Teaching in an Active Learning Classroom: Pros and Cons

Earlier this term I wrote about my excitement with teaching in an active learning classroom: as a quick refresher, my course had just over 80 students, and is an introductory ecology class. The course has a strong focus on quantitative approaches to population and community ecology, from equations to modelling. I gave up doing traditional PowerPoint slides for this class a long time ago, but until this term, I was still teaching in a theatre-style lecture hall. With continuing to push the “active learning” agenda, it was great to have an opportunity to teach in a classroom specifically designed for active learning!

The Active Learning classroom

The Active Learning classroom

So, here are some perspectives and thoughts about teaching in an active learning classroom now that term is over.

Pros:

1. I found the tables (with rolling chairs!) were especially great when I did in-class quizzes, especially with group-based problems using “IF-AT” cards. Given the configuration of the tables, I sometimes did the quizzes with two groups at each table (so, 14 groups total, with 4-6 students per groups), or sometimes with three per table (21 groups total). Because the tables had three “wings” and chairs that rolled, it was quick and effective to make groups for these quizzes.

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

Students working in group quizzes using IF-AT cards (sample shown).

2. The configuration of the room made it feel like a ‘small’ class even though there were over 80 students in the room. From what I understand, a lot of care and attention was taken to the acoustics in the room, and I was truly amazed that even with active group work, the noise level was not overwhelming, and groups could work effectively.

3. Almost every class this past term included some kind of peer-to-peer discussion. Because students were facing each other, this was easily done in an active learning classroom: quick problem solving challenges, or getting students to come up with real-work examples related to course content, all was done easily on the spot. In a large lecture theatre it’s clunky and difficult to form discussion groups. A key strength of the active leaning classroom is certainly the configuration of tables: the learning space is optimal for active discussions.

4. I used some, but not all, of the technology in the room. The Tablet was fantastic (but see below…) and allowed me to write and draw, and those notes would be projected on one of the screens. At the end of lecture, the slides were immediately posted as PDFs on the course website. The room actually had dual projectors, and I used the second screen with a document camera so I could project graphs or text from the course textbook: students therefore had the course content from the textbook and from my lecture notes on the screens, during lecture. Although the room was also equipped with screens for each of the tables, I didn’t use these much, but the potential for each group to project their work has great potential.

5. Another advantage of the room was that the walls next to all the student tables were whiteboards. This allowed groups of students to work on problems using markers on the whiteboard, and draw out answers to problems, or do things like create ideas about food-webs. Again, the configuration of the room made this very quick and easy, since the students were just a few feet away from their whiteboard.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Students using the whiteboard to make food-webs.

Cons:

1. Sometimes you just need to lecture, and an active learning classroom isn’t set up very well for more traditional lectures. Active teaching and learning can be exhausting for the teacher and the students, and sometimes the content really lends itself well to a more traditional lecture. The active learning classroom and its configuration means that a third to a half of the students aren’t facing the podium (which is in the middle of the classroom), and it can feel quite awkward lecturing in that kind of room. I also bring in guest lecturers throughout the term, and it can be daunting for a guest lecturer to be inserted into an active learning classroom (although I briefed them on the layout, it is still difficult to fully grasp the classroom until you actually teach in it).

2. When I sat at one of the desks (as a student would) during the guest lectures, I also discovered another problem with the room: you don’t know where to look. There are dual screens in four different corners of the classroom, and the teacher is standing in the middle of the room, not in front of any of the screens. I can be a bit weird and unsettling. Students have told me about this quirk of an active learning classroom, and after being a student in the room, I get their point.

3. Although I listed the whiteboards as a “pro”, above, they also get labelled a “con” because of their configuration. Since there were only seven tables and one main whiteboard for each table, it got crowded around the whiteboard when students at each table worked together on the whiteboard. Group work with 12 students is really tricky.

4. When technology works, it’s wonderful. When you rely on this technology, and it fails, it can spell disaster. Towards the end of the term the Tablet pen stopped working and this happened in the middle of a class (of course!). This meant I had to quickly change strategies, and I used a sheet of paper under the document camera, and wrote the class notes in that fashion. It was less than ideal, and was frustrating for me and for the students. And, it meant I couldn’t get the notes transferred to the course website. The IT folks did get this fixed, but there were a few classes where I had to adapt on the fly.

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 11.11.28 AM

The dual screens.

In sum, the experience of teaching in an active learning classroom was very positive: students seem engaged, and the room was well suited to group activities. As with all teaching, everything takes practice, and I know it will be much smoother next time I teach in that room. The space is really impressive, and I certainly did not use the classroom to its full potential.

If you want to dabble in active learning in your own class (or other approaches, such as flipped classrooms), I do highly recommend trying to teach in a classroom space that is conducive to your style of teaching . That being said, it’s a very bad idea to teach a traditional podium-style lecture-based class in an active learning space: it just doesn’t work, and under that scenario, stick to a theatre-style classroom.

I also want to give a big shout-out to Teaching and Learning Services at McGill – brilliant minds in that unit worked on the design of the room I taught in this past term, and after spending a term in that space, I am in truly in awe. Well done to the TLS team! And thanks to McGill for supporting Active Learning classrooms across its campuses.

Advertisements

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.

—–

*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

A University in the future

What will the University of 2050 look like?

This was the fundamental question that guided a three day workshop /conference /event that I attended last weekend (you may have seen some activity on Twitter about this!). It’s a very difficult question, but an important one! Conference attendees prototyped a future university but did this in a very structured way, starting with a discussion (on the first day) about the “core values” that need to remain in University 35 years from now. There was general convergence around these values: critical thinking and unfettered curiosity, access & freedom of expression, diversity, community, and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

The second day was devoted to discussions about “game changers” – broader factors that might challenge the core values of Universities. These game changers included external factors such as shifting geopolitics or environmental catastrophes, to technological advancement such as artificial intelligence, “holodecks”, cognitive enhancement or ever-increasing life expectancy (and its implications), or some kind of Black Swan event.

Day three was about designing a future University given the core values and given the influence of game changers.

Here’s my group’s vision* for an institute of Higher Education in 2050: an institute we called “Horizon University”.

—–

Horizon University is still a campus, but is part of a globally connected network of Universities. Campus remains as a physical space for intellectual discussion, social engagement, clubs, activities, and a safe space for its students. The students themselves are from around the world, and many are returning to University after holding down a first (or second) career for many years. Although many students may attend HU classes virtually, there will still be students who will be present, physically, in classes. There are no longer large lecture halls, and instead HU is comprised of suites of collaborative learning spaces. Enrolment in a class may be large but the number of participants in each room remains small: the instructor’s avatar can move among the rooms. Students are paired with peers in most activities, and collaborative learning is the norm.

Our group's visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Our group’s visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Failure is also the norm: the process of learning takes precedence. The instructor is less a “professor” and more of a facilitator, largely because the sum of all information is at everyone’s fingertips (or implanted in our neuro-cortex). The classes are mostly “topic” or “project” based, because Universities are nimble, agile, and a place in which research and teaching are focused on society’s needs and struggles, although there remains places and spaces to discover for the sake of discovery. Professors still exist as subject experts, but are never working in isolation. Learning is truly interdisciplinary.

Classes run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and individuals from outside of HU may (virtually) drop into classes that are of interest to them. Many of the administrative functions of HU itself are largely run with the help of AI (artificial intelligence). In fact, AI acts as a type of “virtual assistant” for students: helping students schedule and get to class, checking in on their health and wellbeing, and doing the (objective) course assessments (i.e., to divorce this from the act of instruction), and doing the credentialing (assuming some kind of “degree” is still granted). The AI assistant can pick up on cues related to student wellbeing, and help get a student in to see a real person whether it is for counselling, advice, or to meet the facilitator for a course they are following.

—–

Our group then assessed what important actions would be required to see Horizon University come to fruition, and we felt there needed to be, in this order, (1) equality (ie, at a global scale), (2) teams of people to develop AI, (3) interdisciplinarity (within and among institutions) (4) rethinking the concept of “9 to 5” to the concept of “24/7” education, and (5) complete redesign of all learning spaces.

We then thought about the feasibility of those five actions, into the future, and came up with the following order: (1) learning spaces, (2) AI development, (3) 24/7 scheduling, (4) interdisciplinarity, and (5) Equality

Clearly feasibility doesn’t align with the importance of the actions, which is itself interesting, and challenging!

Caveats: I don’t believe everything we came up with, nor should you. Our group didn’t agree all of the time, and there are certainly some rather large flaws in some of the ideas, the logic, and the entire model may not be economically feasible.

But it doesn’t matter: it’s about the discussion. It’s about reflecting on the things we value in a university and the challenges we face. It’s about charting a path forward in an increasingly technological age and an age where research and knowledge is moving in new directions and where we are questioning fundamental concepts around teaching and leaning. Prototyping a University in 2050 is about starting a conversation and being part of an incredibly exciting time.

On a more personal level, the most valuable part of the experience was learning from people from different places, different career stages, and from different perspectives. The conference included writers, artists, computer programmers, undergrad and grad students from a suite of disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, and STEM), professors, university administrators and more. It forced me to open my mind, listen, and reflect on my own biases. There is so much value in diversity, and tackling questions about the future of University means bringing in as many stakeholders as possible.

I leave you with a few questions:

What do you envision as the future of your own institution?

What are your ideas about how to maintain core values of a university in the face of game-changers?

How can technology facilitate higher education?

Have you had this discussion at your own institutions? If so, what have you learned?

Please join the discussion. And you can follow the Event Horizon Blog here.

Postscript: the day after the conference I did some field work in an amazing forest near Montebello Quebec (see photo, below). What a contrast after three days of intense discussions, full of technology, data and information! I breathed in fresh air, watched some butterflies for a while, heard the birds singing and there was no cell reception. It was wonderful, refreshing and uplifting. This had me reflecting a bit more about a University of the future, and how that University should perhaps be much more closely integrated with our natural systems. That would be a good goal.

The forest.

The forest.

——-

*  I hope I have adequately described the key aspects of our group’s vision – it was more detailed then what I have presented, and I wholeheartedly admit that my writing may not reflect everyone’s opinion of our prototype University. (Sorry if this is the case!)

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Teaching with Technology

Classes start today.  You can sense the excitement in the halls as undergraduates and instructors rush to classrooms – eagerly awaiting the start of lectures.  OK, perhaps not EVERYONE is that excited… but I am.  The start of term is always fun, and the start of class provides new opportunity to adjust, and hopefully improve, my own teaching .

I wrote a post about a year ago that expounded on the value of teaching without technology (In Praise of Chalk).  Fundamentally, I can’t stand Powerpoint – it’s annoying, boring, causes information overload, and puts people to sleep.  In my course that starts today (Population & Community Ecology), I have traditionally used the chalk board, and feel it has numerous benefits. It allows for a more engaging and interactive classroom environment, facilitates high attendance, and slows down content delivery.  That being said, using a chalkboard also has some important drawbacks including (but not limited to): a) students having to decipher my poor handwriting; b) having to frequently have my back to the class; c) inability to easily bring complex graphs and figures into the lecture (i.e., from the textbook) – to do this would require switching between the data projector and the chalk board – an impossibility in the classroom in which I am teaching.

So, it’s not without a heavy does of irony that this term I am reintroducing some technology into the classroom.  In fairness, I see this as a natural evolution from the chalkboard, and will hopefully allow to overcomes some of the disadvantages of the chalkboard (In my previous post, I did discuss how a ‘smartboard’ or ‘whiteboard’ may be worth trying…).  This term, I will try using a tablet (i-pad), connected to the data projector (via a $35 cable), along with a tablet-friendly pen, and a piece of free software (a type of whiteboard – I’m going to try the Educreations app).

Teaching tools.

Teaching tools.

I’ve been playing around with this for a few days and here are my initial impressions:  this approach will allow me to import photos – in particular, I will use images of complex graphs/figures from my textbook, and I can use the pen to highlight / draw / write on these figures.  I should also be able to face the class when writing on the i-pad, and the software does have a function which allows for typing – this will help with the handwriting problems.   The software does have a few issues – it doesn’t allow easy options for saving (i.e., you must create an account with educreations, etc), nor does the app come with an eraser (it does have an ‘undo’ button, but that button only works on the page you are currently working on – so, if you have to return to a previous slide, you can only add content, not remove what is already there).  Nevertheless, I think the app will serve its purpose.  If I really like using the i-pad for teaching, I might invest in other apps – there are many out there.

So, onwards with another exciting adventure in teaching!  I’ll keep you posted about whether this approach works or whether I return to the comfort zone of dusty chalk.

What are your opinions and experiences?  Please share….