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New Classrooms, SMART Teaching

While online tools have transformed a number of industries, there has not been a major positive impact on teaching in universities

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | March 18, 2016 | Higher education

By Gunter Saunders and Federica Oradini, University of Westminster 

Technology has changed so many experiences in our daily lives. News reporting and banking, for example, have been transformed by the power of the internet. However, in the last 15 years or so, whilst the internet and online tools have transformed a number of services, industries and activities, there has not been a major positive impact on teaching in universities.

Why is this? Part of the answer to this question lies in the predominant paradigm for university education, which relies heavily on teaching face-to-face in a physical classroom. The internet is not a physical thing, it’s not something you can stand at the front of, sit or walk around in (yet). You can’t make eye contact over the internet and for this and other reasons, interaction using the internet is very different. As the physical classroom has generally changed very little since it became easy to exploit online tools and systems, it’s not surprising that staff have continued to think mainly of technology (beyond slide and web page projection capability) as something that ‘happens’ outside of the classroom as a supplement to classroom teaching. 

So, where does or should the technology fit in to the classroom experience? Currently across the higher education sector emphasis is being placed on engaging students in the learning process and in working with them in partnership for the co-creation of learning opportunities. In addition, there is more focus on the development of graduate skills critical for future employment. These ‘refreshed’ priorities (they are not really new), coupled with changes in technology infrastructure at universities (and especially the quality of wifi access), is leading to some major re-thinking about the place of online ‘stuff’ and the internet in classroom teaching. 

It should now be possible to move from the predominant ‘face to face + online’ model of curriculum delivery to a ‘face to face is online’ model, as the internet becomes part of the physical classroom.

Of course a teacher has for some years been able to access the internet at the front of a classroom via the networked computer but what is different now is students can do this too, and potentially from any part of the classroom. As students are increasingly able to make use of the internet in the classroom we might, as a consequence of the desire to have students more active in class, hope that the teacher may exploit this and spend less time forced, by the nature of traditional classrooms, into being a lectern at a ‘front of the class’.

It should now be possible to move from the predominant ‘face to face + online’ model of curriculum delivery to a ‘face to face is online’ model, as the internet becomes part of the physical classroom 

It is our firm belief that academic staff usually want students to actively participate in their classrooms. It can however be difficult to get the desired engagement and if it does not materialise it can be very demotivating. Inevitably there are many factors that can influence the extent of engagement, including the nature of the audience. Engagement very often flows from enthusiasm and interest. Fundamental in generating enthusiasm and interest is a key classroom tool, the teacher themselves. Their heart, their soul, their passion, their commitment to their subject – these are what lay the foundation for an effective learning event. To support what a good teacher can do, classrooms need to be places they can be confident in. They need to know that they have ‘props’ that support them and which are helpful and reliable.

In SMART teaching those props include the furniture which must not be rows of immoveable tables and chairs. The technology in the classroom is another key ‘prop’ and must be easy for the teacher to use, in order that their confidence and mood and that of their audience remains high throughout a session. In addition, we now can have classrooms with technology that goes beyond a set of teacher centric tools and allows students to use the power of the internet to take part. Students enter Higher Education with an increasingly diverse range of prior knowledge, capabilities, study habits, digital literacies and expectations than those of previous generations. Students need an adaptable learning environment with ‘props’ that lets them experiment and learn from each other.

As shown in the figure below SMART teaching is about the people involved, the purpose and attitude they bring with them to the class, alongside their interaction with the physical space they are in and the technology they use within that space.

In 2015 the University of Westminster started a five-year programme to refurbish all classrooms to a new standard designed to facilitate SMART teaching. A review of classrooms in 2014 showed that academic staff felt constrained by the physical spaces they taught in. Many inhibiting factors cited were quite basic such as lighting, availability of sufficient whiteboard space and room blackout capability. Classroom furniture was also considered to be too inflexible. Current AV/IT configurations in classrooms were not seen to encourage nor enable student engagement, tending to lead to perpetuation of a teacher-centric model of operating within the classroom environment.

During the summer of 2015, 25 general teaching spaces were completely modernised to address the issues identified during the review. The project engaged an external design company to advise and lead consultations with designated contacts within each Faculty to try to ensure that subject contexts were taken into account in designs where possible.

Whilst technology is not the only feature of our new classrooms, its integration into the physical teaching spaces provides powerful opportunities to better deliver what academic staff have always really sought – active, student centred learning

This seemed especially important in relation to the configuration and nature of AV and IT within each room. Based on the feedback received to date on the new classrooms, which has been both positive and constructive, a further 42 classrooms will be refurbished during the summer of 2016 in the second phase of the 5 year programme.

One of the authors is amongst a number of teachers who embraced the online world a while ago to ‘turn the classroom upside down’ long before the phrase ‘flip the classroom’ was around, and was then disappointed to see limited uptake of tools that could promote active learning. With new classrooms coming on stream, it is to be hoped that at long last ‘online’ can find a really meaningful role across the university sector.

Whilst technology is not the only feature of our new classrooms, its integration into the physical teaching spaces provides powerful opportunities to better deliver what academic staff have always really sought – active, student centred learning.

Professor Gunter Saunders is Director Internet and Education Technology Services at University of Westminster.

 Federica Oradini is Senior Lecturer in e-Learning at the University of Westminster.

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