Breathing New Life into the Collaboratory, Reviving an Innovative Teaching Space

Many of us have an interested in increasing the opportunities for our students to work collaboratively. An excellent way to help facilitate group work is to make sure our learning spaces are conducive to group conversations, work, and study. Many in higher education are also interested in making sure our learning spaces are equipped with the latest and greatest in technology tools.

Today we’re excited to hear from staff from the University of Mississippi Medical Center who worked on a technology-rich learning space, starting in 2013. Their goal was to increase interaction and increase access to outstanding technology. Thank you to Rebecca Butler and Robin Thompson for not only discussing how you originally built this classroom, but an initiative to make sure the classroom stayed relevant and useful (after the initial excitement about the new classroom had decreased). I particularly enjoyed learning about the instructor professional development program.

Enjoy the read and enjoy your day,

Lindsey Downs, WCET


In 2013, the School of Health Related Professions at the University of Mississippi Medical Center set out to create a collaborative and technology-rich learning classroom. The goal of the classroom was to foster increased interaction and discussion among students and faculty while utilizing the latest in emerging technologies. Three years after its opening, the classroom was on its last breath with dwindling faculty use. In this blog, we will share how we have brought the classroom back to life, fostered a new feeling of excitement among faculty, and provide tips from positive and negatives lessons we learned creating and utilizing the technology-rich learning environment.

The Conception

We started dreaming up our technology-rich learning classroom in 2013. A team consisting of administrators, faculty, and IT staff was formed to explore possible options for a suitable space. At the time, many courses were moving to the online environment which left a traditional fixed-seating lab classroom vacant. The space was the perfect base for the project. With over a year of planning and building, the room was transformed into the collaborative classroom and dubbed the “Collaboratory.”

The Collaboratory is a 1,500 square foot active learning classroom equipped with state-of-the-art technologies and group learning spaces. The space boasts twelve interconnected, student and faculty-controlled computer displays is setup in small group workspaces. The “hub” in the center of the room provides a lecture space with 30 rolling chairs with desk space. The room can accommodate a total of 71 students; 41 students at group tables and 30 students in the center. A mobile lecture podium, individual and group whiteboard carts, and a lounge area for guests or team teachers round out the list of amenities.

The Flatline

Upon the project’s completion, faculty and students were all abuzz and filled with wonderment. Everyone was excited to see the new collaborative classroom. A weeklong open house was hosted for faculty and students from around campus to view the Collaboratory and learn about its potential. Participants were engaged in hands-on demonstrations, informational lectures, and received written material outlining the procedures for using and reserving the space. Optional faculty development was provided over the course of the semester. Everyone felt the project was a success!

Over the next two years, the excitement faded. The room was used infrequently and generally not for the intended purpose. The Collaboratory became a space for hosting faculty meetings, student meetings, and low tech group work. The equipment was not maintained properly by users, which created technical difficulties for anyone who tried to use the space for its original purpose.

We asked ourselves, “How could the school have an educational space as perfect as the Collaboratory and have no one using it to its full capacity?” This question prompted us to analyze the room and talk to faculty about their experiences. The number one rationale given for not using the room was that it was “intimidating.”

To learn more about the use of the classroom, we created and sent out a faculty survey. The survey contained four categories:

  1. procedures for reserving,
  2. policies for equipment,
  3. controlling the room technology with the iPad, and
  4. connecting personal devices.

Thirty-two full-time faculty members participated in the survey. The results indicated 66% of our faculty were only “slightly knowledgeable” or “not knowledgeable” about all four categories. These results, along with lessons learned from faculty feedback, led us to plan a relaunch of the classroom.

an overhead view of the Collaboratory space with 8 group tables and several chairs lined up in the middle of the room.
The Collaboratory Space

The Resuscitation

During the initial launch of the Collaboratory, our misconception was that faculty and tech-savvy students would jump right in and begin using the technology and the classroom to its full potential. For the relaunch, we wanted to take a different approach and guide the faculty and students until they became comfortable with classroom and the technology. To do this, a team of stakeholders was formed, including members from the office of student achievement, instructional development department, school administration, and the IT department. The team met to discuss how to improve utilization and streamline processes.

These team discussions resulted in a list of three categories that needed attention: policy and procedures for room/equipment use, policy and procedures for student use, and faculty development.

Room and Equipment Use

Initially, four different individuals managed the equipment for the Collaboratory. Part of the equipment had to be checked out while other equipment remained in the room. There was also no way to report broken or missing equipment.

Plugins for the collaboratory space
Photo of technology equipment in The Collaboratory

After the faculty survey, we realized that the inconsistency with finding and using the equipment caused faculty to have hesitations about using the space. The team drafted a new policy for using the equipment and reserving the room. All equipment is now located in a lockbox inside the classroom. Reserving the space is done through one designated individual. This individual provides the faculty member the key to the room and lockbox on the morning of the class. The faculty member is responsible for returning all equipment to the lockbox, filling out a log for any broken or missing equipment, and ensuring the classroom is tidy.

Student Use of the Classroom

Student use was the next area of concern. Students were using the Collaboratory as an open study space. Many of the students were not using the technology at all. Equipment was broken. Food and trash was left scattered around. Equipment was lost. The room was in a constant state of disarray. This led to faculty delays when they needed to teach in the classroom and increased faculty’s hesitancy in using the room. Our new policy states student use is limited to class time access only. No food or drink is allowed in the classroom and students must complete a brief training on policies and equipment usage before they can use the technology.

Faculty Development

With room and use policies and procedures in place, faculty development became the focus. The results of our survey indicated faculty needed guidance to use the classroom effectively. A four-level faculty development program was created. Level one is Collaboratory 101, a face-to-face workshop that takes place in Collaboratory. In the workshop, faculty learn about policies and procedures and how to operate the classroom technology. Collaboratory 101 is required before faculty can reserve the space and gain access to the room.

Level two is Collaboratory 102, a face-to-face workshop that also takes place in the Collaboratory. In the workshop, faculty learn about best practices for teaching in a collaborative technology-rich environment, such as collaboration management techniques and integrating outside teaching tools into the classroom.

Photo of a group working space with televisions
Photo of a collaboration space in The Collaboratory

Level three is achieved when the faculty member conducts a collaborative lesson in the Collaboratory with assistance. A member of the instructional development department stays in the classroom to assist the faculty with the technology.

Faculty reach level four when they are able to teach a collaborative lesson independently in the Collaboratory.

After all four levels are completed successfully, the faculty earns the title of Collaboratory Master. They are then able to mentor and assist other faculty members with lessons in the room.

The Recovery

The re-launch of the Collaboratory occurred in December of 2017. Since then, 35 faculty members have completed Collaboratory 101, 11 faculty members have completed Collaboratory 102, and 1 faculty member has taught a new lesson with assistance. Several more faculty development trainings are scheduled for the upcoming semester, and several faculty members have expressed interest in completing the third level of the training program.

We re-administered the faculty survey after holding the Collaboratory 101 workshops. Out of 35 faculty members, 96% felt “very knowledgeable” about all four categories (procedures for reserving, policies for equipment usage, controlling the room technology with the iPad, and connecting personal devices).

The benefits of using the Collaboratory to enhance the learning environment has unlimited potential. For others that may be interested in undertaking such a project, we learned that it is essential to have a team of invested stakeholders to brainstorm ideas, draft detailed but efficient policy and procedures, develop a training program for both faculty and students, have a performance improvement system in place, and have knowledgeable individuals readily available to assist faculty. Our Collaboratory now has a new lease on life, and we cannot wait to see the innovative ways the space will be used!

 

Renecca Butler headshot
Rebecca Butler
Coordinator of Instructional Development and Distance Learning
School of Health Related Professions
University of Mississippi Medical Center

 

Robin thompson author headshot
Robin Thompson
Director of Instructional Development and Distance Learning
School of Health Related Professions
University of Mississippi Medical Center

 

 


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Manager of Communications for the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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