Designing collaborative learning is worth the effort

Posted by: Thembi Mason, Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

What is an NGLS?

Panorama shot of new learning space at RMIT.

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Margund Sallowsky.

Technology enabled active learning spaces or ‘new generation learning spaces’ are becoming more widespread in universities.  They are designed to support a more student-centred approach to teaching and learning, leading to active learning and higher engagement in students. While new learning spaces vary in their exact characteristics, they typically are:

  • carefully planned to facilitate interactions between students
  • designed to allow for flexible use and arrangement of furniture
  • constructed to enable the teacher to both teach and facilitate the class from anywhere in the room and
  • technology-enabled to encourage active learning both within and outside of the classroom.

How do they help learners and teachers?

So how does a teacher use the space so that students can build their own learning rather than relying on the ‘telling’ expertise of the teacher?

Associate Professor Nick Blismas from the School of Property, Construction and Project Management kindly agreed to let me sit in on one of his classes to see how he teaches in these new learning spaces. It was a great class. There were six students on each table. Nick had to monitor the numbers as students would try to pile into big groups but eventually they were evenly distributed around the room.

Students were learning about procurement methods – that is what procurement method would be chosen before a building was built to ensure that the time, cost and quality were optimally met. The right procurement method was critical to the eventual outcome of the project and Nick had designed a procurement game to build discipline knowledge so students could make more informed choices and decisions.

Hang on, what’s a ‘procurement game’?

students gathered around tables

Copyright © RMIT University. Photographer: Thembi Mason.

He split the student groups evenly into ‘developers’ and ‘clients’. Then he gave the clients information about the type of construction they were to build and asked them to embellish on the basic information and criteria for development he had given. For example, one group was to build a supermarket but they needed to factor in underground car parking. Meanwhile, the developers reviewed the different types of procurement systems. Students could use the wireless network to tap into the internet if they needed to find additional information.

Fifteen minutes later, clients met with developers and outlined their building project. Developers asked questions to clarify some of the criteria. Then the developers had to select the appropriate building approach for their client. The client could then respond as to whether they thought it was the right approach for them and why. All the groups presented their work at the end of the class and all the students voted on whether they thought it was the right approach for each building project.

It was a fantastic class to observe; the students really got into the role-playing. There was heated debate between clients and developers over ideas and you could see that the students were really learning discipline knowledge from each other. As students discussed the issues, Nick facilitated the class by walking around to the different groups and offering advice if he was asked or pushing the thinking when he thought a group was stuck. He was also formatively assessing them as he went.

‘Playing the whole game’

It was a fabulous way to facilitate collaboration and it was made possible because of the learning space – this type of activity would not have worked in a lecture theatre.  Designing activities and class work as Nick did does take some time, however, the students were engaged, they loved it, they learnt from each other and I am sure they will remember that class and what they learnt in that class when they are working in the field.

Nick had designed a lesson that David Perkins would say ‘played the whole game’ of their future professional lives in a practice session. Procurement was seen in context and seen as relevant by the students. They had to problem solve and deal with arguments about their selections. Clients had to listen to developers as they argued for the method they wanted to use. The process allowed students to practice their negotiating skills and improve their interactive skills for dealing with future clients. It showed them that often there is no certainty about any particular procurement method but taught them what each might offer them depending on the context for the development. For the students this was a taster of their future careers as project managers.

Have you got a story about using new learning spaces? Please comment if you do and let us know what worked for you and your class.

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