The classroom of the future, here today
A tech-heavy learning lab at Edwards facilitates two-way communication between profs and students – and even those beyond the Saskatchewan school
It wasn't so long ago that media was a one-way form of communication where television and newspapers reported information with only tangential input from the public they served.
The internet and especially social media upended that arrangement, making it more of a two-way street. News outlets are becoming increasingly collaborative and inclusive with their constituencies as a result, morphing from mostly a broadcast model into something closer to a network.
The University of Saskatchewan believes the same needs to happen in the education sector, which is why it recently opened the Allsopp Learning Lab at its Edwards School of Business. The technology-heavy classroom is designed to encourage networking internally between students and professors, as well as externally with businesses throughout the province.
"It's a different type of teaching," says Vince Bruni-Bossio, director of the experiential learning initiative. "We're no longer standing around and delivering a lecture. It's more of an experiential exercise where students are actually doing things."
The lab revolves around Sony Vision Exchange technology, which includes eight large touch screens situated around the classroom, plus one at the front. Rather than rows of desks, students sit in clusters around the screens.
The system encourages BYOD – bring your own device – so that students can mirror their own laptops, tablets and phones onto the screens to show their work and ideas.
The class instructor can project any of the individual group screens onto the main display and provide commentary and criticism.
Students have used the lab, which opened last September, to collaboratively work on projects, including pricing and marketing simulations. So far, their reactions have been positive.
"It's beneficial that we can touch the screens and be more interactive. We can communicate more easily with each other," says Brittany McIntyre, a fourth-year management student at the Saskatoon university.
"With technology being such an important way that we access information and collaborate with each other … more classes should switch to this."
The idea for the lab began in 2013 with Daphne Taras, who was dean of Edwards at the time. She saw the need for students to gain practical work experience, as well as a growing desire in remote communities for more access to educational opportunities.
She put a plan together for a technologically-enabled classroom that could forge closer connections between both students and those communities. In 2014, oil and gas industry veteran and Edwards alumnus Harold Allsopp helped make the project a reality with a $500,000 donation.
The next step will be to virtually include students throughout the province, especially in remote northern communities, in classes on the Saskatoon campus. They'll be able to participate from wherever they are via an internet connection, similar to telecommuting.
The set-up will also allow students to partner with and create business plans and strategies for companies and organizations located throughout Saskatchewan.
"You can see them, they can see you, you can show them your screen and whiteboard with them," says Noreen Mahoney, associate dean of students and degree programs. "We have to go to others if we want to make an impact. We can't expect them to come to us."
This sort of networked experiential and collaborative learning is an accelerating trend within the educational sector, experts say.
A growing number of institutions are adopting similar technologies and programs. Toronto's Ryerson University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Colorado in Denver are among the schools pressing forward with similar efforts.
"The concept of active learning is a theme that's really running through modern universities," says Nina Angelo, vice-president of product marketing at Toronto-based educational software maker Top Hat.
"Rethinking the spaces used in education is a theme we're seeing in both universities and K-12 [kindergarten to Grade 12]. It's about transcending the typical boundaries of a classroom."
The trend is being fuelled by both push and pull factors. On the one hand, students are increasingly asking for classes that are more involved and stimulating. On the other, employers are also wanting new recruits that have actual work experience.
Collaborative classrooms that network with businesses and organizations outside the academic world can bridge those needs.
"This is desired by all parties in the ecosystem," says Krista Jones, managing director of work and learning at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. "We need as much of this as we can get."