Collaborative Learning Classrooms – Best Practices

by Brian Murphey, CTS

There are plenty of books and articles out there about collaborative learning classrooms (also referred to as cooperative learning classrooms). A quick google search also turns up plenty of acronyms for these spaces as well: TEAL, SCALE-UP, PIES, CLE, CSCL, and the list goes on. As expected, much of this information is contradictory and, sometimes, self-serving-aimed at selling a particular method, system, or product. There are usually very few specifics on the technology design aspect, probably because technology is a moving target: constantly evolving and difficult to incorporate into a standard, without the standard quickly becoming obsolete.

There is one constant amongst all these books, articles, and acronyms: Everyone is certain that their method or product for collaborative learning is the best (and the one that everyone else should adopt.) However, after 20 plus years as an audio-visual consultant I know that every organization’s needs are different. And within each organization, every instructor has their own unique way of teaching in a collaborative environment. There is no one size fits all solution. Every implementation of collaborative learning must, to some degree, be customized to that organization, and must have the flexibility to adapt to the teaching styles of individual instructors. But flexibility often breeds complexity, making rooms difficult – or even impossible – to use for their intended purpose. There is such a thing as too much customization.

In my years designing technology for these rooms, I have observed a lot of successful and unsuccessful implementations of collaborative learning. I share my experiences below in an effort to help establish some best practices for both the physical and technology design for these rooms.

Teams:

Most collaborative learning classrooms break the class up into teams. Each team works on an initial task or problem, with an instructor (or sometimes multiple instructors) serving as a facilitator, guide, and collaborator. Successful collaborative learning classrooms typically keep these teams small, usually only a handful of students each. Small teams encourage interaction and participation from all members. Larger teams can quickly become dominated by one or two members, with the rest dropping out of the process. Each team has their own table or work area, with enough physical separation between teams to reduce interference and distraction. Round tables are best for face to face interaction between team members and help keep the focus on team interaction.

Devices:

Laptops, tablets, and smart phones are the ubiquitous tools of modern problem solving. Therefore, each team table must accommodate the use of all these devices. Schools must provide sufficient wireless data bandwidth in the room to facilitate simultaneous network and internet connectivity by all teams. Wired data connections are not usually needed for individual team tables, but may be useful if higher bandwidth activities are anticipated.

Team Displays:

The display on most devices is designed only for individual viewing. To allow all team members to easily see a connected device, each team table should have a corresponding “team display” on a nearby wall. This display is typically a large flat panel monitor, or a short-throw projector on a whiteboard. Sometimes these displays are equipped with interactive capabilities to allow team members to get up and electronically annotate over the displayed device using a finger or stylus.

Provide multiple, wired video connections to the team display at the table. Wired connections are reliable and offer the high video thru-put. A hybrid approach that includes both analog and digital wired connections provides the greatest flexibility. However, some devices – such as smart phones and some tablets – do not work with wired connections, so wireless video transmission options should also be provided.

Multiple connections facilitate round-robin viewing of devices. While typically only one device at a time can be viewed, multiple connections make it easier to quickly switch from one connected device to another without having to unplug the first device and then plug in the second. This in turn also creates more stable connections, since the system can synchronize to multiple connected sources.

Audio:

Reproducing sound from a device at each team table can be a particular challenge. Simple headphone connections can allow all team members to hear a source without it interfering with other teams. A more elegant approach utilizes an overhead, parabolic speaker that focuses sound playback over the individual team table. However, this approach may not work with larger tables or high ceilings. Distributed ceiling speakers are the typical sound-reproduction solution in most collaborative rooms, but this system is generally limited to reproducing sound from only one source and only for the entire room.

Instructor:

The instructor must have a base of operations, even if he or she plans to move about the room during most of the class. An instructor’s desk, podium or table serves as a location for the instructor to connect and observe without intruding on the individual teams. The instructor’s desk includes device connections and a desk-top annotation display. This type of display allows electronic annotation over any source being viewed. This provides the instructor a valuable way to interact with, and provide feedback to, individual teams or to the entire class.

The instructor also must have wired data connections to allow high band-width activities, such as hosting distance learning sessions, or monitoring/controlling software applications on individual team devices.

Although most of the activity takes place at the team tables, the instructor may want to have and hold everyone’s attention for a brief lecture or discussion. Providing a single, large “room display” (usually projection) at the front of the room is the best method to get all eyeballs facing the instructor.

Speech reinforcement for the instructor is typically not required in collaborative learning rooms since the idea is to keep the space relatively small anyway. However, wireless microphones can be used for speech reinforcement in larger rooms, and/or provide a speech feed for recording the session.

Distance learning:

Many collaborative classrooms also include a distance learning element to enable outside experts or remote students to participate. An inexpensive but effective way to include distance learning is through the use of web-based video conferencing systems such as GoTo Meeting or WebEx. While the video quality of these systems is not as high as more expensive H.323 video conferencing systems (Polycom, Cisco, LifeSize), they have the advantage of being available to almost anyone. A home-bound student or remote expert can participate from their PC with nothing more than a webcam and a free downloaded app.

Adding distance learning capabilities to a room requires additional attention to acoustics, as well as careful consideration of camera and microphone locations.

Adaptability:

As the teams progress on their particular problem or task, instructors need to adapt to changing circumstances. For instance, a struggling group may be temporarily paired with a stronger group. An instructor might re-assign one team’s partially completed task to a different team to demonstrate a different problem solving technique. The instructor may decide to show what one team is working on to all the teams for snap feedback, or switch the modality of the whole room to a lecture style environment to address a problem encountered by all groups.

To accommodate this adaptability, include audio-video switching equipment to allow any team table input to be put on any or all team displays and/or the room display. Provide the instructor with a simple keypad or touch panel interface to control this switching. Carefully design sightlines for viewing team displays as well as the larger room display. Good sightlines eliminate the need for movable tables, and can greatly simplify system wiring.