December 6, 2012

Collaboration Fosters Active Learning

Active learning is a broad concept which encompasses many different methods and trends in pedagogy. In a more global sense, it refers to a radical transformation in the way we perceive education. It is a new paradigm, a new philosophy of education which puts more emphasis on the role of students, who, more and more, are expected to become actively involved in the learning process.

Studies tend to show that active learning has a positive impact on student success, and for that reason, institutions are now committed to foster active learning pedagogy. My particular experience as an administrator who was in charge of an active learning project at Vanier College has made me understand that such a goal can only be attained through collaboration between many people from various sectors.

I would like to say that the active learning project at Vanier represents for me what an educational institution can be at its best.

A Place for Active Learning

Initially, the active learning spirit has to be alive amongst a group of teachers. This is the starting point, the essential condition of any active learning project. Without a solid core of daring and innovative teachers, it is pointless to even think of doing anything. Vertical hierarchies cannot transform pedagogy.

At Vanier, there were teachers like Edward Awad, Kevin Lenton, Nathan Loewen and Bruce Norton, who were dreaming of new installations similar to the high tech active learning classrooms at McGill University. (Some of these names will be familiar to Profweb readers through recent stories about their work.) The group engaged in a dialog with administrators and shared with them their futuristic dreams. The administrators, who had the same passion for innovative practices in education, were easily convinced. This set the active learning wheel in motion.


Students and Faculty Alike Learning…

 Active learning

…in the Active Learning Classroom.

Active learning can be practiced in any setting. However, there are space configurations that are more conducive to this type of pedagogy. Smart boards and pods equipped with computers create opportunities for new pedagogical practices which would be difficult to implement in a traditional classroom composed of blackboards and rows of solitary desks. Unfortunately, such facilities and equipment can be quite expensive. The high tech active learning classroom at Vanier became a reality thanks to funding from Entente Canada-Québec. Another key element was the support from senior managers such as the Academic Dean, the Director General and the Director of Facilities, who all treated the project as an institutional priority.

Evolving towards Active Learning

Beyond funding and administrative support, you need the contribution of a myriad of professionals and technicians. You need the expertise of I.T. staff who can provide information on equipment and explain the details of each possible configuration. (Just for smart boards, there are endless possibilities, and each model will have a different impact on teaching practices.) You also need the knowledge and resourcefulness of people who understand something about renovations, lighting, wiring, square footage, furniture, etc. This “nuts and bolts” aspect is a crucial component of the project. And it should involve teachers. At Vanier, the initial group of teachers was consulted on a regular basis during the design and the creation of the new classroom.

Another key component is training. At Vanier, beyond the small group of teachers who already had some expertise in active learning methodologies, there were eight other teachers who were ready to embark in the experiment, but had no knowledge or experience in the field. To be ready to teach in the new classroom, they not only had to learn how to use new technological tools, they had to develop a completely different conception of teaching and redesign all their courses. In order to support them in this journey, the Coordinator of the Pedagogical Development Office and the I.T. Pedagogical Advisor organized a series of training sessions and put together a cross-curricular community of practice, which, over the course of the fall semester, has become a think tank for innovative methods in pedagogy.

Exchanging Ideas and Dreams

In conclusion, I would like to say that the active learning project at Vanier represents for me what an educational institution can be at its best. It is about innovation and partnerships. It is also about collaboration and student centeredness.

In other words, it is about a community of teachers, professionals, technicians and managers getting together and exchanging ideas and dreams to better serve the needs of students.

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