Oct 03 2019

Q&A: EDUCAUSE’s Malcolm Brown on Innovative Spaces and Classroom Technology

The director of learning initiatives at EDUCAUSE offers insights on the technology students want and how institutions can deliver it.

Malcolm Brown, director of learning initiatives at EDUCAUSE, believes modern classrooms, combined with faculty professional development, can inspire faculty to embrace more engaging teaching strategies that take advantage of technology. EdTech spoke with Brown about ways that colleges and universities are driving adoption of classroom technology. 

EDTECH: What trends are you seeing with classroom technology adoption?

BROWN: We are at an interesting point. If you look at the past 15 to 20 years, there was a revolt against the traditional lecture hall: seats bolted down, all facing one way, with students just taking notes. People like Bob Beichner from North Carolina State University and others came up with SCALE-UP (Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Program) rooms. The University of Minnesota did leading work and built a number of these rooms. There might be an instructor podium, but there’s no front or back. These rooms have circular tables and displays, so students can work on projects together, plug in their laptops and share their screens. It’s high-tech. There was a great movement in this direction, but the gear is expensive. You can’t build a lot of these rooms. 

Now, people like Maggie Beers at San Francisco State University are making the case that the key things that support active learning are wheeled furniture and writable surfaces. It’s a concept called learning-ready spaces. So it’s gone from one side to another, and now it’s coming back to a middle point where it’s, “Let’s get a variety of classroom types. Let’s not leave out lower-cost classrooms, which can also support active learning.” 

There is a multidimensional conversation around technology. You might call this a Goldilocks conversation: What’s the right amount of technology needed to support the foreseen uses of the room? The conversation is in a very interesting dimension right now. 

EDTECH: What are the main challenges facing colleges and universities as it relates to adopting and effectively using classroom technology?

BROWN: Cost is always going to be a factor. Classrooms are an expensive infrastructure. All classrooms need some sort of projector in them. They need Wi-Fi. They need a controller board for changing the lighting settings and raising screens and controlling other technologies. You need staff that knows how to implement and maintain it. 

EDTECH: How can higher education address these challenges? How can you ensure that classroom technology investments pay off? 

BROWN: You invest in developing your faculty, so that you enable the faculty to learn about various pedagogical designs and learning engagement strategies and approaches. That will make the most of these types of rooms. That is probably the key factor.

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how modern learning environments are creating a pathway for new higher education pedagogies.

EDTECH: Is faculty buy-in still a problem? If so, how do you get buy-in to move from lectures to integrate more technology? Is it just professional development or is there anything else you can do to increase adoption?

BROWN: Faculty buy-in is hugely important. My impression is that it’s become less a need to convert faculty on the idea of teaching in these rooms. Usually, once faculty have good experiences in a room, they enjoy it and don’t want to teach anywhere else. These rooms have been increasingly successful with faculty.

The main thing is to show evidence. There are studies that show these rooms do contribute to enhanced learning outcomes. Faculty can gain confidence that what they will be doing will pay off for their students.

Malcolm Brown
When faculty combine their content expertise with an instructional designer’s expertise, that is a winning combination."

Malcolm Brown Director of Learning Initiatives, EDUCAUSE

Sometimes it’s seen as a binary thing: either this faculty member embraces this type of approach or the faculty member is still lecturing. In fact, it’s more of an incremental approach. Sometimes it’s appropriate to redesign your course from the ground up. Other times, faculty will take a course and slowly evolve it, introducing one innovation at a time. “That worked. I’ll go find another innovation.” Or “That didn’t work so well. Next time, I will do this.” 

It’s an ongoing evolutionary process, which can also inform classroom design. If faculty says, “You put this in the room. It didn’t work for me,” designers will take that feedback and make accommodations in future designs.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Here are seven steps for universities to create their own active-learning classroom.

EDTECH: What is the best way to offer faculty training?

BROWN: It’s a collaborative process. Instructional designers play a linchpin role in this because most faculty don’t have the background in educational psychology and learning science. When faculty combine their content expertise with an instructional designer’s expertise, that is a winning combination. 

It’s also not the best idea to call this “training,” as that is something you provide to pets. The relationship of faculty and instructional designers is a collaboration, with each providing important expertise.

EDTECH: What classroom technologies are expected by students today?

BROWN: Students expect wireless internet connectivity and a projector. Students increasingly want to use mobile devices while they work in the classroom. One of the more interesting developments is wireless participation. The early classrooms had a podium and the lectern was privileged. If you wanted to show something on the screen, you had to be at the panel and plugged in to show it. 

Now, there are wireless options to access the projector. Faculty can ask if anyone has found a resource, a student can say, “I found this,” and put the content up on the screen, and the class can talk about it. That makes it much easier for 360-degree participation in classroom activity. Anyone with the proper gear can wirelessly show people their screens. So, at any moment, students can become the presenter. Roles are flexible. It’s democratizing and allows people to participate more actively. 

MORE FROM EDTECH: Demands from Generation Z students are expected to push the boundaries of the connected classroom.

EDTECH: Classroom technology places an additional burden on IT staff and help desks. How should higher education address this issue?

BROWN: Most institutions have technicians who support classroom technology. They have a couple of ways to help out faculty. Sometimes faculty get what I call a flat tire in a room, such as a room projector screen that doesn’t want to lower. The classroom has what I call a Batphone. Faculty can call and ask a technician to come and troubleshoot, but it usually causes a five- to 10-minute delay, so you are losing valuable classroom time. 

More and more, the componentry of technology in the classroom is accessible online. They can log in to the projector and sometimes you can troubleshoot from a distance — instantly and remotely — from another part of campus. That’s another way to support technology in the classroom.

Brankospejs/Getty Images

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT