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How to choose the best active learning technology for your spaces

Tricia Whenham
By Tricia Whenham on November 14, 2018
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How to choose the best active learning technology for your spaces

Many years ago, when I worked as an instructor at a mid-sized polytechnic, there was a (possibly apocryphal) story making the rounds – about a storage room filled with new state-of-the-art hardware technology, just collecting dust.

I never found out exactly why the tech had ended up in purgatory. It could have been the result of a last-minute scramble to use up budget dollars, without enough time spent analyzing what students really needed. Or maybe a lack of training or support resulted in faculty who were reluctant to adopt it.

No matter the reason, it was a massive fail – and a good reminder that when it comes to choosing technology to support learning on campus, the stakes are high.

And they just keep getting higher. Technology has become an integral part of students’ lives. And while some may think this just means Instagram selfies and video game tournaments, a recent EDUCAUSE survey found that reading course materials, completing homework and doing research was actually more common. For many higher education institutions, the question around technology policy has changed: from “How much tech do we really need?” to “How do we choose the tools that will really make a difference for our students?”

Active learning spaces are at the forefront of this shift. Though low-tech versions of these spaces exist (think dry-erase markers, flip charts and a whole lot of sticky notes), more often colleges and universities are looking to technology to support crucial skills development. Once you’ve taken care of the essentials – trusty Wi-Fi, smooth LMS integration, clear audio – active learning technology can go further to strengthen collaboration, problem solving and engagement.

But how to choose what’s right for your technology-enhanced active learning spaces? It’s helpful to consider two things – the tool and who’s behind it.

Choosing active learning technology

Benefits, not bells and whistles

Choosing active learning technology starts with establishing clear criteria. What are your goals for your spaces? What must-haves do you expect from all your tech, like security and scalability? How will technology fit in with the other elements of your active learning space design?

Once you know the basics of what you’re looking for, here are a few questions to ask that can help narrow your options further:

Does the technology make group work smoother?

Complaints about group work are familiar to anyone who’s taught a postsecondary class (I heard my fair share) – it’s clear that collaborating can be tricky. Technology should help, not add extra levels of complication. Look for flexible solutions that you can adapt to the specific needs of faculty and students.

Is it designed for synchronous and asynchronous work?

Tools that allow students to work together in person should work just as well when those students are not in the same room. Students today expect immediate access to their learning tools, so choose ones that make it easy for students to make progress on their shared work, anywhere and anytime.

Can you access it from any device, anywhere?

It’s amazing what a savvy student can do with a smartphone – create presentations, do readings, even write papers! Make sure the technology tools you choose let them use the devices they prefer – and keep in mind that for some, a smartphone is the most accessible option.

Instructor uses active learning with students

Problem solvers, not product pushers

It’s just as important to take a hard look at technology vendors. There’s a big difference between companies that want to help you solve your problems and companies that just want to sell more. Speaking from experience, we appreciate when institutions have some tough questions about how we can best support them.

Entering into a new relationship with a tech company? Here are a few of the excellent questions we’ve been asked in the past:

What’s your involvement with higher education?

Look for companies that have invested in working with colleges and universities. They’ll be more up to speed on typical needs and can share what other institutions have tried.

What happens when we need help?

Find out exactly how customer support works. Ask how long it takes for actual human beings to respond to issues and how easy it will be to get on-site help.

Who are your customers?

Ask to talk with a few other postsecondary institutions that have implemented the products in their active learning spaces. You’ll get the inside scoop on what being a customer is like and also find ideas about how to use the tools.

Will your technology get stale?

Look for providers who focus on innovation and continual improvement. When possible, choose cloud-based  solutions that will grow with you and your students.

Can we test drive?

Use software trials, live demos and pilots to get a taste of both the product and the company.

Resources to get you started

There’s a lot to consider when you’re revamping active learning spaces. Luckily, many academics and institutions have been down this road already and are sharing the lessons they’ve learned.

Here are a few resources to check out:

  • SALTISE website – the SALTISE learning community (stands for Supporting Active Learning and Technological Innovation in Studies of Education) has an excellent resources section on their website, including a repository of research about active learning technology
  • Principles for Designing Teaching and Learning Spaces – McGill University put together a checklist of items to consider when creating new spaces, including technology, acoustics, furniture and more
  • Learning Space Rating System – EDUCAUSE has created a handy spreadsheet that lets you rate every component of your active learning spaces – from goals to furniture to technology. You can easily benchmark your plans against best practices within the higher ed community.
  • Rubric for E-Learning Tool Evaluation – Researchers at Western University created an easy-to-use rubric for measuring e-learning tools, considering elements such as functionality, mobile design and teaching presence

Topics: Higher education Hybrid classroom Hybrid learning