Making Space for Active Learning
Why adaptable environments are the future of post-secondary education
The COVID-19 crisis has caused immeasurable disruption to post-secondary education. But it has also introduced the opportunity to accelerate change that was already in motion. It’s a chance to look more carefully at the vulnerabilities, limitations, and possibilities of institutional learning.
Right now, access to information is easy. Access to materials, learning tools, and support is a different story. Professors, peers, and interactivity is what the post-secondary experience can offer. Unlike past generations, says Jeff Covey, director of education at DIRTT, these students are unlikely to follow a linear path to the workforce. Instead, they will move back and forth between learning and work environments. “It’s a learning lifecycle that looks different,” he says. Students want a range of learning formats and a more curated experience. Post-secondary infrastructure has to be increasingly adaptable in order to serve them.
The impact of COVID-19 has given speculation about the future of education a new urgency. How does learning look when you can’t safely gather in a lecture hall? What do students want and need from post-secondary education, anyway? And how will learning spaces support that? Through active learning.
Active learning 101
Broadly speaking, active learning is just what it sounds like. It’s anything that involves students doing things and thinking about the things they’re doing. That’s the definition active learning pioneers Charles Bonwell and James Eison used. Let’s be clear, active learning doesn’t rule out watching, listening, and taking notes, as in a lecture. But it also incorporates applied, collaborative, and exploratory learning methods. “Traditionally, professors and instructors were repositories of knowledge, who would dispense that knowledge,” says Covey. “In active learning, faculty are more like coaches and mentors in the process of discovery.” There’s no one way to facilitate active learning. The common element is engagement — students are exploring, analyzing, and interacting with the subject at hand.
For many of us, our first learning environment is a playground. If there’s a swing, a slide, and a seesaw, we tend to swing, slide, and seesaw. If there’s a boulder, a pile of sticks and a rope, we tend to engage more deeply, explore, and investigate. As we grow, what we learn changes. But the way our environment influences the way we learn — that always matters.
Not surprisingly a traditional lecture hall doesn’t function well as an active learning space. The way we use technology has evolved. Everyone has a device and access to information on the internet. As a result, we’re rethinking the way post-secondary campuses have been designed for hundreds of years.
Building a better classroom
In 2018, the University of the Fraser Valley (UVF) was deciding what to do with a building it had purchased. The building was supposed to be a swing space while the campus completed another construction project. Mark Goudsblom, UFV director of campus planning and facilities management, says the university wanted to try something different. Student needs were changing.
Education is no longer about learning to do something. It’s about learning to think beyond what you can Google. So, what should teaching and learning look like? And how will the space we create enable that?
The UFV team understood that if you put a lectern and a blackboard in the front of a room full of side-by-side seats, that’s exactly how it will be used. However, if they invested in classrooms that were different shapes, with high and low tables, furniture on wheels and plenty of whiteboards and screens, they’d have an environment where faculty could get creative with their teaching.
UFV partnered with DIRTT to build the space into classrooms and administrative offices. They designed Building K to support creative learning approaches. For Goudsblom, it was an opportunity to create a space unlike any other on the UFV campus. Building K officially opened at the beginning of 2020, and it’s a new kind of playground. The space has flexible furniture, writable surfaces, integrated tech, the university’s first technology-enhanced POD (Plan, Observe, Debrief) classroom, and an active learning center. It’s also built to withstand changing circumstances. DIRTT preserved the shell of the original building, which Goudsblom says will allow the space to evolve along with the needs of its students. “We have to constantly adapt,” he says.
Adaptability for the future
At UFV, moving learning online to support physical distancing is an opportunity to test and refine new learning formats. “We’ve had this huge, sped-up transition,” Goudsblom says. Active learning models can transition neatly to online learning (as this Slate story explains). That’s because it’s an interactive, collaborative, exploratory, and technology-based model. A video lecture is still a lecture. But a video discussion paired with a presentation, an instant message chat, group work, and a period of independent research — that’s an opportunity for deeper learning.
UFV is now exploring hybrid models that mix in-person and online learning in a single course. They’re also considering high-flex models, where a course is offered in person and online simultaneously. Goudsblom says that what’s coming is a more professional and elegant way of providing answers for students. Increasingly, students will choose post-secondary institutions that prove themselves adaptable and willing to invest in active learning spaces and approaches. These are places where they’ll find the education that will really prepare them for the future.
“We want to build strategic, creative, critical thinking and problem solving. Things that can’t be done by robots,” Goudsblom says. “That’s the value of being human.”
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