The Teaching and Learning Institute carried out a small scale evaluation of a new classroom named the ‘collaborative learning suite. We interviewed three members of staff, a technical manager and undertook four classroom observations between Sep 2015 and June 2016.
The classroom had been redesigned by the School of Music, Humanities and Media as part of a review exploring innovative methods of teaching delivery using technology.
The room set up features four group areas. Each area has a table with lots of connectors, a large plasma screen and all four can transfer the group screen to a central screen at the front of the room. The idea was to make it easier for students to collaborate in groups, enable them to bring their own devices to plug in and present, discuss and produce material. Ideally, the students could then spend class time on being engaged in collaborative, active, hands-on problem-solving activities. This new set up with furniture and technology differs from more traditional classrooms on campus with rows of tables and chairs.
Learning space: benefit of clear and tidy group layout
In the interviews, staff highlighted the furniture layout with four group areas as a real positive difference to other classrooms. The nicely clean and structured layout, regardless of the connectivity and technology in the room, meant that the ethos of the room was seen as different to other classroom spaces. The architecture of the room coupled with the autonomy of their own works stations meant that working groups were generated effectively.
One member of staff commented that the shape of the room and the lay-out was conducive to collaboration (“it is a tidy learning space”) and this was not dependent on the technology available to students. Staff considered that it was valuable the way the students worked in groups in the space but they recognised that this could probably be achieved in another space with less connectivity.
The general view was that the set-up of the spatial layout was effective in enabling discussion, an informal atmosphere and one where staff worked alongside students in a facilitator position rather than a position at the front of the room.
Connectivity and collaboration
The connectivity in the room made it possible for students to access archives and data bases in real-time whilst undertaking tasks so this was a useful feature of the learning space. Generally, the group seating (and the nature of the tasks set) contributed to students having conversations and working together to solve problems and give feedback. However, during the observations, we noted a few students did not engage in the group work or join conversations. These students only responded to direct questions from staff. The students seated in the position with the mouse and therefore more in control of the screen were generally always engaged simply by the placement they were in.
Students did bring some devices, like laptops and tablets, but the majority were working from paper, presentation print outs and making notes on paper. So for example, some students had brought a print out of a research proposal that was to be peer-reviewed which meant a lot of improvisation in order to be able to share this on a screen.
There was limited switching of group screens to central screen, mainly as staff could not get this aspect to work consistently.
Developing the habit of learning and working together
There needs to be further evaluation of how much students actually bring their devices to plug-in and showcase from. We did not collect enough data to conclude anything about the impact of the connectivity aspects of the space. Observation findings do underline the importance of making sure students feel safe and are confident enough to share, show and discuss their work with their peers. Some work needs to go into preparing students for working in a collaborative learning space, especially in terms of the expectations of what they bring to class and the device(s) they may be working on.
Staff recognised that they needed to change the way they designed learning activities in order to get the most out of the space and the findings highlight that there needs to be investment in training and engagement of staff to develop appropriate pedagogical approaches.
These findings ares similar to outcomes from research into active learning classrooms carried out at University of North Caroline Charlotte (UNC), namely that building the classroom is simply a starting point and that there needs to be investment in staff development in order to bring about pedagogical changes. You can read more about the findings in the blog posts by Associate Professor for Anthropological Research Donna Lanclos: ‘When the Active Learning Agenda Comes to Town’ and ‘Places, Spaces, Teaching, Learning, Planning‘.
Posted by Kathrine Jensen, Research Assistant, Teaching and Learning Institute. The Teaching and Learning Institute coordinates, evaluates and disseminates inspiring and innovative teaching and learning. Follow TALI on Twitter