Following last year’s announcement of an ambitious plan to overhaul Georgia State’s campus with courtyards, gathering spaces and increased walkability, university planners and educators are now turning their attention to the classrooms. They’re looking beyond desks and overhead projectors to create spaces that will change not just where but how students learn. It’s a change that’s long overdue, says Phil Ventimiglia, the university’s chief innovation officer, who took on the newly created role four months ago.
“There are very few professions where I could take someone from 100 years ago and pop them in the same job today, and they’d feel completely comfortable,” he says. “But I could put Aristotle in a classroom in Kell Hall, and he could teach.”
The concept of the crowded lecture hall with a single instructor talking to hundreds of students before sending them off to read a textbook is fading. Today’s students look for ways to collaborate, get online and interact with the professor, and that’s a problem in a room that may not have any elbow room or enough — if any — charging stations.
“This is a classic new-product development problem,” Ventimiglia says. “What is the next-generation product of education going to look like? What format will they use? What tools will create that content? And we now have to enable a professor to use that device, figure out formats and help students focus their learning.”
Understanding new products is Ventimiglia’s forte. Before coming to Georgia State, he worked for Dell computers and NCR, where he took on ideas, developed them into concepts and introduced them into the marketplace.
“I’m a builder. I’ve built products, businesses and organizations,” he says. “So many organizations have great ideas, but without disruptive innovation they just sit on the shelf. A lot of education is in the same place. It’s dominant design of a lecture hall with a professor standing in front of students has been around for hundreds of years and is now getting disrupted by things like MOOCs (massive open online courses).”
Across campus, a range of innovations, such as professors using Skype to enhance language skills, students writing and producing videos, and students and instructors blogging and tweeting, is disrupting the traditional classroom configuration. The challenge is figuring out which formats foster learning, then giving faculty members the tools and training to use them. Part of the challenge is already being met at the Center for Instructional Innovation (CII) that offers an array of technological tools and experts to explain how to use them.
A recent $2 million investment in CII is creating a collaborative space on the concourse of Library South where faculty can meet with instructional designers, create content and swap ideas in a supportive environment. When completed next fall, the center is expected to be one of the largest and most innovative of its kind in the state. But will it still be a safe space where faculty can admit they have no clue how to design a Prezi?
“We’re not about using technology just to use technology,” assures Julian Allen, CII co-director. “We’re about helping educators achieve their pedagogical goals. In some cases, that may be as easy as stripping out what you don’t use.”
A disruptive innovation is when a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors. The term was coined by Clayton Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard
An example of a disruptive innovation is what happened to Kodak. “Kodak created the photography industry,” Ventimiglia says. “Kodak was disrupted, not once, but twice. First, it was disrupted by Polaroid and instant photography in the 1960s and ’70s. Polaroid disrupted the traditional film industry through instant photos and a better business model — no need to pay and wait for a studio to develop film into pictures. The knockout blow for all film-based photography, though, ultimately came from digital photography and the smart phone.”
Justin Lonsbury, CII’s manager of instructional design and training, aims to get instructors into the space not only to see it but to realize that “here, we do cool stuff” such as filming lectures, recording podcasts, putting courses online and playing around with the 3-D scanner.
“We’re not just here for tech troubleshooting,” he says. “People can use our expertise.”
For all its cutting-edge gadgetry, the key component of CII’s approach is its focus on learning outcomes, says George Pullman, the center’s co-director and an associate professor of rhetoric in the English Department.
“We emphasize student learning assessment as well as the scholarship of teaching and learning,” he says. “It’s not how to teach better, but to see how our students learn. So rather than saying, ‘This person failed the test,’ we see how that can be interpreted as a sign of imperfect instructional practice. If you change the way you present information, you may get more people to understand it. So it’s very important to figure out the impact you’re having.”
Pullman says that with more students entering higher education and coming from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, we need more effective methods of teaching.
“We assumed that if you sat in front of someone and listened, you’d learn something. Most of us were educated that way,” he says.
By using targeted technology, he says, it can help progression, retention and student learning outcomes. The technology that improves learning objectives can take many forms, from a hybrid class in which students split course hours between online work and in-person meetings to something as simple as mixing assigned readings with TED talks (short, powerful recorded videos featuring experts discussing subjects in fields ranging from science to business to global issues).
It can be tossing out those tiny desks and adding tables on wheels that can be shifted for group work, or adding video equipment that students can use to record their presentations and immediately critique them. Many faculty members already employ some of these tools and teach in classrooms designed for maximum mobility and connectivity, but others, Ventimiglia admits, may be a bit more skeptical.
“I can usually get someone to accept these ideas intellectually, but the harder part is getting people to accept them in their hearts,” he says. For the unconvinced, he suggests they give augmentation a try. “Technology offers a lot of opportunity to enhance learning outside the classroom, so instead of telling a professor to change the class, I’d suggest doing some virtual discussion — an online chat or office hours online. Things that don’t disrupt the classroom are easier to bite off.”
Experimenting with different modalities and bringing more technology into adapted classrooms will not signal the end of education, just the end of a delivery model that may have reached its sell-by date. It’s just like banking, Ventimiglia says.
“Ten years ago, pundits would have said there will never be a another brick-andmortar bank built again, but that didn’t happen,” he says. “Mobile banking extended the experience, and now we can transfer money online. Consumers are used to using that technology, and the bank branch is still here, but it’s changed. They brought the technology into the branch. It’s similar to what we face with the classroom.
“It’s very important we design spaces for the faculty that will be our future. Without the best environment to teach in, we won’t retain them. At the same time, we can work with our academic professionals to give them more skill sets to earn a living. The goal is to take what today is a Bermuda Triangle and turn it into a Golden Triangle.
Each year, the Center for Instructional Innovation awards $3,000 grants to full-time faculty members who are hybridizing or moving a class online. Those selected join a community focused on learning the techniques, practices, pedagogies and technologies needed to create a more digitized classroom. The champions also share their work with others across the university. What does that work look like? Three recent Digital Champions share their stories.
In one of my graduate neuro-rehabilition classes, I moved some coursework online to keep the class momentum moving when I was at a conference. I recorded a lecture, put up a PowerPoint and gave students worksheets to go along with it. I use YouTube all the time to show physical therapy scenarios, but I wanted to learn more techniques that weren’t self-taught to make what I was doing better.
Soon after I received a Digital Champions grant, I began learning from other Champions about better ways to create online materials. They could tell me what worked and what didn’t. I also found I’d done it all wrong! I had recorded lectures that were an hour and a half in length, and I talk very fast and a lot. So students were doing a lot of stopping and rewinding. An hour’s lesson turned in four hours of work, and that wasn’t my intention at all. This group had some neat ideas I could use to improve. For me, that’s the most valuable component of the program.
I’m working toward hybridizing more courses with screen-captures from videos, 15-minute lectures and private Facebook pages. The Facebook idea was that we could share stories we came across related to treating patients with neurology diseases. I have several colleagues who have posted stories, and that connects students to people working in the real world.
The students also post stories; even during the summer when they were off at clinic, they were still posting and sharing. None of it was tied to a grade, and they were okay with that.
I’d never be able to put all my lessons online, but hybridization allows me to cover lecture content outside the classroom so class time is reserved for discussion, critical thinking and hands-on activities.
Anne Lorio is an assistant professor of physical therapy
It’s been a goal for me to connect my students with native French speakers around the globe. The advent of Skype made connectivity easier — and we have visuals!
Sometimes, when working with schools in Africa, there is no technology, and I’ve had to look for grants to get the technology to them. I often team my students with native-French speakers to work on projects. They brainstorm, write proposals and share information. Other times, we might use the technology for a special grammar lesson or to hear a guest speaker.
I worked with the CII to borrow iPads for my students to talk with their foreign partners, post tweets about class readings or to contact me — I hold my office hours via Skype. So, even if I’m at a conference, they can reach me.
It’s a new generation, and students are very tactile. But this goes beyond technology. That’s just one pathway for them to learn more than language.
Gladys Francis is an assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies
When I started teaching this course back in 1998, it was an elite elective. Then it became a required course that students now take at the beginning of junior year. The material is largely based on feedback from employers, and addresses good writing and speaking skills. So it’s changed quite a bit.
I wanted a bigger room with enough space for all the stuff students bring. It was about making the classroom match what students need, and the old facilities didn’t work. Now I’m in a computer room set up in a U-shape, so everyone is on the front row.
This gives students more opportunities to practice professional speaking, and it turns an academic exercise into a practical skill they can use in their daily lives. At the same time, it allows me to teach to the highest standard.
Being a Digital Champion has also introduced me to faculty members across the university who share similar issues. They also have solutions. The workshops we’ve had bring a fresh perspective and can change the way we teach, and that’s important to me.
Linda Willis is an Instructor of Business Communication and Professional Development
H.M. Cauley is an Atlanta-based author and writer whose work appears regularly in the Atlanta Journal- Constitution and the Atlanta Business Chronicle. She is also a third-year Ph.D student and instructor in Georgia State’s English Department. She was once skeptical of transformative technology in the classroom, but is now on her way to becoming a Digital Champion at Georgia State.
Illustrations by Harry Campbell