Changing the Way We Learn: Continuing Studies Introduces a Leading-Edge Classroom

2011-2012 Issue 2
Photo: Ryan Blau

Photo: Ryan Blau

Located at 688 Sherbrooke Street West, the leading-edge classroom is unlike anything learners at Continuing Studies have ever seen, says Jean-Paul Rémillieux, the School’s Director of Instructor Services and Educational Technologies. And that’s exactly what he had in mind when it was conceived more than two years ago with the help of McGill Teaching and Learning Services.


The idea behind the room, Rémillieux explains, was to create an environment that encourages active learning – that is, learning that is largely student-driven. Instead of rows of desks, the classroom has round tables, so students are in constant contact with one another. But the learners aren’t the only ones who don’t have individual desks. In the active-learning classroom, the professor makes use of a rolling podium outfitted with a wireless mouse and a keyboard. “The idea is that we want the focus in the classroom to be on group activities in which learners are really engaged in the learning process, rather than a simple lecture room,” he says.


And that’s just the beginning. The room is also equipped with five projectors, along with a video camera. “These are all related to the collaborative aspect of the learning space,” Rémillieux says. “The camera can zoom in and zoom out, and it can maneuver itself to film learners at any of the tables.”


That means that the active-learning classroom is not confined to four walls. Learners who may not be able to attend a class can watch it later, or even as it happens, Rémillieux says. And, thanks to the room’s connectivity, they can also take part in activities. The room boasts an interactive whiteboard configured with Adobe Connect, sophisticated conferencing software that enables learners to work on exercises from home.


Rémillieux made use of this technology in his course Networking Fundamentals, which draws on his own extensive professional experience. “I could be doing a configuration on a network switch, for example, and I could ask a student who’s located at home to take over the simulation and to do the configuration instead of me,” he says. “It’s really about removing the limitations of the physical space and using the Internet for that purpose.”


Like other Continuing Studies instructors, Rémillieux was excited at the prospect of teaching in such an advanced classroom setting. “I love the atmosphere,” he says. “The set-up really changes the dynamic with the learners.” Kevin Parent, Area Coordinator of the School’s Accounting, Finance and Taxation Programs, echoes Rémillieux’s enthusiasm. “Having more active learning is something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Parent says. “When I found out that there was going to be an active learning classroom, I said, ‘Oh, yes, I want to teach there.’”


The learners, he says, were able to do outside research during the class, looking up information online while they absorbed Parent’s lessons – which positioned him as a facilitator rather than a conventional lecturer. Seated at the classroom’s tables, they could easily use projectors to present their work to one another. “The whole class could be very interactive, meaning that they could have multiple discussions, see the rationale behind the methods they were learning and respond to one another’s questions.” I was just guiding them. The active-learning classroom also opens the door to new teaching paradigms. For example, in the future, students might watch lectures at home so that class time can be devoted to learning exercises.


Rémillieux would also like to see principles of active learning applied to classrooms throughout Continuing Studies. The seating arrangement, for example, is well suited to group activities. And web-conferencing technology could one day allow for increased enrolment without crowded classrooms. Both Rémillieux and Parent knew by learners’ response that the new active-learning classroom was a success. Normally, students remind an instructor to take a break in the middle of a three-hour class. But in the active-learning room, that’s seldom the case. “They wouldn’t think about taking a break or anything like that,” Parent says. “They were so involved in their activities and their learning!

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