encourage the creation and use of active learning spaces? The key is to start discussions with overall goals and outcomes, said Jennifer Sparrow, senior director of teaching and learning with technology at Penn State University, in a session last week at Ithaca College's 25th annual Educational Technology Day. The event brings together more than 700 attendees from the upstate New York area, 60-plus national and regional technology vendors and hundreds of Ithaca College faculty, staff and students to explore the latest technologies for teaching and learning.

Rather than focus on the technology itself, Sparrow advised, ask, "What do you want students to be able to do at the end of this course? What challenges are you currently facing? If we start with technology as the solution, we are going to get to the wrong answer," she said. "Start with what students need to know and do first, and how technology might fit. Sometimes it is as simple as a whiteboard or an overhead projector. If that is the technology that gets students to talk and share the kinds of problems they are solving in their class and teach those to other students, then that is the appropriate technology."

The Role of IT

Before moving to Penn State last year, Sparrow led Virginia Tech's InnovationSpace, a multimedia center that promotes technology-rich teaching, learning and research. She stressed that technology affords higher education new and interesting types of faculty-to-student and student-to-student interactions. "For me, this is really exciting, because you can talk about collaborative tools that allow students, even if they are not in same place or time zone, to collaborate on interesting projects."

But to better support teaching and learning, IT organizations need to understand and appreciate who the students are. "I see IT departments moved to a building three miles off campus, and that puts them farther away from their actual customers," Sparrow said, noting that when technology is being evaluated, any opportunity to bring students into the conversation is helpful. "Maybe we should have everybody in IT take a three-day seminar on what is good teaching and learning and not talk about technology at all," she said.

Involving Faculty

At the Ithaca meeting, Sparrow was asked for suggestions on how to build up an active learning program and who to involve in the project. "If we take a faculty member traditionally trained in the stand-and-deliver model of teaching and all of a sudden put them in an active learning space, they won't necessarily know what to do out of their zone of comfort," she said. "So we have to help them understand where they fit in this new classroom." Can they teach the things they have taught but in new ways? Are colleagues having success with it? Universities have to figure out how to develop flexible learning spaces and the support structure to help faculty make small but meaningful changes in teaching and learning, and provide lots of opportunities to experiment in a safe space, she said. "Help them rearrange their classroom and think about the instructional design piece." Offer them options and support, then let them choose and take ownership, she added.

To get an active learning program off the ground, she suggested finding faculty members who want to experiment with you and look for opportunities to support them. "If you go to conferences, bring those faculty with you. They need to see someone just like them up there evangelizing about how this has changed the way they do things, and made student experience richer and made their own experience in the classroom better," she said. "It is fascinating to me when faculty say 'I have dreaded coming to class for the past three years but this has reinvigorated me.' That is the best testimony I could ever hope for from a faculty member." Any time you can get students to tell the story, that is incredibly powerful, too, she added.

Administrative Support

Those kinds of testimonials help get that message to upper administration so they understand the importance of the project, Sparrow said. "Having that academic or administrative sponsor is critical," she added.

If you work at an institution that requires working with architects or interior designers on classroom redesign, meet with them regularly and talk to them about good teaching and learning. "If I got the chance to redesign curriculum at schools of architecture, one of the things I would ask them to study is what happens in good teaching and learning," she said. "It is not that designers and architects aren't creative and willing to have these conversations," she added. "It is just that they have had very specific training in terms of the number of bodies we need to have in this space; it must be clean and neat so the custodian can come through and vacuum at the end of the day. Ideas need to be broadened."

Sparrow said some universities have committees on redesigning classrooms. "Unfortunately, their idea of the future is stuck in the way we have done things for the last 25 years," she said, adding that one of IT's missions is helping those folks "understand what the possible is."

She said that in seeking buy-in from administrators, tech leaders should point out that active learning spaces are a competitive advantage with prospective students. These young people have toured 10 to 12 other institutions, she said. "They know what other people have. You can show your one showcase space, but they get it if the other classroom spaces are not up to snuff. They will ask, 'Is this a place I want to come into and learn? Are there stains on the carpet? Are ceiling tiles falling down? Are the walls dirty? Is this someplace I want to think creatively?' They aren't going to accept classrooms that are subpar."

Measuring Results

Sparrow admitted that assessing the impact of active learning spaces is difficult. Doing good research takes time and good research methodology, she said. "Often we are stuck with pseudo-experimental research. We can compare class A with class B, but we have no control over the random assignment of students in those classes. Also, we want to do longitudinal type studies to look at how active learning affects students three years down the road." That kind of data collection takes time and the technology may be obsolete by the time the study is completed. "With flipped learning, for example, by the time we collect that data, we may be on to something new. This week it is the Apple Watch. By the time we collected data on whether that had a positive impact on learning, we would be on to whatever is next. It comes back to framing those questions around good teaching and learning. We have research on what that looks like."

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