October 13, 2017

The Low-Tech Active Learning Classroom at Cégep de Sept-Îles

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

The term active learning classroom usually evokes images of a sleek space packed with all of the latest technological bells and whistles. Not so at Cégep de Sept-Îles. To fit our teaching and learning needs and goals, we consciously opted for a classroom where inter-activity – not technology – plays a central role. This being 2017, of course it doesn’t mean we relegated electronic devices altogether. Here’s the story that explains the “how” and “why” of our low-tech active learning classroom.

Picturing Our Active Learning Classroom

Even though our active learning classroom (ALC) officially opened its doors in the Winter 2017 term, its story started about 5 years prior to that. I took part in a tour of several ALCs at McGill University, Dawson College and Champlain Saint-Lambert College organized by the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE/SAPES). This proved to be an incredibly valuable first-hand experience, and something I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone planning to lobby for an active learning classroom at their institution. I had the chance to exchange with ALC “gurus” Adam Finkelstein, Jim Sparks, Chris Whittaker and Elizabeth Charles. It also allowed me to make some first-hand observations that would shape our project at Cégep de Sept-Îles:

  • Space is very important. Students need to be able to move around, both on their chairs and throughout the room.
  • Air and temperature are another important consideration. When students are active, the temperature can go up quickly. Electronic devices also generate a considerable amount of heat.
  • It is important to keep noise and acoustics in mind. If there are no sound-absorbing elements, things get chaotic quite quickly once students get talking.
  • Big tables allow students to spread out, but hinder conversation. This, in turn, increases noise levels even further!
  • Workstations can also become a physical barrier to conversation, as students need to talk “over” or “in between” computer screens.

Sharing a Vision

I documented my visit with photos and videos, which I shared with the college’s administration. As a teacher pushing for an active learning classroom, gathering the necessary documentation as well as theoretical and pedagogical references to back up my vision proved key in making a convincing case.

  • Administrators talked to me about my ideas for an “e-learning class” or a “computer lab.” I had to make it clear that active learning is not all about technology; it’s about students collaborating.
  • Technical Services and Purchasing each had their own vision about equipment and design. From a teacher’s perspective, for instance, rolling chairs were non-negotiable, even if it meant fitting in fewer students in the room. The most cost-effective solution is not necessarily the best one: imagine the sound of twenty-odd students moving about on squeaky chairs with noisy wheels.

All design decisions should first and foremost be based on pedagogical considerations, not on what “can” or “cannot” be done in terms of cost, or protocol. Teachers need to be solid about their vision for the active learning classroom.

Getting Colleagues Involved in the Design Process

Once the idea of an active learning classroom got some traction with the administration, we set up a poll with SurveyMonkey. We wanted to find out which teachers were already using active learning techniques – even if they didn’t necessarily refer to them by that name. About 80% of the respondents already used approaches like project-based learning, case studies, flipped teaching, peer feedback, etc. I also wanted to get other teachers across the college on board, so the ALC would not be a one-woman project. Everyone had the opportunity to get involved. We formed a working group, which allowed us to work with different points of view and experiences. This was very enriching. In total, 6 teachers got release time to turn the active learning classroom dream into reality. Subsequent meetings led to the final design, which includes:

  • 5 regular whiteboards (3 on the walls and 2 on wheels)
  • Rolling chairs that swivel
  • Narrow trapezium-shaped tables with a slightly wider side toward the whiteboard. These were made in-house; their colours are representative of the area.
  • A convertible standing desk for the teacher
  • A projector and speakers, as in any other classroom

The active learning classroom at Cégep de Sept-îles

The room’s colour scheme represents local elements such as plants (blueberries, spruce) and wildlife (gulls, minke whales). The wall and flooring colours did not make it into the final design.

Three elements are essential to the success of an active learning classroom: adapted chairs and tables, and writeable surfaces.

Low-Tech, yet Active?

As the above list shows, we took a decidedly low-tech approach, for several reasons:

  • It is less stressful for the teacher and the students, as there is no pressure to use technology at all times.
  • It is more accessible budget-wise.
  • Any technological device that is an integral part of the room is prone to becoming outdated at some point.
  • Interactive whiteboards are a nice feature, but different brands and models can lead to compatibility problems. They are also rarely used to their full potential.

Does this mean we shun technology at Cégep de Sept-îles? Of course not! We have carts with laptops and iPads, which are accessible to students in the active learning classroom when relevant. As a result:

  • Students do not see the active learning classroom as a mere computer lab, but as a space where they collaborate in different ways.
  • Technology is never a distraction; it is only used when it enhances learning.
  • There is better continuity between work in different spaces because students can use the same devices and platforms (such as Moodle or Google Drive) elsewhere.
  • The room offers better flexibility because there are no fixed workstations or cables to hinder movement.

Students learning actively, without the use of technology.

First Experiences and Observations

Once our active learning classroom was ready to welcome its first groups of students, the teachers involved created a folder on Google Drive where we documented our use of the ALC. This included images, a list of problems and solutions and a document compiling our ideas and success stories. Below are a few examples of teacher notes, representing very different fields:

Examples of teacher notes
Traditional Lesson Active Learning Lesson
“Plot Lines”
PowerPoint, lecture with examples and discussion on elements of the plot in a short story.
I listed the events in a short story in the order they appeared in the story. This story had a lot of flashbacks and repetition. Students put them in chronological order. Each group used their whiteboard to make a diagram of the plot of the short story.
“Protein Synthesis”
Lecture-type delivery of theory on protein synthesis starting with the DNA molecule in the nucleus.
Each team was given a protein to synthesize. Students first researched information online and in their course book. Then, they discussed the concepts and illustrated them on the whiteboard. At the end of the activity, each team presented a skit to illustrate the protein synthesis to the other teams.
“The respiratory system”
Individual questionnaire.
Students had to analyze mini case studies (one / table). Each team had a different color marker to write their interpretations on the white board. After 10 minutes, they changed places and tried to solve the next mini case. They could add or modify the information already available on the board. When every team had resolved all cases, there was a class debriefing.

Short story plot diagrams produced during the Plot Lines activity described above show how different student teams creatively used their whiteboards to complete the task at hand.

For each class taught in the ALC, teachers also had one additional period in the room to explore and plan their activities. This was important to overcome two important concerns shared by several colleagues:

  • Loss of control (classroom management)
  • Loss of time (efficiency)

Learning in the active learning classroom definitely feels “messier,” but it is also more profound and effective. Activities seem more chaotic and less productive, but my students feel like they get more out of the learning experience. As soon as they walk into the room, they start talking straight away. This is a refreshing change from seeing students riveted to the screen of their smartphone while they are waiting for class to start!

Learning activities may seem less orderly, but students are more focused and learn more effectively.

In this video, teachers who were also on the Cégep’s ALC working group, share their experiences and thoughts on active learning.

Teachers sharing their experiences and thoughts on active learning (video in French)

Tips for Getting Your Very Own Active Learning Classroom

It took a considerable amount of effort, but I am proud to say the active learning classroom at Cégep de Sept-Îles is a success! If you are interested in getting an ALC at your college, the following steps are crucial:

  • Establish a working group and get teachers as well as administration involved.
  • Identify your specific needs and do research.
  • Don’t try to reinvent the wheel – look at what’s out there and visit in person, if possible.
  • Keep the main focus on pedagogy; only consider technology as a supporting tool.
  • Obtain release time to plan and implement the ALC.

When planning your first classes in the active learning classroom, carefully choose your activities, but always allow for creativity and flexibility. Instead of asking yourself “what am I going to say to my students?” consider what you are going to get your students to do to meet the learning objectives.” Keep it simple, and put inter-active learning, not technology, centre.

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