Chapter 6: Building an effective learning environment
As in the case of learner characteristics, you may not have a lot of control over the resources available, but resources (or the lack of them) will impact a great deal on the design of teaching. Securing appropriate resources is often one of the most challenging tasks for many teachers and instructors. The role of resources in the design of learning is also discussed throughout the book, but particularly in:
- Chapter 1, Section 5
- Chapter 9, Section 7
- Chapter 10, Section 4.2
- Chapter 12, Section 6
- Chapter 13, Section 3
- Chapter 13, Section 4
Here the focus is just on outlining the overall role of resources in creating an effective learning environment.
6.7.1 Teaching assistance
Teaching assistance is the equivalent for instructors to what learner support is for students. Adjunct or sessional instructors, teaching assistants, librarians, faculty development workshops, and technical support staff, including instructional designers, media producers and IT technical support are all forms of teaching assistance.
It is important to think about the best way to use supporting staff. In universities, the tendency is to chop a large class into sections, with each section with its own sessional instructor or teaching assistant, which then operate relatively independently, with often large differences in the quality of the teaching in different sections, depending on the ability of the teaching assistants. However, new technologies enable the teaching to be organised differently and more consistently.
For instance, a senior professor may determine the overall curriculum and assessment strategy, and working with an instructional designer, provide the overall design of a course. Sessionals and/or teaching assistants then are hired to deliver the course either face-to-face or online or more often a mix of both, under the supervision of the senior professor (see the National Center for Academic Transformation for examples). Flipped classrooms are another way to organise resources differently (see Blended Learning in Introductory Psychology as an example.) One model is for the senior professor to record lectures which students view in their own time, then for students to meet in sub-groups with a teaching assistant or assistants to clarify concepts, discuss topics, or other class activities. These sub-groups may meet either face-to-face or online.
There are also opportunities to increase resources through the use of technology. Online learning may bring in more new students (for instance from outside the normal catchment area) and hence more revenues through government grants for the extra students and/or direct tuition revenue, so there may be economies of scale which would enable the institution to hire more core faculty or sessionals from the extra revenues generated by the additional online students.
Indeed, there are now examples of fully online masters’ programs more than covering their full cost, including the hiring of research professors to teach the program, from tuition revenues alone (the University of British Columbia’s online Master in Educational Technology is one example, even though its tuition fees are the same as those for masters’ programs offered on campus – see Bates and Sangra, 2011).
Thus resources (or the lack of them) can have a profound influence on the effectiveness of a learning environment.
Physical facilities available to an instructor and students include classrooms, labs, and the library. These are the more traditional components of a learning environment. However, physical facilities also can constrain the design of learning, because for example the physical set-up of a lecture hall or classroom may limit opportunities for discussion or project work, or an instructor may be forced to organise the teaching around three hours of lecturing and six hours of labs per week, to ‘fit’ with broader institutional requirements for classroom allocations (see How Online Learning is Going to Affect Classroom Design regarding attempts to re-design classrooms for the digital age.)
Online learning can free instructors and students from such rigid physical constraints, but there is still a need for structure and organization of units or modules of teaching, even or especially when teaching online. For instance learning management systems such as Blackboard or Moodle provide a structured online environment, but they too come with their own constraints.
Classroom technology such as whiteboards, projectors and computers for presentation are traditional technology support. I would also include textbooks here because we will see in Chapter 8 that they are a form of technology. However, the development of new technologies, and especially learning management systems, lecture capture, video streaming, and social media, have radical implications for the design of teaching and learning. This is discussed in much more depth in Chapters 7, 8 and 9, but for the purpose of describing an effective learning environment, the technologies available to an instructor can contribute immensely to creating interactive and engaging learning environments for students. However, it is important to emphasise that technology is just one component within any effective learning environment, and needs to be balanced and integrated with all the other components.
6.7.4 The instructor’s time
This is the greatest and most precious resource of all! Building an effective learning environment is an iterative process, but in the end, the teaching design, and to some extent the learning environment as a whole, will be dependent on the time available from the instructor (and his or her team) for teaching. The less time available, the more restrictive the learning environment is likely to be, unless the instructor’s time is very carefully managed. Again, though, good design takes into account the time available for teaching (see Chapter 12, Section 9 in particular).
6.7.5 Resources, class size and control
Nothing drives an instructor to distraction more than trying to manage with inadequate resources. Certainly, if a teacher or instructor is allocated a class of 200 students, in a large lecture hall, with no additional teaching support, then the instructor is going to have difficulty creating a rich and effective learning environment, because the lack of resources limits the options. On the other hand, an instructor with 30 students, access to a wide range of technology, freedom to organise and structure the curriculum, and with support from an instructional designer and a web designer, has the luxury of exploring a range of different designs and possible learning environments.
Nevertheless it is probably when resources are most scarce that the most creativity is needed to break out of traditional teaching models. New technology, if properly used and available, does enable even large classes with otherwise few resources to be designed with a relatively rich learning environment. This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 13, Section 5. At the same time, expectations need to be realistic. Providing adequate learner support with an instructor:student ratio of 1:200 or more will always be a challenge. Improvements are possible through re-design – but not miracles. (For more on increasing productivity through online teaching, see Productivity and Online Learning Redux.)
Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass
Activity 6.7 What resources matter?
- Are there other resources that influence the design of an effective learning environment that I should have included?
- Winston Churchill once said ‘We shape our buildings and in turn our buildings shape us.’ To what extent do you think online learning can free us of some of the constraints that buildings impose on the design of teaching and learning? What new constraints does online learning bring in terms of design?
- How do you feel about the whole issue of teaching assistance? I have grave reservations myself about the use of students as teaching assistants in universities, in terms of the quality of the teaching (not so much the principle, but the practice.). I also believe that sessionals and adjunct instructors are badly treated in terms of how they are managed. In British Columbia we have had two Supreme Court cases and a major teachers’ strike over class size and composition in schools, and in particular how much help school teachers should receive for coping with students with learning disabilities. But by bringing in less qualified (and cheaper) support for instructors, do we strengthen or weaken the learning environment for students?
No podcast from me – this activity is for your personal reflection – my views are stated above.