How to collaborate to create active-learning classrooms on campus

2019 UBTech® presenters offer inspiration and innovation in designing flexible learning spaces

The active-learning movement in higher ed has driven many administrators and their teams to seek out best practices for creating tech-laden campus classrooms that inspire students to be more creative and collaborative.

Presenters at this year’s UBTech® conference in Orlando covered a range of strategies, from informal learning spaces to collaborative classroom redesign to professional development that steers instructors toward new teaching approaches.

Active learning leverages the nooks and crannies

St. Edwards University in Austin has a deliberate strategy for developing a network of informal learning spaces as students increasingly study and collaborate in every nook and cranny on campus that has outlets to charge digital devices.

These spots are cropping up in computer labs, libraries, residence halls and outdoor areas. In fact, they appear everywhere outside of the formal classroom setting where students engage in learning, said Laura Lucas, the school’s learning spaces manager.

“I go around campus and look for places where students are camped out on the floor and plugged into an outlet,” Lucas said. “Those are areas of opportunity: The student is using it as a learning space, and I want to make it better.”

Developing the network begins with figuring out how an informal space and its technology—such as screens and connectivity—impact the type of instruction that can take place, she said.

To best support learning, the comfort of these spaces should create a sense of belonging for students. And the ability to manipulate and rearrange these spaces to accommodate the work being done creates a sense of agency for learners, she said.

Laura Lucas, learning spaces manager at St. Edward's University, shares active-learning strategies for enhancing spaces where students can study in groups or on their own.
Laura Lucas, learning spaces manager at St. Edward’s University, shares active-learning strategies for enhancing spaces where students can study in groups or on their own.

An ecosystem should consist of spaces for groups and individuals that are well-distributed around campus. “They don’t have to all be the same, but we want them to be complementary so students have access to a variety of function and form,” she said.

Lucas and her team also test out space designs on staff before creating them on campus.

“We understand the connection of furniture, technology and pedagogy,” Lucas said. “Over time, we are showing that we are the campus experts on learning spaces. We positioned ourselves as a knowledgeable group that other people now want to partner with.”

The ‘Pinterest’ of flexible learning environments

AV and IT leaders can research models of active learning classrooms on FLEXspace. The site, which has been called a more substantive version of Pinterest, allows campuses to upload photos and details of their spaces to inspire other AV and IT designers, faculty and facilities planners.

Read more: Active learning in the language lab

Uploaders can include technology, costs of construction, supporting research, and other components of their flexible rooms.

Users of the site, which is sponsored by vendors, can search the galleries by type of room and institution, among other filters.

Helping faculty make the transition

Faculty need guidance as they switch to active learning classrooms. Training sessions at the University of Central Florida covered four components: pedagogy, environment, assessment and technology.

First, faculty have to redesign courses so instruction focuses on what students are creating, rather than on feeding students information, said Landon Berry, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Central Florida’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. Instructors also have to become comfortable with the layout of decentralized classrooms.

Administrators need to develop a vision for active learning before buying and installing technology, said Don Merritt, director of UCF’s Office of Instructional Resources.

“You don’t start with a tool and try to force fit it into everything else,” Merritt said. “You need to know what you’re doing first before you decide on your tool.”

Role-playing upgrades

In a hands-on presentation by Katie Kassof, the learning space designer at American University in Washington, D.C., attendees role-played as campus improvement committees, taking on jobs such as director of academic technology, director of AV, campus planner and registrar.

Read more: Active learning relies on experience more than space

In figuring out how to refresh classrooms, they took on tasks such as creating partnerships between departments, categorizing a campus’ learning spaces and setting priorities for upgrades.

The activity mimicked American University’s work to modernize 25 rooms per year. In real life, American’s AV techs surveyed all the institution’s classrooms to assess everything from technology to lighting to damaged furniture.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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