14 Leveraging Digital Technologies Through Innovative Learning Spaces

Gary Lew

gary.lew@uoit.net

Ontario Tech University

Abstract

To meet the evolving demands of a technologically-advanced and innovative educational society, schools must continually change and adapt their formal learning environments to reflect 21st century teaching and learning practices. When considering how students learn in the future and the vision of the 21st century classroom, educators agree that the ‘traditional’ classroom environment is not conducive to individual student learning needs. More recently, attention has been given to the actual classroom and its physical learning environment. While Bourslama and Kalota (2013) indicate the benefits of technology in providing access and availability to information, collaboration, and accommodation of learning styles, the authors cite that the selection of innovative materials can make the classroom more versatile by enhancing the learning space and improving the individual work environment. Innovative learning spaces are student-centred, integrated and flexible to allow for student participation and collaboration, as well as, information-sharing. This framework allows for more social interactions and maximizes connections among students in the learning environment, shaping for collaborative learning in group situations, or through remote collaboration (online video streaming, demonstrations, simulations, social media, etc.). Robinson (2012) indicates that many school districts are exploring the impact of shifting the traditional teaching environment, with students being engaged and active learners in leveraging digital technology through flexible, fluid seating and furniture arrangements. Innovative learning spaces involve changes to the physical and social classroom environment, as well as virtual learning outside of the classroom through social media.  There are several digital technologies that can be utilized with innovative learning spaces to enhance student learning and engagement, aligned to the 4 C’s of the 21st century learning skills – Critical thinking (connected learning, digital learning across the curriculum); Creativity (makerspaces, video tech stations); Collaboration (Humber Hives, flipped classrooms); and Communication (social media, blended & virtual learning). Despite several studies showing a positive impact on student perception and increased student engagement and learning with the shift to innovative learning spaces (i.e., technology-enabled active learning environments), there is less definitive data on actual impact on student achievement.

 Keywords:  21st Century Learning Skills, Blended & Virtual Learning, Connected Learning, Flipped Classroom, Innovative Learning Spaces, Leveraging Digital Technologies, Makerspaces

Introduction

To meet the evolving demands of a technologically-advanced and innovative educational society, schools need to continually change and adapt their formal learning environments to reflect 21st century teaching and learning practices. Leveraging digital technology continues to be a focus in the educational learning environment. Students in this generation have grown up using technology in their daily lives, so it is a natural transition for them to incorporate these skills into their learning environment. With this constant advancement in technology, the classroom environment must continually evolve to fit the needs of the modern learner. To engage and facilitate student learning in the 21st century, educators have to continually shift and change their teaching practices to meet the needs of an advanced, innovative society.

The question is how to ensure that current teaching practices are responsive to the shifting demands of the 21st century. According to Robinson (2012), the key to learning today does not just refer to the physical space, but also to the social environment. Aside from educators and parents, the learning environment should also be viewed as a 3rd teacher to optimize student potential in the areas of 21st century learning skills – Collaboration, Creativity, Critical-thinking, and Communication. Designing the most effective learning space to promote wondering and discovery will involve innovative classroom furniture and equipment, leveraging of digital technologies, multiple opportunities for collaboration, inquiry and problem-solving, as well as, learning from beyond the confines of the classroom walls, i.e., virtual spaces. This chapter will focus on the impact of leveraging digital technologies with innovative learning spaces.

Background Information

When talking about educational reform and innovation, most people think about curriculum and program changes.  Another area that is usually overlooked, but equally important, is the classroom design. Currently, the traditional model is having the classroom designed for face-to-face, teacher-directed and group-work learning experiences. While Bourslama and Kalota (2013) indicate the benefits of technology in providing access and availability to information, collaborative opportunities, and accommodation of learning styles, the selection of furniture can make the classroom more versatile by enhancing the learning space and improving the individual work environment. In their design of the future “Smart” classroom, Bourslama and Kalota (2013) cite that innovative learning spaces should be student-centred, integrated with technology and flexible to allow for student participation and collaboration, as well as, information-sharing. This process of leveraging digital technology with innovative learning spaces allows for more social interactions and maximizes connections among students in the learning environment, as well as through remote collaboration (online video streaming, demonstrations, simulations, social media, etc.).

21st Century Learning

When considering how students learn in the future and the vision of the 21st century classroom, educators agree that the ‘traditional’ classroom environment is not conducive to individual student learning needs. More recently, attention has been given to the actual classroom and its physical learning environment. Learning is now seen as an active process, where the teacher is viewed as the facilitator of learning, providing learners with engaging and individualized learning experiences (Robinson, 2012).

Innovative Learning Spaces.

Robinson (2012) indicates that many school districts are exploring the impact of shifting the traditional teaching environment. Students have become more engaged and are active learners in leveraging digital technology through flexible, fluid seating and furniture arrangements. Innovative Learning Spaces involve changes to the physical and social classroom environment, as well as virtual learning outside of the classroom through social media. With 21st century learning, educators need to create engaging and innovative learning spaces that reflect the skills that young people are expected to know as they become productive citizens in an increasingly complex and technologically-advanced society.

Leveraging Digital Technologies.

Classrooms are being re-designed to fit the evolving needs of the 21st century learner. Leveraging digital technologies in classrooms are vital elements in connecting students to the real world, as well as, preparing them for technologically-advanced jobs in the future. By integrating technology into the educational curriculum, students will become better prepared for the modern workplace. Likewise, leveraging technology into the curriculum offers many functionalities to develop new skills that promote collaboration (Sutherland, 2019).

Applications

Sheninger (2016) asserts that, with the ever-growing changes and challenges of a technological society, there is a demand to develop individuals who can solve problems through critical and creative skills. Over the years, there has been much research into providing innovative teaching strategies that go beyond traditional classroom practices. Schools must overcome an array of challenges if they are to create meaningful, relevant, and applicable learning. As such, Sheninger (2016) emphasizes that leveraging digital technology with innovative learning spaces allows for more social interaction, interactive hands-on exploration and maximizes collaborative connections among students within the learning environment, as well as through remote collaboration (online video streaming, demonstrations, simulations, social media, etc.).

21st Century Learning Skills

Since 21st century learning environments are envisioned as places where the learner is engaged in self-directed and co-operative learning activities, and the physical environment is planned so that it can be easily adjusted to suit the needs of the learning process, each educational technology example can be aligned to the 4 C’s of the 21st century learning skills – Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication.

Critical thinking.

A critical thinker looks at problems in a new and different way, while linking learning across subjects and disciplines. Technology has changed the critical thinking platform and, now, with the incorporation of innovative learning, student learning is further enhanced.   When carefully designed and thoughtfully applied, technology has the potential to accelerate, amplify, and expand the learning through coding software and other applications such as, mindmap apps, Desmos, Mathies, Gizmos, mPower.  Students develop critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by learning to evaluate and compare inquiry-based explorations through online navigation (Tapscott, 2009).

Furthermore, in connected learning, students can pursue their personal interests and wonderings through inquiry-based learning with peers and use innovation to critically analyze problems.  For example, digital learning across the curriculum requires a shift in teacher mindset to allow for student creativity through other forms of media, i.e., ePortfolios, Google Classroom.  Students can also connect with practical, real-life scenarios from the field of research, i.e., FaceTime or Skyping a scientist in Antarctica to study the migratory behaviours of penguins.  Popular social media tools, which students can incorporate in their learning, include, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Blogs (Sheninger, 2016).

Creativity.

One application to support student engagement in learning and the development of problem-solving skills in the 21st century is through Makerspaces.  Makerspaces (also known as Hackerspaces) are work spaces, having “maker” materials / equipment (i.e., 3-D printer, legos, robotics kits, cardboard, cutters, makey makey kits, etc.), where students can collaboratively tinker, create, explore and experiment, as part of their open inquiry-based learning process.  Makerspaces encourage the mindset of creating something out of nothing and exploring the students’ interests.  These spaces can benefit those who need the critical 21st century skills in the fields of STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics (Sheninger, 2016). Another area of innovation in supporting student creativity is through video-making. WeVideo (2019) allows students to easily capture, create, edit, view and share professional-quality videos for presentations using any mobile device, including Mac or PC computer browsers, Chromebooks, iOS, and Android devices.

Collaboration.

Collaboration is about working together to reach a goal and putting skill, expertise, and intellectual talent to work. Just like with communication, technology has made collaboration easier. According to Hwang, et.al. (2015), the flipped classroom model is an innovative teaching strategy that has shifted technology-enhanced learning. Students prepare for class by reviewing online video content, first, and then apply the basic knowledge learned on their own time in more in-depth learning and discussion during class time. The teacher’s role is to clarify any misconceptions and become the facilitator to guide students through discussions and self-learning.  This model has been applied at Toronto’s Humber College campus, where the classroom learning environment is being reimagined and redesigned to meet the needs of a new generation of learners. The classrooms have easily moveable and functional furniture, are free of physical barriers, and offer reliable technology hubs/stations with video and web conferencing capabilities, along with numerous accessible outlets for electronic devices (Humber College, 2018).

Communication.

Social media platforms such as, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can be integrated into the curriculum by communicating with (and getting feedback from) other students and their teachers; highlighting what is being accomplished in the classroom; making global connections; posting events; and so forth. Likewise, leveraging the impact of blogging can encourage students to give and receive feedback in a manner that the teacher can filter and control. Additionally, teachers can connect their students with other students across the world using Skype, FaceTime or Google Hangout to link them to people who are working in different fields, so they can ask their questions and get a real-life perspective on what working in that field is like (Lynch, 2017).

Blended learning integrates various digital tools, techniques and materials with the physical classroom environment.  In blended learning, students can view online videos, lectures, readings, or assignments as part of their prior learning, and then participate in the face-to-face traditional classroom for discussions and consolidation of their understanding and learning.  In the virtual classroom, all instruction and learning are completed online through the internet (Sheninger, 2016).  When supporting the development of technology implementation with innovative learning spaces, the blending learning process aligns well to Puentedura’s (2006) SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition) framework. Using the SAMR framework, Cochrane, et. al. (2014) outline the transition to using technology within an innovative learning environment. For example, SAMR represents the general progression that blended learning takes within the innovative learning space: beginning with duplicating current technologies (substitution), using technology to provide functional improvement from traditional ‘paper and pencil’ tasks (augmentation), utilizing technology for significant task redesign (modification), through to designing new experiences that were previously difficult with pre-existing technologies (redefinition), such as, using social media for creativity and collaboration.

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

As technology integration becomes a priority for school districts, it is important that students are offered innovative learning spaces to expand and challenge their knowledge and ability to create and collaborate.  While learning spaces can be personalized to meet a variety of student needs, and there is growing research on the positive impact of student engagement and learning from these innovative strategies, it requires a growth mindset from students and teachers to embrace these changes. If students and/or teachers are resistant to change and the transformation to an innovative learning environment, i.e. there is no “buy-in”, then creating these learning spaces would be impractical. In addition, some of the limitations to, or disadvantages of, this innovative learning environment includes space, cost effectiveness (expensive) and teacher training and expertise in supporting technology within the learning space (Sutherland, 2019).

For technology integration and innovative learning spaces to succeed within the curricular pedagogy, Couros (2015) recommends a shift to an ‘innovator’s mindset’ to embrace change and empower others. The author indicates that education must go beyond just engaging students, but to provide them with the tools/skills to take ownership of their own learning. The question is no longer about how to motivate students, but to support an innovative mindset and create a learning environment that removes any barriers to limiting creativity. There is a need to shift teacher mindset along the same continuum of leveraging digital technologies within the classroom. However, despite the growing use of educational technology in the classroom, there has been little focus on the role of teacher mindset in shaping a student’s approach to learning. Hence, there should be further studies in this key area of focus.

With 21st century learning, there are limitations to the traditional classroom environment, i.e., a physically outdated teaching model which does not match the inter-connected virtual world we now live in. Fisher (2010) supports the emergence of technology-enabled, active learning environments, as students are learning through a vast array of informal learning spaces both on and off campus, yet are still crammed into outdated traditional models. These learning spaces need to adapt to meet the emerging needs of a wide range of pedagogies. As a result, many educational institutions have recognized the need to support 21st century learning skills by leveraging digital technologies and creating innovative learning spaces. Despite several studies showing a positive impact on student perception and increased student engagement and learning with the shift to innovative learning spaces (i.e., technology-enabled active learning environments), there is less definitive data on actual impact on student achievement. Fisher (2010) maintains that using technology within innovative learning spaces increases student engagement and collaboration, yet there is still inconclusive studies related to the impact of leveraging digital technologies and innovative learning spaces on increasing student achievement.

References

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Robinson, K. (2012).  Capacity Building Series:  The Third Teacher. [PDF file].   Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/CBS_ThirdTeacher.pdf

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Sheninger, E. (2016). UnCommon Learning: Creating Schools That Work for Kids. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

Sutherland, C. (2019). 7 Reasons why Students Need Technology in the Classroom. [Web blog post]. Explorance. Retrieved from https://explorance.com/blog/7-reasons-students-need-technology-classroom

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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Gary Lew is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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