Blog: Early findings from collaborative teaching spaces

THE UNIVERSITY of Leeds has recently unveiled three redesigned tiered traditional lecture theatres making them into collaborative learning spaces. LITE Teaching Enhancement Project leader, Alice Shepherd, feeds back here on what it’s like to teach in them.

My colleagues call me ‘the tech geek’.  I can understand why.

I have a master’s degree in Online and Distance Education, for which I studied as an online student at the Open University.  I’m a member of the faculty teaching enhancement group.  I was an educator on an award-winning massive open online course, developed in collaboration with ICAEW.  You get the idea.

I am not, however, an advocate of technology for technology’s sake in teaching.  I read about too many pilots in which shiny new toys and tools overshadow the educational aims.

Evidence-driven

One of the best talks I attended last year was given by Sian Bayne, Professor of Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh.  She encourages critical approaches to educational technologies.

I like it if others have tried something first, and I can learn from their experiences.  I also feel it’s crucial to gather student feedback about innovations.

In semester two, I teach a first year management accounting module, which has approximately 100 students.  It is assessed through a two hour exam.  It gets positive student feedback, and the exam performance is very good. There is a weekly 90 minute lecture and a weekly 50 minute seminar.

However, I felt that the atmosphere in lectures was ‘flat’ and wanted to encourage more interaction between myself and the students, and more opportunities for them to practically apply the techniques I was teaching, so that the progression to seminar preparation would be smoother.

Trial

The University of Leeds has redesigned three tiered traditional lecture theatres, making them into collaborative teaching spaces.  So, I outlined a ‘flipped classroom’ approach in which students would watch a video introducing a technique and complete a quiz before each lecture, and then spend time applying the theory to practical examples in group activities during the lecture.  Seminars would be unchanged.

I asked last year’s students for feedback on this proposal.  They were generally positive but also expressed concerns that it would involve more work for them.  So, I decided on a compromise which I have called a ‘semi-flip’.

Every other week we have a true flipped classroom session for which the students are asked to complete pre-lecture work.  The non-flipped sessions involve more traditional lecturing, but still with activities built in.

READ: Professor Neil Morris’s blog on reimagined learning spaces.

Early findings

So, what has it been like?  At the start of the module, I explained that although the students would be expected to spend time preparing for the flipped sessions, the seminar preparation would be less time-consuming as they would have had more practice at the techniques during the lecture.

The lectures are far more interactive, with students contributing their thoughts through a Padlet wall, completing quizzes using the Socrative interactive voting app and completing gapfill exercises in groups, while I roam around the room helping them.

All of the student ‘pods’ have a built-in laptop, and students can plug in their own devices to use.  Because I am facilitating the student activities, often with the help of the seminar leader who comes to the flipped sessions, I have a much better sense of progress and challenging areas than I did previously.

The students have not yet completed the module evaluation, but they were very positive in a recent survey on the room facilities.    The seminar leader has commented that the students have been more secure on the core techniques and she has been able to challenge them with additional discussion questions.

Future

However, there have also been some downsides.  I had to be trained to use the collaborative lecture theatre and spent time dry running the initial session.

I joke with my students that it is like commanding the USS Enterprise at times, as there are so many buttons for me to press!  I spent Christmas restructuring the learning materials, scripting and recording pre-lecture videos, developing quizzes and planning the classroom activities.

Sometimes I have been too ambitious with what we can do in 90 minutes, so I will have to rethink some sessions.

I have been monitoring engagement with the pre-lecture work through our virtual learning environment’s statistics tracking feature, and I have had to remind the students to complete the work – it is not yet part of the study routine.

Despite these downsides, I think this approach has potential and I will continue to develop it in future years – unless the module evaluation suggests the students hated it, or the exam performance is terrible!

You don’t have to restructure your entire module to try it – why not start with one or two sessions that you currently feel dissatisfied with?

READ: LITE’S blog – Will online distance learning mean the end of campus-based programmes?