Student-Centered Learning

Sure, the University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Twin Cities campus boasts a brand new, 115,000-sq.-ft., $69M, Science Teaching + Student Services building, which opened in August 2010 and overlooks the Mississippi River. From the outside, it looks pretty impressive indeed. However, the building’s real significance lies in what is inside — among many other spaces, it includes 10 Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs).

The ALCs vary in size from 27 to 126 seats. They are outfitted with large round tables, each of which seats nine students. According to Jeremy Todd, interim director for UMN’s Office of Classroom Management (OCM), each room features laptop-based technology, multiple fixed flat-panel display projection systems, a central teaching station that allows the instructor to select and display table-specific information, and a 360° marker board around the perimeter. “Each also has a mobile wall, so as we look at scheduling demands from semester to semester, we can divide a room in half to create two smaller classrooms,” he says.

Providing Integration for Student Devices
According to the OCM Website, the design emphasizes the use of the ALC’s basic technology infrastructure using campus-wide standards, interfaces, and protocols, in order to provide seamless and user-friendly integration of student-provided laptops, along with the ability to project and share both student and professor information. Also, in order to provide temporary support to ease the transition to more students having personal laptops or other computing devices, in the few supported classrooms there is one laptop for each group of three students.

Before building the ALCs, UMN administrators ran a pilot program with one classroom each at the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses. They looked at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) program, which got its start in the institution’s Physics Department. And they looked at North Carolina State University’s Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs (SCALE-UP) project, which was designed to establish a highly collaborative, hands-on, computer-rich, interactive learning environment for large-enrollment courses.

“Both the pilot classroom and the new classrooms are filled with technology,” says Mark Decker, co-director of the Biology Program in UMN’s College of Biological Sciences, who used a pilot classroom and is now using one of the 10 ALCs to teach Foundations of Biology. “And it’s not just computers, but also round tables, which, in my mind, is the most important technology in the classroom so that students can see and interact with each other.”

Connecting Faculty Resources
Overall, the ALCs are designed to bring instructor-based controls to student levels to enhance education. “We have a standard projection-capable classroom across campus,” says Todd. “Faculty bring in their laptops and use videos, DVDs, document cameras, and more for teaching students. With the ALCs, we provide some of that connection at the student level to share with each other at their tables. Professors can share information with students at each individual table or on the wall for everyone to see.”

Decker has been privy to the changes occurring for both professors and students using the ALCs (any professor can request use of an ALC, but those teaching STEM courses are given first priority). Professors take on facilitator roles, serving more as coaches than teachers. “Not every team works on the same problem,” he notes. “We can survey the room by looking at the monitors and see if they’re on task. If one team has targeted an interesting point, we can display it on all the large-screen monitors. So there’s a spontaneity of teaching that the technology allows.”

That spontaneity, which stems from the students being the center of attention and a focus on learning as opposed to teaching, may make some professors uncomfortable, as they can’t predict how students will interpret data. Decker indicates that professors must be comfortable with the fact that students may have specific pieces of information that they don’t and that students may ask questions for which they do not have answers. “If you get away from the idea that you have to be the encyclopedia, and accept that you have to be a savvy consumer of information with the student, you become more comfortable,” he notes. “It can be enormously satisfying — even more satisfying than the standard model for higher education teaching.”

Facilitating Student Acceptance
Students, too, face changes using the ALCs for the first time, notably because they’re accustomed to being taught via lecture. Decker explains that each team is in a smaller learning environment with its co-team members, working on both short-term and long-term projects. The professors are helping them build skills in terms of being intelligent consumers of scientific information, for which they need a lot of assistance. Also, the professors provide the students some scientific information and ask them to evaluate it. “We expect them to build these skills as a team,” he says.

“In the beginning,” Decker continues, “students are fairly unhappy about learning this way. However, to be a biologist, you have to learn and practice both the skills and how to think like a biologist. You can’t be passive.”

Dr. Robin Wright, associate dean for Faculty and Academic Affairs with UMN’s College of Biological Sciences, tells students that she understands this is new to them. She even reviews with them metacognitive aspects of learning and the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. Then, periodically throughout the semester, she asks them where they are in their stages of grief. By the end of the semester, says Decker, most students embrace the learning method.

Rounding Out the Opportunities
Having used ALCs for three years now, Decker notes their value on several levels. One is the design to accommodate the round tables, which increases interaction. “If I put 126 students in a lecture auditorium,” he says, “I would not be able to walk up to many of them and physically interact with them as individuals.” Similarly, in using the round tables, the students know there is no physical barrier between them and the professor, and so their obligation to the professor is greater. Another value the ALCs offer is that today’s savvy students expect some use of technology in the classroom; a lack of technology is seen as a missed opportunity. Technology provides access to a tremendous amount of both bad and good information, and the ALC design allows professors to help students find the good information

Todd notes that the ALCs cost three to four times more than general classrooms, “because we added more technology for the students to interface with.” And, while there are no current plans to build more, some departments are looking at incorporating the components in their department-specific spaces. Clearly, that’s a testament to the success of ALCs’ ability to enhance education by bringing instructor-based controls to student levels.