A choice in active learning


Photo by Jessica Dik

Photo by Jessica Dik

Carpeted floors, round tables and walls covered with smart boards. Welcome to the latest thing in innovative learning: interactive classrooms. Since 2012, three have been built in the Dr. Alvin Woods Building and more could be on the way. In a time of pedagogy upheaval, we need to ask ourselves if interactive classrooms are improving or damaging the quality of student education.

At installation cost of $250,000, there has been high praise for these new classrooms that emphasize group work and discussion. Mercedes Rowinsky, professor and associate dean of student affairs and projects in the faculty of arts, told CBC that in interactive classrooms students learned Spanish quicker than in traditional classrooms.

News stations have praised the versatility of these rooms and suggest learning is more enjoyable in them.

I do not doubt there are benefits to teaching courses in interactive classrooms, but as students we need to be critical of their intellectual costs. In exchange for interactive learning, we sacrifice our biggest resource: faculty expertise. In interactive classrooms, students teach each other the content and professors merely guide them through course material. Often, lectures are halved to give extra time to student discussion, group work and presentations.  Perhaps classes are more enjoyable, but they are also less informative. In October 2014, English professor Eleanor Ty told The Cord while she thought interactive classrooms enhanced student-teacher dynamics, they were not as useful for heavy lecture-based courses.

As university students, we have society’s intellectual elite at our fingertips. These individuals have PhDs with immeasurable amounts of knowledge and experience. In theory, we could learn just as much from readings, but it doesn’t replace the human touch associated with lectures. The invaluable knowledge provided through lectures is being taken away by interactive classrooms.

Currently, I’m enrolled in three third-year politics courses which take place in an interactive learning classroom. Initially I was excited to take these courses, but that enthusiasm has since faded. In all three cases, content-heavy courses are being changed to meet the demands associated with interactive classrooms. This term, my professors will be lecturing less. This is upsetting because my learning depends on lectures.

  Yes, there are readings, but readings are supplementary. Yes, my peers can teach me but they do not know the content as well as professors do. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, maybe readings and peers will teach me all I need to know. And yet, universities insist on employing PhDs to teach courses both in lecture halls and online. Therefore, professor knowledge is not completely dead. Perhaps interactive classes are a good learning hybrid, a combination of traditional and online teachingBut why do I still feel so ripped off by interactive classrooms? Because my education is taken less seriously, courses are light on content and assignments are not as reputable.

When courses are in interactive classrooms, there are no exams and often, fewer and/or shorter written assignments. My grade becomes more dependent on group work and class participation. Depending on your learning preferences, interactive classes may be easier or harder for you, but they challenge the value of your education. Already, university degrees are being called the new “high school diploma” because everyone seems to have one. Today, university degrees seem less meaningful than they were a generation ago.

What remains consistent however, was the rigorous teaching style, proving that while more people may have university degrees, they still demonstrate a higher level of intellectual competency. Lectures, exams and essays proved your degree still meant something because completing those traditional forms of evaluation were really hard to do. Interactive classes now challenge the value of university degrees because they lessen the brutalities that have become associated with university education. Consequently, my education is questioned and therefore my personal ability as well. When my arts degree already makes my employability questionable, it is made worse by an unrecognizable form of learning attributed to interactive classrooms. I’ve painted a nasty picture of the troubles caused by interactive classrooms and maybe they are not as terrible as I have made them out to be. But the unquestionable praise for interactive classrooms must be analyzed and altered with skepticism so that learning as a whole is improved.

3 Responses to “A choice in active learning”

  1. Mike Ryan Avatar

    Checking out the Cord for the first time in a long time and it’s a treat to stumble upon this opinion piece on the homepage.

    I wrote for the paper in my final year at Laurier and put together something similar on the ‘business model’ of the university. I focused on online courses rather than interactive learning environments, but I think the questions you raise are the same: what’s lost in the process of these apparent gains? What does this mean for the quality of education?

    There’s no sense in being overly cynical, but I think you’re right, these are important questions to ask. And just by asking and being aware, I think you’re taking responsibility for the quality of your own learning experience.

  2. Carolyn Withrow Avatar

    Can we talk about how inefficient those rooms are? Projectors use A LOT of power. In a traditional classroom 1 projector (or 2 for our largest lecture halls) is sufficient for a class. Now we have the same number of people in the room (about 60 for the DAWB) and 8X as many projectors than before just so people can sit at circular tables. Its horribly inefficient.

  3. Roopa Reddy Avatar

    Hi Nicole! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with this piece. As someone who taught at Laurier, and who cares deeply about relevant learning, I thought I’d share my thoughts. Sorry that this is so long! Just thought you may appreciate another perspective!:
    1) Trying to have a one-size-fits-all approach with undergrad classes doesn’t sit well with me. I agree that some courses are better suited to models liked flipped classrooms or using the Active Learning classroom than others. That said, I do think ALL courses can benefit from more student engagement.
    2) Active learning doesn’t necessarily require heavily resourced classrooms to happen – you can work to incorporate meaningful active learning in many ways.
    3) I find the quote “My learning depends on lectures” to be frightening in the year 2016. The model of the wise prof at the front of the room for a 3 hour lecture every week does not align with the way today’s world works, and the initiative and drive that students need for their own learning and growth.. Learning in unis should not just be dependent on the amount of lecture time you have, or how ‘hard’ tests are – although I understand the shift can be uncomfortable. I would argue, that often, less is more, in terms of content. Students being encouraged to really dive into concepts to really explore the things that resonate, and also be exposed to ideas they may not consider is where some of the magic can happen intellectually. You can still have rigour with more depth on a subset of topics. You can have rigour without having traditional tests. Yes, profs have experience to share, but if well designed, that experience can be channeled into course design
    4) Strong teaching is still not as valued as it should be at the undergrad level (this is a whole ‘nother can of worms). It takes real effort to design courses to be meaningful, with the balance of some info dessimination (lecture style), intellectual rigor (diving into key readings for example) and more project-based exploration that is guided for students.
    5) Change is uncomfortable, and takes time to learn from new models and improve them. Let’s keep in mind that our education system is still roughly based on the Prussian model of the 18th and 19th centuries (Salman Khan refers to this in his book, The One World Schoolhouse). Unis used to cater to a small, elite group of people who could access higher ed, and who were in it primarily for the ‘academic’ path (PhDs etc.). I am convinced that courses do need to be redesigned to reflect current times, but this doesn’t mean they have to lack intellectual rigour or experience. There are courses at Laurier that manage to have both, so let’s keep the positives in mind too :)
    Again, sorry this is so long! I wrote a related blog post if you’d like to check it out: http://www.edumodels.ca/blog/-lectures-suck-a-push-for-more-meaningful-learning-in-university-classrooms

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