We have supported Swansea University and three colleges in Wales to use technology to be better connected. This is making learning more fun, fulfilling, and future-focused – for students and staff.
A-level physics student Sam1, apprentices Jane and Mohammed, engineering undergraduate James, and experienced engineer Sarah are designing a new part for an aeroplane. They represent three further education colleges, one university and a global company, all based in Wales. Each is in their own institution using video conferencing to work together on the engineering challenge.
“Collaborative learning is the future and can lead to more connected communities,” says Paul Holland, dean of educational technology at Swansea University. “It means we can collaborate more effectively with local further education colleges and be more aligned, helping students through their education journey. It also helps them to work in teams with different skillsets – as they will need to in their future careers.
“I’ve seen the need for a connected and collaborative way of working that our students will need for the fourth industrial revolution. I don’t think everyone realises the potential of where this is heading, or how disruptive it could be. But it’s my role as dean of educational technology to enable that change."
Inspiring deeper learning
The engineering challenge mentioned above is one of the imagined scenarios of how Paul sees the Growing Comms project working. The project is a collaboration between Swansea University, Gower College Swansea, Pembrokeshire College and the NPTC Group of Colleges.
“Growing Comms is an example of Jisc’s vision for Education 4.0 – when student experiences improve because of advanced technology,” says Paul.
Each of the four institutions involved will have an active learning space they can use to teach in. They can also use the space to link to partner institutions for collaboration and host industry-led innovation events.
The spaces are currently being designed and will contain furniture and technology which directly involve students in the learning process.
“This allows students to go deeper and do more design-based learning, rather than the traditional method of a lecturer stood at the front transmitting knowledge,” says Paul. “Instead, lecturers can put their classroom materials online for students to study before they come to an active learning session. This promotes deeper learning.”
Getting ready for the workplace
The partnership aims to support further education students to learn more about what higher education is like. Kate Pearce, information learning technology manager at Gower College Swansea, imagines this happening through innovation events, like the one mentioned above.
“Another example is our A-level science students accessing high-level teaching and learning that we may not be able to facilitate here. They can use an active learning space at our college that links up with the one at Swansea University,” she says.
The institutions will work together to find ways for students living in remote areas to stay in education without having to come into college. This will improve employability across Wales. “We know there’s a skills gap,” says Paul. “Students will have to be able to adapt really quickly to do different jobs. They need digital skills and to learn quickly. These active learning spaces bring those things together.”
“It’s much easier to see your impact on students”
The partnership is supporting the university and colleges to learn from each other. Kate at Gower College says it’s really important for higher education to understand the environment which students come from and for colleges to understand the environment they’re sending students to.
For some higher education teachers, this interactive way of supporting learning is new. But, lecturers at Swansea, like Paul, are passionate about the benefits of active learning, for students – and staff.
“I’ve had my best experience of teaching in higher education in the active learning spaces,” says Paul. “That two hours is magical. I’m walking round, sitting with students, listening to them, talking to them. It’s much more personal and easier to see your impact on them because it’s a two-way conversation and there’s all the peer learning. There’s a happy buzz in the room. The idea is that it’s not you as an expert at the front, it’s the ideology that we all learn together.”
A better student experience
Many of Paul’s colleagues first experienced this way of teaching and learning in April 2018, when Swansea University hosted a Jisc sticky campus. This is a mobile digital classroom which we take to institutions around the UK to trial this active way of learning.
For two weeks, the sticky campus hosted everything from teaching to student society meetings. Staff and students who used the space gave lots of positive feedback and asked for more active learning spaces, which helped influence change. “It will provide a better student experience and a selling point to distinguish us from the competition,” said one staff member. “The spaces allow everyone to interact and collaborate on answering questions,” added a student.
The sticky campus event led to Swansea University installing permanent active learning spaces. One of them, room A019, in the College of Engineering Central has computers on 10 tables that seat six people with a collaborative screen at the end of each. Teaching can be traditional, with students working individually while a lecturer teaches. Or the computers can be folded down inside the tables, creating a more collaborative space where students can work in teams and lecturers can use active learning approaches.
Students using the space are not limited to pen and paper. They can bring their own device and, via an app and wifi, connect to the collaborative screen so everyone can work together. Lecturers can also make collaborative screens appear next to each other so the 10 tables can share their work with everyone in the room.
“My third years use the space in multiple ways and it’s a really supportive – and cool – learning environment,” says Paul Davies, lecturer at the school of management. “They present to each other and can fold the PCs down so they are out of the way, allowing real social and peer learning. I can’t tell you how much this helps promote learning compared to the standard PC lab layout and the students appreciate it too.”
This investment in active learning inspired Paul and his colleagues to successfully apply for £370,000 Higher Education Funding Council for Wales funding for the Growing Comms project. Since then, we’ve worked with Paul to lead Growing Comms. He says we’ve been a “neutral stakeholder” in the project, hosting a workshop to help the four institutions decide what should be in the active learning spaces. “Having Jisc involved was useful. Although Swansea is the lead partner, we didn’t want to impose our views,” says Paul.
Paul suggests we can help other traditionally conservative institutions to evolve to this collaborative way of working. “I trust Jisc to help facilitate this process and be a partner in the work,” he says.
- 1 Student names have been changed.