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You may have noticed the shiny new building going up on the East Bank along the River Road, its curved glass façade facing the Weisman Art Museum. This is the Science Teaching and Student Services (STSS) building. The "Science Teaching" part suggests that classes taught in this building will be largely in the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. But what we in OIT are most excited about is the fact that this building features 10 Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs).

Why all the excitement? In the past decade, learning spaces have become a field of study, driven by the recognition that learning technologies have fundamentally altered/shifted the boundaries of the traditional classroom at the same time that advances in understanding how students learn, coupled with increasing demands on student time, have "led to rethinking the use, design, and location of learning spaces" (Brown and Long, 2006, p. 1). And while learners require several elements in their learning spaces, including flexibility, comfort, sensory stimulation, decenteredness, and technology support (Nancy Chism, 2006), faculty require an integrated strategy for their support and development in response to this paradigm shift (Brown and Lippincott, 2003).

Some background: Student-centered, active learning spaces were developed in the early 2000's to address various problems--such as lack of attendance as the semester went on, undesirable failure rates--in large-lecture, undergraduate physics classes. The U's ALCs are modeled on North Carolina State University's SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Activities for Large Enrollment Undergraduate Programs) Project and the TEAL (Technology-Enabled Active Learning) Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. To combat the problems typical of large lectures, a shift was made from lecture halls to rooms in which students sat at round tables, and from separate lecture, recitation, and lab courses to a combined, more hands-on ("studio"-style) course. In this new space, students work to solve problems or carry out activities in small groups, have discussions in small or large groups, utilize various educational technologies, and interact with one another and the instructor. This model has been adopted by over 50 institutions, and a number of other disciplines, at this time. A number of studies have verified the effectiveness of this approach--you'll find a list below.

Active Learning Classroom
The new Science Teaching and Student Services building features several Active Learning Classrooms similar to this one.

So, the ALCs here at the U are designed to facilitate active learning as opposed to lecture. The round tables encourage student-student interaction, table-wide or within smaller groups. The instructor can easily move among tables, interacting with students, asking and answering questions. There will be a wall-mounted flat-panel display for each table, so students' group work can be shared. Abundant whiteboard space allows for easily visible team brainstorming.

This fall, classes will be held in the new building's active learning classrooms. But success depends on more than just the physical learning space. In the past few years, the discussion has turned to a broader concept, learning environments. "The term learning environment encompasses learning resources and technology, means of teaching, modes of learning, and connections to societal and global contexts. The term also includes human behavioral and cultural dimensions, including the vital role of emotion in learning, and it requires us to examine and sometimes rethink the roles of teachers and students because the ways in which they make use of spaces and bring wider societal influences into play animates the educational enterprise." (From Learning Environments: Where Space, Technology, and Culture Converge, Warger and Dobbin, 2009.)

Wow--this is the stuff of real transformation.

As with any transformation, there will be growing pains. These new learning environments have the potential to take both faculty and students out of their comfort zones. It will take time to make such a fundamental shift--time, patience, understanding, and willingness to try something new, on everyone's part. The research suggests there are substantial rewards to be gained. Used well, these new ALCs will be lively, noisy, productive spaces--and they will produce results.

Studies on effectiveness:
A nice discussion of the SCALE-UP Project can be found in Beichner, et al., 2007. More on the TEAL Project is available in Dori and Belcher, 2007.

Results from the University of Minnesota's pilot studies are in "Active Learning Classrooms Pilot Evaluation: Fall 2007 Findings and Recommendations."