July 2012, Issue 31

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Interview with Assoc Prof Peter Looker: Facilitating Collaborative Learning in TR+

Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Question:
Your workshop is titled “Facilitating Collaborative Learning in TR+”. Can you tell us more about what TR+ is and how you envision collaborative learning taking place here?

Assoc Prof Peter Looker:

In 2007, the President of NTU convened The Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) to review all aspects of undergraduate education in the university. The BRC set out a holistic strategy guided by philosophical and pedagogical considerations, with recommendations in a number of key areas.

One of the key recommendations was to encourage more interactive, participatory learning environments at NTU. Instead of the traditional tutorial rooms (TRs) where students sit in rows and the professor mostly teaches through lecturing, the BRC recommended more flexible learning spaces to promote collaborative learning. That is how TR+ came about – reconfigured and refurbished tutorial rooms designed specially to engage students in learning in a technology-rich environment.

In designing the classroom, NTU has taken account of the interdependence of space, technology and pedagogy. In terms of space, the TR+ provides cluster tables which can be re-configured to enable students to interact easily in groups. This lay-out also allows the professor to walk around easily to interact with students. In contrast, in the traditional classroom, the professor is confined to the front of the room with students sitting in rows facing him.

In addition, these new learning spaces are able to support better new technologies such as interactive white boards, Clickers, Internet access, and LCD screens. In the TR+, each cluster of tables is provided with an LCD screen so students at each table can display their work. This is one of the best design features of these rooms. Furthermore, each group of students has the option of displaying their work (or the online research they have done) either on their own screen or on all the screens in the room. This allows many more opportunities for students to receive feedback on their work. Thus technology can be used both to facilitate group and open class discussions. Furthermore, the tools embedded in edveNTUre can be used really effectively in rooms like this.

Current research in learning and teaching at university clearly shows the advantages of activity-based learning which is supported by technology. In activity-based learning, students are not just sitting passively listening to the lecturer, but are actively collaborating on learning tasks, guided by the expert teacher, and using all available technology such as Web 2.0 tools. They are working on answering questions, solving problems, or completing research tasks. The TR+ and the technology in it makes all of this possible. The Director for Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), Assoc Prof Daniel Tan, remarked that technology amplifies learning. These rooms make that amplification so much easier to achieve.

Question:
Your discussion in the workshop dealt with the issue of the relationship between the teacher and students, and among students in various classroom settings: in a lecture theatre, a traditional tutorial room, and the TR+ classroom. Could you tell us a bit more about what you make of the professor’s role in a technology-enabled classroom like TR+?

Assoc Prof Peter Looker:

In a sense, the central role that professors play in student learning has not changed in degree, but in approach. The challenge for them these days is in engaging their students in the learning process more effectively with the support of technology. The University believes in the advantages of student-centred learning. It’s the students who are doing the learning, so they need to be actively engaged. One aspect of engagement is interaction. We know that learning has a strong social element to it, and that students learn a lot from each other. We can see this in the way that students themselves gather together informally to discuss work. Interestingly, they also use the TR+ rooms for informal learning. Traditional tutorial rooms where the professor stands in front and students sit in rows “position” faculty and students in a way that inhibits interaction.

Question:
What are some of the technological tools available for use in TR+ that can be used to support learning and teaching?

Assoc Prof Peter Looker:

There are the obvious things like the interactive white board and the LCD screens. These technologies are really an intrinsic part of the space itself, and the way the space functions. Then there is the Clicker technology in each room allowing regular feedback from and to students. But more than that, the rooms allow easy access to edveNTUre as a classroom tool, and all the tools within edveNTUre. This makes for a large number of possibilities for accessing multiple forms of information and media, classroom management capabilities, and activity sequencing (e.g. LAMS) and it allows students to do research more easily in the classroom. The possibilities in a room like this are very many and exciting.