Olivier St-Cyr’s approach to teaching favours active learning techniques, focusing more on student engagement activities than traditional lecturing. So much so, that St-Cyr, an Assistant Professor, Teaching Stream in the Faculty of Information (iSchool), designed an active learning classroom from scratch, where every little detail facilitates easy and efficient implementation of active learning strategies.

Traditional lecture halls with a fixed and tiered structure can limit the possibilities for this type of learning for both the student and instructor. St-Cyr particularly recalls the difficulties of facilitating group work. For instance, the row of seats with fixed tables makes it hard for students to turn around and see each other, and form groups effectively, yet many students desire this type of learning. As St-Cyr notes, “Many students were asking for that hands on learning, for studio type of learning.”

St-Cyr joined the iSchool as the User Experience Design (UXD) concentration was rapidly growing; it went from having 32 students in 2016 to over 100 in 2018, meaning that the demand was also increasing.

The first room St-Cyr redesigned, featuring twelve tables of four, white boards and brightly painted walls, proved to be very popular with instructors wanting to implement active learning techniques. “We started having professors from Archives, Museum Studies, Library Science, who got interested in this room. Because the room had some success not only for my courses or the courses in UXD but other courses in the faculty as well, the Dean asked me if I could potentially look into designing another one,” says St-Cyr.

Designing a new room allowed St-Cyr to address other limitations, such as increased class size as some iSchool concentrations continue to grow, and to incorporate feedback from other instructors. For instance, some instructors wanted more flexible seating to accommodate different size groups at the tables. Therefore, the new studio located in the room 224 in Bissell Building, has tables suitable for groups of five or six, and others for groups of three or four.

St-Cyr’s research in UX and his experiences teaching in active learning classrooms at U of T informed his designs. Being exposed to technologically enhanced classrooms, St-Cyr learned about some of their limitations and challenges, for instance, the need for cables and difficulty of connecting different type of devices.

“When you want to project something on to a TV, you need HDMI cables, you need students to connect laptop to a cable and a lot of people have Macs, and Macs require all kinds of dongles. We want people to be able to connect and show their work. Because that is again a big part of User Experience; we do prototyping, we design user interface, we show our work to others, we have to critique it, we have to work together. So we really wanted the [new] room to allow for these types of activities” says St-Cyr.

The new room at 224 of Bissell Building has a wireless system with touch screen TVs around all of its walls. These touch screens also provide an opportunity for an interactive experience for both instructors and students.

In fact, every part of the design has the rationale behind it. Even the colours aren’t random. Having chairs in different colours makes it easier to create groups, or give different tasks based on the colour of the chair they are seated on. This replaces traditional use of counts, making it the whole process more efficient, time savvy and straightforward. Not having to spend extra time of the class attempting to connect to a device or allocating students in groups means that the learning time is maximized.

Although St-Cyr uses similar teaching techniques in traditional and non-traditional classrooms, flat and flexible structure of the room with movable chairs and tables has a transformative effect on the relationship between instructors and their students.

St-Cyr believes traditional lecture halls creates a hierarchy between a professor as an authority and students as receivers of the information. He notes, “Some students have this impression that the professor is only this educated person on the stage talking and lecturing, and as a result, some students sometimes are either afraid of asking questions or afraid of participating, or sometimes even afraid of talking to the professor.”

In traditional classroom environment, St-Cyr makes extra effort to eliminate this hierarchy where possible, by never teaching from one position in the room but moving around and being with his students. The fixed rows and stairs however make doing so rather difficult.

“When I teach in a lecture hall, it is extremely difficult for me to go up and down, and within the rows. Some students have backpack on the floor, the space between their chairs and the other row is very constraint, I have to squeeze myself in. The amount of contact and relationship building that I can have with the students are much more limited,” says St-Cyr.

St-Cyr believes such hierarchy can be minimized by creating a two-way relationship between instructor and the students. “If the type of structure you have is very open and very conductive to the professor walking around to the students, it creates a place to learn and to collaborate. I am no longer ‘the sage on the stage’, but I am a kind of mentor or coach that goes and helps the students in their learning,” says St-Cyr.

Although the active learning classroom too has a “front of room”, which is a point of much debate in active learning scholarship, it serves a practical reason of providing professors with space of their own. “When I teach in our new TEAL classroom, I don’t teach from the front of the room all the time, I have a microphone on and I walk around with a tablet, I am present in many different ways in the classroom. It really allows me to be closer to the students, to see what they are working on, to follow their work in progress,” says St-Cyr. The amount of contact also has an impact on student engagement levels. It creates a collaborative learning environment where students can engage with the instructor but also with one another, exchange ideas, and benefit from other students’ perspectives.

The informal feedback from students and other instructors is on-going and some of the challenges are being dealt with on the go. A formal evaluation however is also underway. St-Cyr is currently in the process of creating a comprehensive questionnaire with hopes to start collecting formal data in fall 2020.

By Anna Aksenovich