Collaborative classrooms mark wave of the future in higher ed

Student-centered models turn instructors into guides as students investigate for themselves

When Otto Benavides suggested computer classrooms for the Instructional Technology and Resource Center (INTERESC) for the School of Education and Human Development at California State University, Fresno, people thought he was talking about computer labs. No, he said, computer classrooms.

That was 1994 and much has changed. Student-centered, collaborative classroom design is exploding across higher education and virtually all faculty today understand the difference between labs of computers and classrooms that feature them. INTERESC has three collaborative classrooms in high demand and plans to design more as soon as there’s money to build them.

The designs put students at the center of instruction, shifting the faculty role to one of tutor or guide.

“This changes the whole way we teach,” Benavides said.

At the School of Education, students benefit from more engaging class periods, as well as the modeling of how to be comfortable with technology as teachers. Their instructors serve as content guides, and they also help solve technical problems that are sure to crop up in the modern classrooms.

At CSU Fresno, faculty from Communications, Art, and English as a Second Language departments have jockeyed for a spot in the classrooms, recognizing the benefits for their students. In New York State, Onondaga Community College recently opened the WhiTn3y Commons, giving business students the opportunity to work in teams and practice the skills they’ll need for workplace projects. MIT offers a range of technology-enabled learning spaces to meet the demands of students and faculty across disciplines.

Some colleges and universities are designing these spaces in new, modern buildings, while others are remodeling existing classrooms and making them work for this next generation of teaching and learning.

At CSU Fresno, Benavides sees the wave of support for collaborative classrooms to be a good thing, but at the same time, he urges caution.

“It may not work for everything,” Benavides said. “It may not work in every school. It depends on how they’re training the teachers.”

To teach a course in one of CSU Fresno’s three collaborative classrooms, faculty must go through a training with Benavides, learning how to use the technology and troubleshoot any problems with it.

Their classrooms have five pods, each with an Apple TV and six Macintosh computers, all hooked into a single network. Students can use Epson interactive projectors to show their work on various screens around the classroom, and an instructor can teach from a station or from a rolling table of sorts equipped with a wireless keyboard and trackpad that control the teaching station computer.

Benavides said putting the station in the corner of the classroom was purposeful. He didn’t want teachers to be tempted to stand at the front and do what they’d always done: lecture.

The instructor has control over all of the displays and the students’ computers, meaning he or she can put content on the shared screens or make it show up on every computer in the lab. Students in these classrooms are asked to investigate content for themselves rather than simply take notes while an instructor tells them everything they need to know.

A desire for this kind of independent learning is evident in the coming generation of college-goers and it teaches the skills employers say they want in new hires. Colleges and universities offering these learning environments now are getting a head start on a shift that is sure to continue through higher education.

Benavides’ note of caution, however, is important. Any  overhauls to classroom design should be done with instructors in mind. And training must accompany a fundamental shift in instruction — or else the bells and whistles will remain in the background and students won’t ever see their full potential.

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Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology