Collaborative learning across the campus

HE is still very conservative, with structures that prioritise roles and processes ahead of culture and personalities, says Duncan Peberdy

Whilst pockets of expertise and enlightenment do exist, universities are still very conservative places with structures that prioritise roles and processes ahead of culture and personalities, and where change is often viewed as negative disruption rather than a positive innovation.  The truth is that change is both, but most people only take one view, and a negative mindset is difficult to overcome.

New active learning pedagogies is one such change currently challenging the status quo by asking tutors to support students to learn for themselves rather than spoon-feeding them their expertise.   At the longest established seats of learning, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Durham, the dons have always maintained that learning was the sole responsibility of students, it was just undertaken as a solitary experience after lectures or seminars had been attended.

In a world where Google provides indexing to 2,370,000 scholarly articles on the ‘benefits of active learning’ in less than a single second, education must evolve beyond a single expert standing in front of a large student cohort delivering material that hasn’t been recently updated, and in a style that doesn’t engage today’s learners.  Just because all students hear and see the same information, doesn’t mean they all understand it, have the same foundations that this new information builds on, or that they will be able to apply the learning in anything other than a rote recall for the purposes of passing an exam.

Workplace Ready

The Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been introduced to improve the standards of HE teaching and provide prospective undergraduates with data from which they can make informed choices.  Effectively an Ofsted for HE providers, one impact will be on the fees that institutions can charge their students; those that can demonstrate excellence in all three criteria – Teaching Quality – Learning Environments – Students Outcomes and Learning Gain – will be able to charge more than those at the bottom of the inevitable league tables.  Better equipping students for today’s collaborative workplaces requires many key skills that active learning develops; critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork, etc. 

Technology is the enabler

An easy mistake to make (and one which has been made many times) is to determine that technology itself is the sole focus for developments.  Whilst technology is of course the key enabler, without the other essential inputs, a solution based on technology alone will fail.  Just putting collaborative technology into a room with existing columns and rows of individual desks will be a step back.  For technology to enable collaborative learning, students need to be purposely grouped around screens where they can share digital information and co-construct their learning.  This requires furniture designed specifically to support the enabling technology.  Students need to be timetabled for longer than the standard 1 hour sessions, the space design needs to provide natural light, an optimum working temperature, and acoustics that minimise the high audio levels from students being fully engaged.

Leaders who can foster innovation

Active learning initially attracts those whose minds are already open to positive change that delivers improvements; they don’t need strong leadership.  Strong leadership is needed to ensure that all staff are exposed to the benefits of collaborative learning, for both their students and themselves, that they haven’t yet appreciated.    Within a profession that has little – if any – mandatory professional development, this is a big problem.  For example, at a university that recently (October 2016) provided voluntary training for tutors on the new lecture capture system that had been installed at a substantial cost, not a single tutor turned up at any of the sessions held throughout the day.  

Digital Classroom Roadshow

The digital classroom is not an active learning panacea for every learning space on campus, but when the same Kramer VIA technology can also be used effectively by students in social spaces and collaborative lecture spaces, the student experience of anywhere anytime learning is very appealing, engaging and socially positive.

In 2015, Jisc provided the Digital Classroom Roadshow with a small grant of seed funding to enable universities to better engage with all aspects of active learning.   Each host university had access to a fully-configured wireless digital classroom for around four weeks, during which time they could run awareness sessions, seminars, training and teaching in the 36-seat capacity space, bringing together all stakeholders from across the campus that are essential for successful future deployments on their own campus.

Workshops were also open to participants from all universities and colleges to attend, and representatives from 76 universities and 46 colleges took part in these during the roadshow.  By being able to bring along their own mobile devices to connect and simulate a student experience, and to discover how simple it is to make information flow around the room, many previously held negative assumptions were quickly dispelled. In some instances, directors of IT attended workshops with their director of estates and PVC for learning and teaching, and took back their new understanding and conversations to their own campuses. 

Helping foster better informed decisions about their own campus developments – which are notoriously difficult to achieve from more traditional engagements at tech days, exhibitions or site visits where the same fully connected wireless infrastructure is not available – is exactly the mission the Digital Classroom Roadshow set-out to achieve.

Based on positive feedback throughout the roadshow – and especially in those locations where the VC personally visited whilst on their campus – the Digital Classroom Roadshow has been recommissioned by Jisc for 2017, and will be hosted by Lincoln, the Royal Agricultural, South Wales, East London, Staffordshire and Dundee universities.   Book your place now!

Duncan Peberdy

Duncan runs, his own consultancy on Learning Spaces and Collaborative Working.  Having had books on business meetings published by Pearson, the success of his book Active Learning Spaces and Technology was the impetus for Duncan to devise the Digital Classroom Roadshow which has been successfully run in partnership with Jisc.

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