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Technology-enabled active learning at IU South Bend

IUSB professors Josh Wells and Jay VanderVeen are using technology to maintain classroom community on a commuter campus.

At IU South Bend (IUSB), anthropology professors Josh Wells and Jay VanderVeen are using technology to maintain classroom community on a commuter campus. Because IUSB is mostly a non-residential campus, students seemed to have problems relating the textbook to course lectures and handout materials -- and the situation is compounded by difficulties coordinating with classmates and taking full advantage of online university systems. Wells and VanderVeen decided that making the classroom a more active learning environment would better engage modern students, who collaborate with peers via social media and digital file sharing. The classroom could essentially use a Web 2.0 approach to teaching, bridging the physical classroom and the lives of students.

Originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, technology-enabled active learning (TEAL) involves multiple desktop or laptop computers shared by groups of students. In a typical IUSB TEAL class period, 30-40 minutes of lecture is followed by topical in-class group assignments involving various software and students collaborating through a shared network. Students solve exercises together and report their results using tools like Google Docs/Drive or files uploaded to Oncourse. Because all activities are documented online (or through the cloud), students are able to share ideas and review course materials wherever and whenever they have time. There are no study guides for the class; the class itself collaboratively creates study materials.

Rather than studying in isolation -- or individually focusing on a lecture and then heading to another class or off campus -- Wells and VanderVeen asked students to work with each other. The goal was to answer questions about human origins and ancient civilizations in a way that persists throughout the semester and beyond. Students are trained in online collaborative software like Google Docs and Zotero (an online research tool), and taught information literacy skills like using web browsers and academic search engines. By using these resources, they are able to solve complex problems together using shared materials. The instructor tracks and responds to group progress online, while moving throughout the room to offer in-person assistance. The end of class involves a debriefing and evaluation of each group's progress, so students can learn from the successes of others and compare their results to the body of work produced by their cohort.

All the software and web services used in IUSB TEAL classes are fee free and open source -- or otherwise freeware. There are no barriers to students accessing collaborative classwork on any campus computer, or indeed on any internet-connected computer (and most mobile devices). In this way, Wells and VanderVeen moved students from passive receptors of knowledge to community producers of information. Along the way, the students not only took ownership of the anthropological ideas, but also gained practical skills that transfer to any discipline. In satisfaction surveys, over 85% of students prefer the TEAL environment to a traditional class, and Wells and VanderVeen have documented significant gains in student outcomes compared to traditional classroom settings.

Wells and VanderVeen have seen derivative benefits of TEAL flow into other courses at all levels of instruction. Positive outcomes emerge from what TEAL is not. It is not using technology for its own sake, but instead implementing specific tools to meet specific goals throughout the semester. It is not a way for instructors to avoid responsibility, but instead it is a way for instructors to engage with the student community -- and to actively increase information literacy in a way that involves multiple levels of feedback and avenues for reflection. It is not an online class (although it shares some best practices with top online classes), but instead uses information and communication technologies to empower a physical community of students to continue learning beyond the confines of their classroom and campus.