Call it learning 360.

When Writing professor Maureen Bradley teaches digital media for storytellers, her venue is a departure from the typical university lecture hall: no podium, desk seating or front of the classroom. Instead, tables with roller-wheel chairs line the room, with a multi-media teaching island in the centre. Each table serves as a five-student pod, equipped with a 48-inch wireless video screen, audio speakers, laptop plug-ins and writable white board. Bradley displays video or broadcasts audio to any or all dozen screens in the room, or shows individual or group projects to every screen.

Maureen Bradley in the active-learning classroom

Maureen Bradley in the active-learning classroom

UVic installed four active-learning classrooms last summer as part of a three-year, $3-million upgrade program to create more opportunities for dynamic learning. The impetus behind it, says Katy Mateer, associate vice president of academic planning, is to address changes in pedagogy by better integrating technology into classrooms. The largest of the new classrooms, MacLaurin D115, encourages visual problem solving and idea sharing to tell stories across multiple media channels like videos, podcasts, webcasts and blogs.

“There are some really interesting ways to disseminate information using digital technology. Whether you are a fiction writer, a poet, a journalist or a filmmaker, these are your tools,” says Bradley. Her fast-paced, 50-minute writers’ workshop teaches digital literacy to students across such disciplines as writing, linguistics, political science and humanities.

Today’s academic challenge goes beyond distilling information that is already ubiquitous in the digital frontier. The focus is teaching students to apply their research, language and learning skills through fingertip technology—creating new knowledge along the way, says Bradley. “The classroom is perfect for this kind of new learning environment. The quicker you can get students to connect with each other, the learning derives from their talking and brainstorming ideas. They become active learners.”

As Bradley displays examples of corporate use of social media tools, baffles built into the ceiling absorb the crescendo of creative noise arising from teamwork and student-led discussions. Both the classroom and collaborative learning format suit Aleesha Koersen just fine.

“It’s a really cool space,” says Koersen, a student in Bradley’s third-year class. “I like working in groups and collaborating with people. It’s a learning style I can really get in touch with.” The segue into multi-media learning hugely benefits writers, she says. As literary journals increasingly embrace online publishing, poets like her can draw their art from the margins and into the mainstream. “It makes poetry easier for people to find and access.”

Researching and publishing works in obscure volumes and periodicals often bound past generations, but today’s budding writers discover online communities to get themselves and their work known, says Koersen. While some students find discussing their works in front of an entire class to be daunting, bouncing ideas off each other in group work seems natural. “You’re engaging in the conversation, there’s the comfort of a small group and it builds courage for you.”

A bike patched into a gaming system demonstrates the  flexibility in digital teaching

A bike patched into a gaming system demonstrates the flexibility in digital teaching

The active learning classrooms are widely used to teach sciences, engineering and a variety of courses for experiential learning that transcends textbooks and lectures. The technology-rich learning spaces essentially “break the classroom” from traditional pedagogy, says Technology Integrated Learning Director Janni Aragon. UVic’s MacLaurin and Clearihue buildings both house two of the new classrooms. Each has a different configuration, with active learning components adapted for typical small lecture, seminar, larger lecture, and what is known as the “pod room.” Additional classrooms will be upgraded in similar fashion over the next two years.

Staying competitive as a post-secondary educator is a priority for UVic. Research and consultations with faculties about students’ different learning needs helped trigger the project for technology-enhanced classrooms. “This allows us to take research-connected learning and active learning and combine them in dynamic ways,” says Aragon. “Not all course are meant to be taught with a professor at the front and students taking notes word for word.”

UVic’s experience is not unique as more institutions enhance their academic mission by exploring ways to blend technology with learning. The Collaboration for Online Higher Education Research, a consortium of 14 Canadian post-secondary institutions, held a conference in October to discuss topics in flexible learning designs such as blended, online and multi-access learning. UVic and Dalhousie co-hosted the two-day event with concurrent sessions at both universities.

This piece was written by Paul Marck and originally ran in the November 2015 issue of UVic’s Ring newspaper