November 26, 2019

Supporting Diverse Learning Experiences – Anytime, Anywhere

Advising Leaders

By Amanda Wirth Lorenzo and Elliot Felix

In order to better serve the 21st century student and make the student experience come alive, teaching and learning are becoming more active and engaging. Learning is taking place in online and hybrid formats that combine face-to-face and online, and it’s happening anytime, in and outside of the classroom. Institutions are emphasizing experiential learning experiences that connect to real-world applications, and they are blending research and instruction so both can make an impact.

All these shifts mean that spaces, technology, operations, and people must adapt so that colleges and universities can enable learning everywhere.

We know that as an academic leader who is accountable for student success, you need to lead this change. So, to help you create more engaging and effective learning experiences, in this post we’ll review who the learners are, how they are learning, where and when they are learning, and how to support them with the right space, technology, and services.

What Do We Know About How Students Learn Best?

To reach today’s students – and tomorrow’s – colleges and universities need to understand that students learn best when four conditions are met:

  1. When students are constructing knowledge. Students create knowledge and meaning from their experiences, not by passively absorbing it. (This is constructivist learning theory established by Vygotsky, Piaget, Dewey, and others.)
  2. When students are part of a community. All learning is social; for instance, Uri Treisman’s landmark study at UC Berkeley in 1985 opened many eyes to the role that a peer support network plays in academic success.
  3. When students are teaching each other. The adage that “the best way to learn something is to teach it” has also been long since proven, by researchers like Elaine Coleman and others.
  4. When students are “learning to be” not “learning about.” As John Seely Brown advocates, when learners following a path can apply an idea to their life and passions, they are even more engaged; for example, not learning about science but learning to be a scientist. 
Carnegie Mellon, Tepper School of Business Classroom

Who Are Our Students?

While these four principles about when and how students learn best generally apply to all students, if your college or university really wants to be “student-centered,” you need to understand the diversity of your students and how their needs are changing. This is best done through stories and statistics – a brightspot mantra – and by looking across higher education as well as the specific segments of your student population represented by personas.

Across higher education, 46% of students are the first in their family to go to college, 42% are students of color, 40% work full time, and 37% are age 25 or older.

Statistics like those from the Lumina Foundation are a good start, but colleges and universities need to hear stories such as Anthony Abraham Jack’s essay “I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part” as well.

To complement this broad view, divide your student population into segments according to their motivations, behaviors, and needs (not their fixed demographics). Each segment or student type can then be represented by a persona that provides a more concrete description of the student to inform decisions like how specific support services are designed or how staff and faculty might interact with students. These can be created from scratch specifically for your institution, you can use personas based on national studies, or a hybrid of the two like adapting existing personas for your use. Four good resources in this regard are:

  1. The Learning Space Toolkit contains a module on what personas are and how to create them, including a workshop that institutions can run on their own.
  2. The Lumina Foundation’s “Future of Student Needs” describes changes to student needs and four core student types: traditional, first-generation, adult, and independent.
  3. The Lumina Foundation and Parthenon Group’s “Differentiated University” describes eight student personas: Aspiring Academics, Coming of Age, Career Starter, Career Accelerator, Industry Switcher, and Academic Wanderer.
  4. Jeff Selingo and Pearson’s “The Future Learners” identifies different segments or personas based on what students see as the purpose of college, what motivates them, how they want to learn, and how they relate the cost and value of an education.
Example persona, Georgia Tech Library

How Is Teaching and Learning Changing? 

Colleges and universities are applying these lessons to change teaching and learning at their institutions. This means shifting from teaching in a “sage on the stage” model, to facilitating learning in more effective formats where students interact more with faculty and each other. This shift from a focus on instruction to one on learning has produced many new pedagogies for how courses are facilitated from active, flipped, and blended, to experiential and applied. For example, Georgia Tech is moving many courses to the flipped classroom model where students read and view lectures outside of the classroom so they can interact and solve problems during class. The State University of New York System (SUNY) has implemented more applied and experiential learning opportunities for their students. At many institutions, research and teaching are also becoming more blended rather than separate endeavors; for example, McGill University is bringing together teaching and research by taking their students out into the field to make observations and collect data as part of their Nexus Project.

Where Is Teaching and Learning Happening? 

More dynamic pedagogy has necessitated a change in the environments where teaching and learning are facilitated; the spaces have become more flexible, dynamic, and technology-rich. Many universities are experimenting with new environments and have realized success with new designs. For example, the University of Minnesota has created Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs) and Indiana University’s Mosaic Initiative “supports innovative classroom design, research, and active learning in all IU classrooms.” Transforming the portfolio of classrooms on campus is an uphill battle, but one worth fighting for to make the learning experience more engaging, more equitable, and more effective – a 2014 National Academy of Sciences meta analysis of 225 different studies of STEM courses showed that active learning reduced failure rates by half!

Average Failure Rates, Active vs. Traditional Learning, National Academy of Sciences

In addition to changing classrooms, students working in teams on real-world projects means that institutions need more flexible, technology-rich, informal learning spaces around campus. University of Minnesota’s Study Space Finder and University of Cambridge’s Spacefinder are two great resources to help students find these distributed study spaces. This shift in student learning behavior also changes libraries’ approach to supporting students. In addition to providing a place for studying for tests and writing papers, libraries now include places to record and edit media, analyze and visualize data, design and rehearse presentations, and make physical prototypes and products. NC State University’s Hunt Library is a good example of a next generation library designed to support a variety of student projects.

Study Space Finder, University of Minnesota

Beyond classroom, study, and library spaces for learning, many campuses are taking an “every space is a learning space” approach, integrating the full spectrum of academic and social spaces.

For instance, the University of Arizona’s Student Success District includes a variety of exterior learning spaces. Residence Halls are becoming living-learning communities, many with a particular focus such as supporting an affinity group or tying into a particular academic program. One great example is the University of Waterloo’s Velocity, an entrepreneurship-focused program that has created an environment with living, learning, working, and maker spaces all under one roof for an immersive experience. 

Student Success District maker-studio rendering, University of Arizona

In addition to learning happening in a wide variety of spaces on-campus, learning is moving online. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that 33% of students in the US today take at least one online course, with 15% fully-online and 18% taking a combination of on-campus and online courses – and this is growing at 10% a year. The convergence of online and on-campus worlds is perhaps more interesting. Online students increasingly enroll close to home – 67% within 50 miles! – and nearly two-thirds of online students come to campus at some point by choice or for a required immersion event. Hybrid formats that combine the on-campus and online are also rising in popularity and preference. EDUCAUSE found that 79% of undergraduates prefer a course that combines face-to-face and online instruction, thus requiring a classroom environment that blends the physical and digital experience.

Online Is (Increasingly) Local, Inside Higher Ed

When are Teaching and Learning Happening? 

New pedagogies and environments have expanded the ability to learn anytime. The framework for teaching and learning has shifted from a structured schedule to a more flexible and continuous time frame; for instance, the same course might need to meet in different kinds of spaces over the duration of a semester (seminar, makerspace, presentation space, etc.) and/or at different times of day. This can mean challenges for the registrar to manage classroom scheduling. Additionally, with online, flipped, and blended courses, students might engage in learning at various times of the day (on-demand) and potentially for various lengths of time (continuous).

In addition to shifting times of day and week, even the semester structure is breaking down to become more flexible: universities are embracing co-ops to provide experiential learning opportunities and adopting block scheduling to enable immersion in a course or topic. So, support needs to be available more frequently and for greater numbers of students. These are all positive developments as they increase access, build skills, and expose students to new opportunities. But, breaking down established structures like schedules means institutions have to adjust; for instance, are student services available in evenings for students who work full time during the day?

Innovation Hall Maker Space, George Mason University (Credit: VMDO)

What Supports Are Needed to Enable Learning Anytime, Anywhere?

While perhaps in the past a faculty member could prepare and give a lecture largely on their own, these new forms of active and engaged teaching and learning often require new skills for both teachers and students. To meet this need, universities are offering increased support and adopting the perspective that it takes a team to teach.

This team includes providing support for instructional design for assignments, courses, and programs; developing content like filming videos and creating graphics and animations; hosting this content online in a learning management system; providing technology support, and fostering community among instructors and support staff to share, showcase, and train each other.

This represents progress for sure, but most universities suffer from one of two issues: either not enough faculty are aware of these services or now too many are and so what was once a high-touch service needs to be scaled up sustainably.

brightspot’s Service Center Canvas

Providing instructional technology services and faculty development programs is a good first step which most colleges and universities begin on an ad hoc basis. However, institutions then typically face three changes: awareness, distribution, and scalability:

  1. Lack of awareness. Many faculty are not aware of the support services available to them. They learn new teaching techniques primarily from other faculty. To benefit they need to learn about – and learn to trust – the teams of instructional designers, videographers, and assessment specialist available.
  2. Digitally distributed services. It soon becomes necessary to better coordinate these services and enable staff to collaborate. brightspot’s Service Center Canvas is a tool to accomplish this, getting services and staff organized even if they report to different leaders and use different platforms.
  3. Physically distributed services. It can also help to bring different instructional technology staff together in one place to create a one-stop-shop for faculty support for technology-enhanced learning like at UC Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio.
  4. Scaling up sustainably. In his landmark essay, Evolving and Revolution as Organizations Grow, Greiner observed that the solution to one crisis later beget the next one. In this case, institutions often invest heavily to build awareness and support their early adopter faculty, only then to be faced with a crisis of too much demand and the need to scale up more efficiently.
UC Berkeley’s Academic Innovation Studio

In addition to a team of support services for instructors, there are a variety of support services to enable student success as well. Advising now blends academics and career topics in order to enable students to “learn to be” and connect them to a purpose and a career path. Many institutions have embraced peer-to-peer support models, such as peer tutoring on academic subjects, peer advising, and peer support networks. For instance, Grand Valley State  University’s library contains a “Knowledge Market” that provides student-led consultation on research, writing, speaking, and data. Duke University created Duke LIFE to support the community of low-income and/or first-generation student engagement. There are also student success centers that offer supplemental instruction and expert consultation in areas like writing and data analysis. Often, these are centrally located within libraries like at Temple University’s new Charles Library. This enables institutions to meet students where they are and “end the runaround” to make support more seamless. It’s common for a student to come to the library for help with sources on a paper, then be referred to the writing center to help hone the thesis, and then be referred to the data studio to refine their graphs.

How Can You Get Started Enabling Learning Everywhere?

There are many ways to adapt to changing students, apply learning science, create new physical and digital learning environments, and provide the instructional technology support. It’s a bit like trying to push something large and amorphous: you need to push on it in different places and in different ways in order to see what works and generate momentum. Start by assessing your stated student learning outcomes, formal and informal learning spaces, and support services so that you understand the current state. Complement this by describing the ideal / future teaching and learning experience for a range of students and faculty.

Mapping the User’s Journey

If you understand the current state and future vision, you can then conduct a gap analysis: what needs to change to get you from the current state to the ideal and what are the priority shifts in terms of policy, process, space, technology, and services? Where can you have the greatest impact at scale? Where are the greatest opportunities to innovate? The answers to these questions will form the basis of you transformation plan. We recommend you find ways pilot concepts to test ideas and build momentum. Along the way, track and communicate your progress against measures of success. Because of their interdependence, it probably makes sense to transform classrooms, study spaces, library spaces, and support services in parallel rather wait to improve one type of space at a time.

As you move ahead, know that you are not alone and don’t have to start from scratch. Leverage peer networks and existing resources; for instance, brightspot co-created the Learning Space Toolkit to serve as a free online resource that gives institutions the process and tools to assess needs, plan spaces, services, and technology, and put it all together. brightspot founder Elliot Felix was also an original co-author of the EDUCAUSE Learning Space Rating System that provides institutions with the criteria for 21st century learning spaces that support active learning. Good luck!

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