Active Learning Research: Is the traditional lecture meeting the needs of connected learners?

23 Dec Active Learning Research: Is the traditional lecture meeting the needs of connected learners?

“The trend toward active learning may overthrow the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years”

Harvard Professor Eric Mazur developed the peer instruction approach to learning after realising that, despite achieving outstanding test scores and doing well on textbook-style problems, his applied physics students could not match their success with simple problems that asked for a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulae. The realization that his students were successfully completing his course yet lacked the depth of understanding to apply what they had learnt to real life scenarios prompted Mazur to fundamentally change the culture of his classes and peer instruction, a data rich version of flipped learning was born.

In this approach, students’ first introduction to new material happens outside of class, usually via reading or watching short lecture videos. Traditional lecture time is then given over to the harder work of assimilating that knowledge, through problem solving, discussion, or debates. Rather than predicting and then preparing lectures focused on coverage, sessions with students are now planned in response to student feedback. Students arrive having considered, discussed and debated new content in online spaces prior to the lesson, armed with questions and problems to be solved. The lecturer now comes prepared, with inside information about every student’s thinking, shared misconceptions and readiness to move on.  In Eric Mazur’s classes, the approach has tripled student gains in conceptual tests that previously highlighted the failings of the traditional approach. He has also noted that this approach, distinguished by the requirement to co-construct and the associated sense of ownership, allows students to hold onto their knowledge longer. It is not surprising that Mazur’s approach has been adopted by Universities around the world, heralding the end of the traditional lecture and a move to mobile learning as colleges embrace the full potential of mobile technologies for flipping the traditional model on its head and aligning their approach with the ways that students are demonstrating that they expect to learn.

“Think of education as a whole—what is it?” Mazur asks. “Is it just the transfer of information? If that’s the case, then Harvard has a problem, and all other universities have a problem, too. Information comes from everywhere now: the university is no longer the gatekeeper of information, as it has been since the Renaissance. And if it were, the only thing we would need to do is videotape the best lectures and put them online, like the Khan Academy [the California-based, nonprofit, online educational organization founded by Salman Khan, M.B.A. ’03]. They have 65 million users: it’s a force to be reckoned with. But ultimately, learning is a social experience. Harvard is Harvard not because of the buildings, not because of the professors, but because of the students interacting with one another.”

What’s stopping you?

Mazur’s approach requires students to belong to an online learning community, where prepared content can be viewed prior to the lesson. These communities need to be carefully managed and often fail to deliver data to the teacher about levels of student engagement, making it difficult to plan for all students in response to feedback derived from these online conversations. Similarly, online discussion spaces fail to bridge the gap between knowing about student levels of understanding and being able to do something about it. Long threaded discussions are difficult to decipher. Identifying key teaching and discussion points for class time can be arduous in long threaded conversations.

Another barrier to entry is that teachers need a high degree of tech’ skills to prepare, curate and deliver content to their classes. Applications such as Camtasia, Garage Band or iMovie, can present a steep learning curve for many and the time taken to locate or produce, deliver and manage pre-lesson content can seem overwhelming.

Universities are at the core of an information culture: it is hard to imagine any institution that deals more purely in information than higher education. Yet academies are also famously slow to change—both a strength and a vulnerability in a rapidly evolving world. If knowledge now streams in from everywhere, if universities are no longer the “gatekeepers of information,” what essential mission can transcend such technological and cultural change?

Active Learning Resesarch: Is the traditional lecture meeting the needs of connected learners?

With this in mind, Verso has been designed to overcome these initial barriers, allowing lecturers to use familiar technologies on their desktop, iPad or smart phone to deliver every step of the process. By utilizing widely available technologies, Verso removes additional issues surrounding student access to technology as in the absence of notebooks, the vast majority of students have access to a smart phone.

Verso allows tutors to create content on the fly, in response to student feedback, using the camera or audio recording function on their mobile devices. They can tap into content stored on the web, or in familiar repositories such as their YouTube Channel or Google Drive and then deliver this to their students in just one click.

Once delivered, Verso affords unique visibility on student contributions, along with all-important data identifying the extent of each student’s engagement in terms of quantity and peer-reviewed quality.

Initial student responses, once posted, can be set to unlock deeper peer to peer knowledge communities where students can begin to challenge one another’s thinking, support the learning of the group and raise questions that they need answered in the traditional class space, whilst simultaneously offering a lens on student thinking that will inform the planning of the next face to face in class meeting.

What makes this even more effective is the fact that tutors can use its unique grouping functionality to sort through and group student responses, revealing key teaching points, potential socrative groupings and student readiness to move forward.

Eric Mazur is clear about the fact that the live classroom is still the best medium for a student to “truly be known as an intellectual being and to engage with other such beings,”

Verso sets out to ensure that on entering the live classroom, both students and tutors are as informed and prepared for the task at hand as possible. For the students, access to content and an online forum for thinking, discussion and debate redefine the ownership of learning and the relationship with knowledge. For the teacher, visibility on learning and access to student feedback and data prior to face-to-face engagement allows for new levels of personalization, ensuring the creation of the richest learning environments possible.
References & Further Reading
Harvard magazine
Vanderbilt University Centre For Teaching
The Economist: Flipping The Classroom
The New York Times: Classroom Lectures Go Digital
The Post-Lecture Classroom