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Dordt College News

Collaborative learning gets a lift with new TRC

August 21, 2012

Revamped Teaching Resource Center gives new options for teaching

“Wow,” said one student upon entering the new “TRC” in Dordt’s John and Louise Hulst Library this fall. The warm red walls and new artwork are only the first changes one might notice in the renovated area formerly known as the LRC.

Librarian Sheryl Taylor says the renovation of the LRC (Learning Resource Center), which was used primarily by education faculty and students, to the TRC (Teaching Resource Center), which is used by more departments and students, was the result of a perfect storm of circumstances: funds from a donor specifically designated for enhancing innovative teaching and conversations about how the space could serve more academic departments in this digital age.

Taylor and education department faculty members sat down last spring to brainstorm possible changes. After sifting through at least 10 different ideas, they decided to divide the space into three areas: a Discovery Café that Taylor describes as a “technology sandbox”—similar to an Apple Store, a culled-down print curriculum library, and a multimedia teaching area that allows for interactive and collaborative teaching and learning.

Dr. Nathan Tintle teaches statistics in the TRC. “The moment I walked into the room I thought ‘they’ve nailed it,’” he says. “It’s inviting and enhances collaboration.” 

The space is perfect for the collaborative approach he and several others across the country are promoting in a new statistics curriculum they are currently developing. It allows for and encourages the instructor to come alongside students as they take responsibility for their learning and tackle problems together.

“You can pack more students into this area than you could in a regular classroom and still feel like you’re connecting,” says Tintle, who always walks around the room interacting with students during his classes. The answers and the applets he puts on the main screen appear on the monitors at their tables.

“It’s not really even possible to simply lecture in this space,” says new English Professor Dr. Josh Matthews. Matthews says that having students gathered around the three media tables means he needs to plan ways for them to engage each other and the material collaboratively. He can’t fall back on a more traditional teacher-at-the-front style of teaching, even if he’s tempted. In fact, some days students are so engaged in discussing what they’ve read or watched when they come in and sit down at their tables that he almost feels like he should stay out of their way. The space is helping him become more of a facilitator for their learning.

“I am passionate about learning how to use technologies to enhance a collaborative teaching and learning process,” says Dr. Tim Van Soelen, of Dordt’s education department. He subscribes to the adage “we can go faster alone but farther together.” Already on day one, students in his class were working together in small groups, creating maps using the site Bubbl.us and sharing their work with their peers.

“The presentation technologies allow me to share information on two large screens while the students are digesting the information in small groups and applying it to real problems on their screens,” he says.

In a recent Philosophy of Education class, he led an activity where students had five minutes to brainstorm answers to the question “What are the biggest challenges we are facing in education today?” The next five minutes were spent online, finding expert responses to the question. The last five minutes were spent identifying the top three issues based on their earlier work. Each group then chose one of the issues, examining, synthesizing, analyzing, speculating, prescribing, and evaluating a solution. They presented the issue and a rationale for a proposed solution using technology to capture their work and display it on the screens for discussion and analysis.

“Instead of having to huddle around one person’s computer, we can project our work to the small group and then to the class,” says elementary education major Melissa Van Middendorp. She appreciates being able to see and learn how to use technology that may be standard equipment in her future classroom. 

“The new TRC has shown me that having students in groups and allowing them to talk together really helps the learning process,” says education major Tyler Van Schepen. “My future classroom will be built around groups, as opposed to having students sit in rows, unable to collaborate with one another as easily.”

Professor Donald Roth realized that the TRC offered some significant benefits for teaching tax law to an unexpectedly large class this year. He’s always had his students brainstorm together as a group about solutions to projects. The three media tables allow him to use the same collaborative approach in a larger class by dividing the students into small groups around the media tables.  He projects information on both the large screen and the ones at the tables, allowing students to interact with the ideas in small groups and even hooking up their own laptops to the TV when they need to.

“The screens at the table are nice for working in groups,” says Josh Nymeyer, a business major. “One person can show their computer screen to the whole table and people can talk about it or make suggestions for changes.”

“Breaking up the class into three smaller groups helps the students become more familiar with a smaller subset of students and promotes natural study and homework groups,” Roth says.

Eight classes currently meet in the TRC. At this point, faculty who wish to teach there are asked to give a rationale for why their class would benefit from the space. They also agree to welcome observers who want to see how they might use such technology and space for their own teaching.

“It’s not just the cutting edge technology in the room that’s changing teaching and learning; it’s the entire classroom paradigm,” says Taylor. She admits that it’s easy for technology to distract from how teachers teach and how the classroom is set up. But even though the TRC includes plenty of technology, space and pedagogy were just as important a part of its design as the technology. In fact, a number of low-tech artifacts in the room promote active learning: swiveling chairs on wheels allow for quick reconfiguration while also ensuring that every seat can be the best seat in the room and a fixed white board on one wall and rolling carts of portable light-weight white boards allow groups to work collaboratively while seated and then “hang” their written results on rails that surround the room, allowing any surface to become a place to share work.

“We intentionally did not put a SMARTboard in the room,” says Taylor, even though many schools are using SMARTboards. “While they promote student interaction with the material on the board, they still tend to be mounted in the front of the classroom, like chalkboards and whiteboards, and require a front-of-the room style of teaching.”

Although there are several SMARTboards in classrooms on Dordt’s campus, the TRC is leap-frogging over that technology and classroom paradigm to create an environment that makes it easier for both teachers and students to share content in a way that gives easy access to a variety of analog and digital content.

“Our intent for this room was to make sure that technology, pedagogy, and space were considered equally important in the design of the room,” says Taylor. Professors and students who use the room believe they’ve accomplished that goal.


SALLY JONGSMA

What's in there

Learning Lab side of the room

Two projectors and screens arranged facing opposite sides of the room

A mounted white board

Ten portable white boards (on carts with wheels) with mounting rails that surround the room

Three eight-person media tables with 42-inch flat screen monitors, center wells providing network connections (the room has wi-fi) and power for eight laptops/iPads/tablets along with VGA and HDMI cables and adapters for users to plug in laptops/iPads/tablets (three iPads also available for use with these media tables)

An additional 26-inch flat screen monitor on a cart for use with an AV wall port to accommodate an additional work group

Two additional flip-top tables on wheels that can be brought in to accommodate different grouping arrangements

Six swivel easy chairs on wheels with tablet arms to accommodate different groupings

A moveable instructor station that includes a blu-ray/DVD player, a document camera, HDMI and VGA cables (all faculty have laptops or iPads), and a touch-screen Crestron control system capable of accommodating 45 light/display/projection/sound configurations

An in-ceiling speaker system

Discovery Café side of the room

Five multimedia networked PC desktop computers

A scanner

A VHS to DVD converter

A portable multimedia production station equipped with a PC, an audio soundboard, a dual cassette deck, a VHS/DVD player, and multimedia production software

A counter-mounted MacBook Air with iBook Author software

A counter-mounted iPad 3

A counter-mounted iPad 2

A counter-mounted Asus Android tablet

The counter-mounted technology will change as newer, emerging devices become available

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