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Published January 24, 2010 | Physics

MIT’s Classrooms of the Future: Now in a Classroom Near You

Liz Charles is a professor at Dawson College who conducts pedagogical research and has received a PAREA grant for a project called ‘Scaling Up Socio-Technological Pedagogies'. Members of this mutli-college research team include Chris Whittaker & Chris Roderick from Dawson College, Nathaniel Lasry from John Abbott College and Helena Dedic & Steve Rosenfield from Vanier College.

Have you ever seen the science classrooms at MIT? These high-tech rooms are based on the SCALE-UP project at North Carolina State University (see Raymond Cantin's Profweb article). An adaptation of these rooms can now be found at Dawson College's Physics Department. Infrastructure funding given to that department has resulted in two completely renovated physics labs. Their design is based on socio-constructivist principles. Physics teacher Chris Roderick and researcher Liz Charles have been working together respectively on the pedagogy that goes into these new labs.

Liz Charles and Chris Whittaker in conversation.

Having already come a long way in understanding the benefits of socio-cognitive instruction, the lab planning committee of the Physics Department, headed by the then chairperson Chris Whittaker, realized that IT was useful but worked best in environments that could accommodate it. While traditional labs with long tables create a bottle necking effect where one student does all the data entry and limits the participation of other students, the flexible seating and design make computers more available to students. This open flow with seating arranged in pods or clusters of 4-5 students, around 2 computers, allows collaboration within these student groups as well as between others in the class as a whole. If your having trouble imagining what this looks like, this 4 minute video from the University of Minnesota should help.

This fall was the first semester for the new labs at Dawson, and the first day of classes was practically the first day that the rooms were available. To their credit, Chris Roderick and other members of the Physics Department put a lot of time into learning how to use the technology early in the semester. One of Liz's research objectives was to work with Chris Roderick to leverage the learning opportunities that this new environment and technology offer for student participation with the course material and with each other. For instance, she worked with Chris on optimizing the implementation of new pedagogical approaches that took advantage of the interactive learning potential offered by the design of the new labs. Chris used all the technology, and as part of her PAREA study, Liz observed Chris in the lab and gave him feedback on what worked and what didn't.

Together, Liz and Chris identified where there were opportunities to allow students to take a role in their own learning.

Together, Liz and Chris identified where there were opportunities to allow students to take a role in their own learning. What happens is that although teachers feel that their lecture is going well, students may not be picking up quite as much as the teacher imagined. One of the key indicators is students' questions, or lack thereof. Liz suggests being cognizant of who is asking the questions in your classroom, and what types of questions are being asked. Promoting the right kinds of question-asking is critical to promoting a change in students' sense of responsibility for their own understanding, as well as that of others. For example, when students don't ask questions very often it means that they are not following. If one or two students are the only ones asking questions and if their questions don't allow you to bring other students into the conversation, the discussion generally may not be in the service of the class as a whole.

One solution that Liz and Chris talked about to prevent this situation was to structure lectures and classroom activities in such a way as to create natural pauses, which allow students to think about what they have just heard. As well, designing activities that require students to tell others what they know, conversely identify what they don't really understand. The aim of both these strategies is to get students to recognize that they are entitled to ask questions and can be responsible for figuring out what they need to know. This is part of an approach to learning that demonstrates the kinds of thinking important for success in science.

Liz divides the types of common questions that students can ask into the following three categories:

  1. Unproductive questions which take you away from the matter at hand.
  2. Clarification questions which target outcome measures but don't advance the conceptual learning such as - "Do we need to know this for the test?"
  3. Productive questions which are in context and which either foreshadow the next logical topic that is being covered or review the information that was covered to ensure that this material is being recast into the students' own words, which builds "common ground" that allows others to enter into the conversation.

Another suggestion for improving student participation and peer collaboration ironically came from limitations of access to sophisticated equipment. Chris set up class in such a way that people who had collected data became the tutors for the next group using the equipment. Additionally, he designed an end of lab quiz that required students to take a "minds on" attitude while awaiting their turn at the equipment. What started happening was students began helping each other because each, in their own way, was becoming an expert in some aspect of the classroom activity. As that sense of understanding grew, students were able to mentor and coach each other on the data collection and analysis, as well as on the problem solving activities that were part of the pre-quiz preparation. Because Chris had created an environment that encouraged students to take authority for their learning, they also felt comfortable using the multiple technology resources of the lab to share their understanding which was fostered by the open flow of the environment.

Chris Roderick in one of the new labs.

Liz and Chris's experiences can be summarized into three lessons. First, teachers should set up multiple "bite sized" non-synchronous group activities. What this means is one group of students can complete a task, understand it and understand what others need to do so they can then help and in turn be helped. Second, in designing technology rich labs, it is beneficial to distribute the knowledge throughout the physical space (e.g., smartboards, whiteboards, computer, lab equipment) because this promotes exchanges and the development of individual expertise on the part of students to further promote sharing between them. Third, while teachers need to maintain structured classes, they also need to promote students taking authority - a balancing act.

Liz's team learned that the technology and design of the new labs can increase a teacher's effectiveness to convey the course content and the students' ability to participate and collaborate.

On the research side, Liz's team learned that the technology and design of the new labs can increase a teacher's effectiveness to convey the course content and the students' ability to participate and collaborate. This success, however, comes with a lot of work on the part of the teacher. They have to be willing to learn how to use the technology as well as be willing to take on new pedagogical approaches which is always a risky business but one that can have big rewards for both students and teacher.

Liz suggests that while colleges need to continue supporting teachers' professional development to use IT, they also need more classroom research to study how to implement these solutions. The educational research and learning sciences community has a lot to offer in terms of pedagogical theories but we, as cegep researchers, have a lot to offer in terms of how to implement theory and make it work.

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    Isabelle Laplante wrote February 23, 2010 at 2:33 PM

    Visit the CDC's Web Catalog|http://www.cdc.qc.ca/catalogue.html to read the complete PAREA REPORT in the article: CHARLES, Elizabeth S., Nathaniel Lasry, Chris Whittaker et Joel Trudeau. «Technology Supported Collaboration and Learning. How do we build learning environments to build communities & conceptual knowledge?», Dawson College and John Abbott College, 2009. PAREA Report http://www.cdc.qc.ca/parea/787203_charles_lasry_whittaker_trudeau_dawson_john_abbott_PAREA_2009.pdf and article http://www.cdc.qc.ca/parea/787202_charles_lasry_whitttaker_trudeau_dawson_john_abbott_article_PAREA_2009.pdf (in French).

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