Can Active Learning Co-Exist With Physically Distanced Classrooms?

Advocates for active learning worry that their favored approach will be hard to pull off in physically distanced classrooms -- and that instructors will revert to the straightforward lecture.

May 27, 2020
 
Courtesy of University of San Francisco

Welcome to "Transforming Teaching and Learning," a column that explores how colleges and professors are reimagining how they teach and how students learn. If you'd like to receive the free "Transforming Teaching and Learning" newsletter, please sign up here.

***

As colleges and universities begin to craft their plans for the fall, a divide appears to be emerging.

Administrators at most campuses that have announced decisions to physically reopen their campuses (some with larger caveats than others) have asserted both that in-person learning (a) is superior to virtual learning and (b) can be done effectively and safely in classrooms that ensure physical distancing. Many faculty members agree with the first premise but are uncertain about the second, out of concern for their students and for themselves. Some of them fear that in planning to reopen, their institutions may be putting financial and enrollment considerations ahead of their students' and employees' safety.

The faculty members and administrators who run campus teaching and learning centers or are otherwise responsible for shaping their institutions' overall instructional strategies find themselves in a potential bind.

They may share some of their faculty peers' concerns about whether campuses can physically reopen safely this fall, and some (as they have expressed privately) have a seat at the decision-making table and are arguing internally against a physical reopening. But their jobs require them to help their college or university develop the most pedagogically sound way of educating students in whatever scenarios their leaders ultimately choose.

Many of those campus-level conversations remain in the early stages, but this week's "Transforming Teaching and Learning" column explores one such discussion.

The question at hand: Can "active learning" -- broadly, any instructional strategy that engages all students meaningfully in the learning process -- survive classroom environments this fall in which student interaction is severely limited by physical distancing protocols? Or will a fall semester in which instruction is delivered in physically distanced classrooms lead to an inevitable resurgence of a lecturing format that most learning experts agree is less effective?

***

As is true for many of the most interesting conversations about learning these days, this one has unfolded (among other places) on the POD Network Open Discussion Network, an email Listserv hosted by the POD Network group that calls itself "North America's largest educational development community."

This particular discussion was initiated by Christopher Heard, a professor in Pepperdine University's religion and philosophy division and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Seaver College, Pepperdine's residential undergraduate arm. Heard wrote that he had begun shifting his attention from "supporting faculty in making a rapid transition to remote teaching" this spring and summer to "thinking about supporting faculty in transitioning back to on-campus teaching with protocols in place like:

  • Six-foot physical distancing
  • Lower-face masks
  • Chairs in fixed locations in the room (in some but not all rooms, chairs will be rotatable 360 degrees)
  • Limited access to whiteboards (because the chairs will be too close to them for professors and students to use)
  • Minimization of student contact with shared surfaces and objects
  • No substitution of synchronous video sessions for physical class meetings."

Had any of his peers on the Listserv, Heard asked, begun developing guidelines for how to conduct active learning -- "broadly conceived, but always involving student action and preferably interaction in the classroom/group space" -- under such constraints? If not, he wondered, could they collectively develop some?

In an interview, Heard said he was motivated to write after contemplating how his own preferred teaching approach might transfer -- or not -- to an environment like the one described above.

Heard uses the flipped classroom model, in which students come to class having read or studied in advance the content he hopes to examine.

In his typical active learning classroom, "students are clustered closely together, in groups or paired, and I circulate between the groups" as they discuss the problem or question he has posed. The groups are far enough apart so their conversations don't disrupt those of their peers, and there are lots of whiteboards or other writing spaces so they can brainstorm as they discuss. Students may be arranged in different patterns even in the course of the same class session, and "there is lots of motion … The classroom tends to benefit from students being able to move around."

Safety protocols this fall could disrupt such a classroom setup in multiple ways.

Six-foot social distancing would be likely to limit a classroom that used to hold 30 students to 16 or so. Chairs that are six feet apart (and perhaps bolted down) would create challenges both with "the distance between students" in a single group and "the lack of distance between groups of students," Heard said. That situation would be complicated if, as some health experts have recommended, students should all face in the same direction to avoid spreading germs, even with the masks they'll almost certainly be wearing.

Four students who are in, say, a diamond shape six feet apart from each other may have trouble hearing each other without raising their voices -- and any elevated voices could disrupt the group that is in turn six or eight or 10 feet away.

Students would almost certainly be discouraged from sharing whiteboard markers, Heard noted. And it's hard to imagine instructors being allowed to move from student group to group, "basically grinding to a halt" the kind of movement generally essential to an active learning classroom.

If college leaders mandate in-person instruction on a campus where physical distancing is, appropriately, required, Heard said in the interview, "I am somewhat concerned that the physical challenges may discourage some faculty members to the point where they just lapse back into lecture mode … Not out of conviction that that's the best thing for learning, but just because they're too discouraged."

***

That's why Heard did what so many instructors and educators have done this spring as they've been tossed into new learning environments for which they did not feel well prepared: "turned to my peers to see what kind of best practices -- maybe we can all them 'next practices' -- we can collectively recommend."

Heard's initial prompt on the POD discussion group elicited an avalanche of responses. Almost to a one, they said they struggled to envision how active learning could thrive in a fully or mostly in-person setting boxed in by significant restrictions on physical distancing and mobility.

Erika Lee, senior lecturer at Indiana University's Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, wrote that she uses a wide range of technologies and tactics that enable active learning in her classes -- "huddle boards every class, [classroom assessment techniques], small group breakouts, etc." She was in "triage mode" in this spring's remote learning pivot, Lee said, but is now, like many professors, being told to "be prepared for everything" for the fall -- face-to-face, online or some hybrid.

"I teach three large courses and am currently teaching summer session," she added. "I can't redo those three fall courses in three ways. Not sure I can even redo them at all … So what I could use [advice on] is what online techniques and tools best match with the active learning F2F techniques I've been using. And if the answer is stop trying to do asynchronous, just run class on Zoom, fine, but I need someone to just tell me what to do at this point. Preparing for all possibilities is just overwhelming, exhausting and ultimately impossible."

Linda C. Hodges, associate vice provost for faculty affairs and director of the Faculty Development Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, described herself as a "strong proponent of active learning in the face-to-face classroom. But "I'm not sure that being in the same physical space during social distancing and being masked provides any affordances over doing active learning in the virtual environment," Hodges said. It seems to me that students can engage in breakout rooms, etc., online more effectively than in the bizarre pandemic physical world. Of course, they could be in the room on their computers doing virtual collaborative learning, but that seems to add risk with little benefit."

Heard said he didn't disagree with those statements, but he said Pepperdine officials are at this time planning to discourage the use of synchronous online sessions for students who are unable to attend in-person courses this fall. He shared this statement: “You may not dismiss your physical class meeting in favor of a synchronous online meeting, but to accommodate students who get sick or otherwise can’t attend, you can record the physical class meeting and have students who were absent watch the video asynchronously.”

Possible Solutions

Heard said he had begun exploring ways to bring web-conferencing technology into the physical classroom. "Students would be in the classroom with the professor, but using Zoom or similar tech for things like sound reinforcement when they need to address the entire group, or be heard on asynchronous recordings, etc.," he wrote. "This is very inchoate and of course professors would have to be open to students using their devices during class. That old debate takes on very different resonances now."

Anton Tolman, professor of behavioral science at Utah Valley University, said web-conferencing tools could enable some active learning, especially if institutions adopted a hybrid, synchronous approach in which students were both in person and remote. "Students in groups/teams with those who cannot attend physically could do 'breakout' group discussions if at least one member of the group has access to the platform being used … [Or] the instructor could have a laptop open with Teams, Zoom or whatever, running for those students who could see the professor, hear the discussions and be able to raise their hands, ask questions, etc."

Tolman also said some instructors at Utah Valley had taught using a platform called Live Interactive that includes both live class meetings and students at other distant sites participating via web conferencing.

Other communication tools. Ellen Maddin, co-director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and associate professor of teacher education at Northern Kentucky University, also suggested ways instructors could tap students' own laptops, tablets or phones to stimulate active learning.

"I use Padlet for many purposes -- to capture ideas in small group work, as a backchannel if we watch a video clip, to brainstorm challenges and potential solutions, to analyze case studies, etc." (She shared an example.) Padlet works well in a face-to-face setting, Maddin said, especially when the instructor pulls the whole group back together to discuss individual/group responses -- shared on the large screen.

She also recommended Mindmeister, "a mind-mapping tool that allows students to work collaboratively (in real time) on the same map. It's great for generating ideas, looking at cause/effect, problem analysis, comparing/contrasting, etc." And she said the free Nearpod is "one of my go-to tools, as it allows me to integrate presentations (i.e., 'lecture') with formative assessment (objective, open-response, drawings) and media."

"I can link to a Google Doc, a Padlet, or a Mindmeister map in my Nearpod presentation. Live presentations could be followed by students remotely (they get an access code), although arrangements would have to be made for synchronous audio to hear the instructor, which could be managed easily enough with an audio-only (password-protected) Zoom meeting in the background." (Maddin noted that she is "not affiliated with any of the tools I've mentioned, and I'm not trying to promote them as better than anything else you might be using that does the same thing.")

Peer instruction. Robert Talbert, professor in and chair of the mathematics department at Michigan's Grand Valley State University, offered up peer instruction as a possible answer to the question Heard posed. "It seems to check the boxes," he wrote.

Six-foot distancing with masks works because "students do the individual think/vote portion of peer instruction just by themselves with a device for voting," he wrote. "Pairing off with a neighbor after voting is a little awkward, but having a discussion with someone six feet away is definitely doable." Fixed chairs and few/no whiteboards "isn't an issue, particularly since peer instruction was invented to be used in large fixed-seat lecture halls."

"Students generally use their own devices to vote, and the human interaction is largely just verbal," Talbert noted, so minimized student contact doesn't limit peer instruction.

A Bleaker Scenario

Norman Clark, administrative director of academic programs at the University of Minnesota Rochester's Center for Learning Innovation, offered a less heartening view of how a fall semester with students in physical classrooms might go.

At his small, teaching-focused institution, Clark and a facilities colleague spent half a day measuring and "experiencing" every classroom and lab, all of which were designed for active learning. They looked at every space "from the perspectives of cleaning, scheduling, room capacities, HVAC systems, pedagogical practices, student and faculty behaviors, student conduct issues, and more," he wrote to the POD Network. "It's one thing to draw six-foot circles, talk about reduced classroom capacities, and propose wearing masks in class -- it's a whole other thing to actually experience it."

Based on that experience, Clark -- speaking, he says, for himself and not for his university -- envisioned a scenario of what a class focused on active learning might look like for a typical student. The entire description is here.

Here's how he sums it up: "We’ve spent the last few decades developing and improving tools to facilitate collaboration at a distance. Now, when we HAVE to be at a distance, shouldn’t we maximize the effectiveness of our collaboration, and minimize the risk, by using these tools?

"I do appreciate the risk to enrollment if we go online, and the many other ramifications. But at six feet, we’re not going to be able to deliver the active learning environment we promise to all of our students, at the same time, for the whole semester.

"We’ll (probably? almost certainly?) be able to do a better job of it online. If we communicate the decision effectively, we might be able to persuade students this is the better option: safer for them and their families, more collaborative, less stressful, more possibilities for community-building."

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Share your thoughts »

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top