Interdependent Catalysts for Transforming Learning Environments ... and the Faculty Who Teach in Them

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Key Takeaways

  • Designers of technology-rich interactive learning environments must consider the interdependent factors of physical and virtual spaces, faculty, students, and institutional infrastructure to create an effective setting for teaching and learning.
  • Faculty learning to use active learning environments benefit from an interdisciplinary team approach involving instructional designers and IT support staff.
  • The Faculty Fellows Program at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, supported five faculty in a transformation process that explored the possibilities and affordances of emerging learning technologies and active learning classrooms.
  • The lessons learned from the faculty fellows' projects can contribute to the national transformation of education through increased learning effectiveness and a shift from content-centered to student-centered learning.

Key chapters of the EDUCAUSE e-book Learning Spaces1 celebrate new models of learning environments. These new spaces accommodate the convergence of an emerging science of learning, a mature technology infrastructure, and a generational shift in student attitudes, behaviors, and needs vis-à-vis technology and learning. New active learning environments offer innovative affordances and promise extraordinary potential for student engagement and learning, yet the classrooms themselves are only one aspect of an interdependent system — an environment — that includes physical and virtual spaces, faculty, students, and institutional infrastructure. Designers of new, technology-rich, interactive learning environments need to consider each one of these interdependent aspects when considering how teaching and learning will happen in higher education settings.

At the University of Minnesota, a small group of faculty, staff, and administrative partners engaged in a transformation process to meet the potential offered by emerging learning environments. The five faculty members (Amy Garrett Dikkers, Bernadette Longo, Anne Minenko, Jodi Sandfort, and Catherine Solheim) who participated in this 18-month Faculty Fellowship Program (FFP) considered how physical and virtual spaces can be used to enhance student mastery of course learning objectives. Transformation lay at the center of this experience, in particular the transformation of courses and the faculty who teach them. Jodi Sandfort provided clear justification for this focus on transformation:


Jodi Sandfort on Transformation

Drawing on the faculty participants' reflections over the 18 months of the program, this article provides an account of key catalysts involved in creating transformative learning environments. We offer:

  • A brief context and details of the FFP
  • A discussion of the importance of institutional support
  • An exploration of the emerging physical and virtual spaces at the university
  • Consideration of how student expectations impact learning spaces
  • Insights gained from participating faculty that document the opportunities for and obstacles to transformation in a complex institutional environment
  • Recommendations for facilitating faculty, student, and institutional transformation

The Faculty Fellowship Program's Context

The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, is a large, urban Research I institution with a robust academic technology infrastructure. Over the past few years, the university has been working to radically transform some of the traditional physical classroom spaces by introducing several student-centered, technology-rich, Active Learning Classrooms (ALCs). The first ALCs served as laboratories for exploring new teaching and learning experiences. Faculty and staff conducted research in these classrooms to identify faculty development needs for teaching in the new environments. The Office of Information Technology (OIT) FFP responded to needs identified in this research.

One of OIT's oldest faculty development programs, the FFP was reenvisioned in 2008–9 to combine its existing collaborative methodology with a theme of transformational change in learning environments. This new approach reflected OIT's move away from tools and their applications and toward learning environments. This movement meant thinking comprehensively about a number of different issues:

  • Affordances of physical and virtual spaces
  • Relationships of students with content, instructors, and peers
  • Opportunities to leverage multiple technologies across different spaces to achieve desired learning outcomes

Fellows committed to exploring these issues through both strategically significant individual projects (see "Faculty Fellows' Projects") and a collaborative exploration of emerging learning environments. In order to accommodate these ambitious goals, the FFP was expanded from a one-year program to an 18-month program (August 2008 to December 2009).

The faculty fellows and OIT consultants met monthly as a group, with additional meetings between individual fellows and consultants. During some of these group meetings, representatives from university support offices explained various elements of the complex infrastructure that shapes the University of Minnesota learning environment. During these meetings, fellows provided faculty viewpoints as all participants learned about the roles and perspectives of other members of the university.

Reflective practice was critical to the success of the FFP, and the faculty fellows regularly took time to discuss their impressions and feelings. Near the end of the 18 months, the fellows shared their reflections in structured video interview narratives. Analysis of these reflections form the core of the insights presented here. These insights, as well as the collective wisdom emerging from our group's activities, admittedly arose in a specific context at a specific time. Yet these reflections can address how faculty at other institutions might engage productively in the campus-wide efforts required for the sweeping institutional transformation that must accompany the creation of new physical and virtual classrooms.

Institutional Support as Catalyst for Transformation

Even at a Research I university where faculty reward structures generally favor research activities, initiatives such as the FFP can create an avenue for faculty members to explore issues relating to teaching and learning in dynamic new learning environments. When the university has already made a substantial investment in a technological infrastructure to support teaching and learning, opportunities to support faculty development efforts aligned to these investments can encourage institutional transformation.

At the University of Minnesota, support for the FFP came from several levels of the institution, including the OIT. Each fellow received $10,000 and spent it in a variety of ways to realize FFP goals, including hiring a graduate assistant, purchasing special software or equipment, attending teaching and learning conferences, and using it to pay themselves a part-time summer salary to work on their projects. This funding support from the institution encouraged participation from tenured and tenure-track faculty members who might otherwise not have been able to justify this type of pedagogical development activity as meeting their requirements for scholarly work.2 With this funding, however, faculty in tenured lines could fund research assistants and other activities that resulted in scholarly work — as well as pedagogical work — that fit well with their departmental and research missions. Of the 2008–09 FFP cohort, three fellows were tenured associate professors and two were in non-tenure-track positions.

Because of this research component, department heads and college leaders supported participation in the program. As one example, Amy "had a supervisor who was open to me taking time out of my day to go explore and to see what was going on in other units." Jodi commented that things might not have turned out so well "if I hadn't had the instructional designer and head of our IT unit helping me every step of the way." As she explained, "Teaching in these new environments requires a team approach; there are just too many things that faculty don't know about technical things, about new platforms, about creating new learning objects...and we just need those helpers."

The faculty fellows brought to their FFP projects a commitment to the validity of teaching and learning scholarship. They agreed that potential student benefits from course transformation outweighed the time cost of learning new technologies, redesigning courses, and creating new learning activities. Reflecting on the time investment as a barrier to faculty involvement, Bernadette said that occasionally, in the midst of transforming her course, she asked herself, "Why don't I just laminate some notes and do a lecture?" But then her own curiosity and the desire to continue learning kept her moving forward.

Innovation in classrooms can be risky, but all the fellows were willing to take those risks. They didn't know if transforming their courses would result in success, failure, or something in between. It is risky to feel out of control, to be just a step ahead of the students, but there's not always time to master the requisite technical skills before having to use them to implement a new activity in the classroom. So faculty members have to believe that the risks are worth it. Here's Jodi considering one reward — a reinvigoration of faculty:


Jodi Sandfort on Institutional Support

As Amy put it:

"That environment [of change] has to stem from people, the politics, the self-efficacy, the feeling that you have support to try something new and feeling like you're not going to get penalized if the thing you try that's new doesn't actually work…that you just try again or try something different."

Generally, we all felt that students were fairly understanding of faculty willing to risk failure in order to create newer, more cutting-edge learning experiences. According to Catherine, "Sometimes you get behind [students] and you have to ask for their patience while you learn how to make sure that this bell or whistle works the way it should work. I think students are very forgiving and accepting of that." Early on in the transformation process, Jodi shared with the students what she was doing. She told them why she was experimenting with a new approach and what she intended to get out of it. Then she gave them an opportunity to provide feedback in real time "because it made the learning experience better for them and for me."

Feeling connected to the larger university, as well as participating in a community of learners, was important for the faculty fellows as they embarked on this journey of transformation. Bernadette commented:

"I should say that no one faculty member in an institution this large can do much on his or her own, so that I think the crux of the matter is getting a critical mass of people who are moving in the same direction…. [The FFP] has been one of the most exciting and effective programs for spurring this type of change, because…it brought together people from different sectors of the university for enough time to actually cohere as a group and get a common purpose in a common direction."

Catherine remarked:

"Our opportunities to connect with decision makers have been really important. Most faculty never talk to someone in the Office of Classroom Management, and the idea that they are creating learning environments for us to teach in without us ever having any conversations just really blows me away."

Learning Environments as Catalysts for Transformation

More than simply spaces with teaching tools in them, emerging physical and virtual learning environments help shape the activities that teachers and students consider possible and impossible in class settings. Bernadette stated it this way:


Bernadette Longo on Design and Pedagogy

Faculty members and students both confront challenges to their classroom expectations when they assemble in redesigned learning environments. A critical goal for faculty development is learning to meet these challenges. With FFP support, several of the fellows experimented with ALCs, which flatten the teaching-learning platform using round tables with multiple laptop connections and flat-screen monitors at each table, microphones, dual-projection screens, 360-degree whiteboards, and an instructor's station with additional A/V equipment. During class, the instructor can choose to display any connected laptop on any or all screens in the room. This allows for easy shifting among different groups' or students' work, as well as providing the students with more control in choosing visuals to display, thus enhancing their learning and that of their peers.

Catherine reflected on her first experiences in the ALC and how the affordances of the space inspired her to rethink her teaching:


Catherine Solheim on Affordances of the ALC

Catherine ended up moving almost the entire lecture portion for the course from the classroom to her course website so that students could spend class time applying their knowledge through practice problems. Even for those faculty members who use a team-based learning approach, these new environments allow that to happen in creative ways. Jodi said, "When you physically have the ability to group people in tables so they can see each other as peers, face-to-face — a very physical presence, I think, makes a difference."

For Amy, walking into the ALC (with seating for 117 students) and seeing the two projector screens and 13 flat-screen monitors immediately had her thinking, "Video! I have to use video in this room." The FFP gave her valuable time to reflect and redesign her class for the space. She quickly shifted from thinking about video in simple terms to considering how this tool could help students achieve challenging learning outcomes.


Amy Garrett Dikkers on the Impact of Space Design

The video interviews became the basis for several activities and a large group project designed to introduce students to different perspectives of critical issues in education, a Minnesota Teaching Licensure Standard covered in the course.

Students as Catalysts for Transformation

Teaching and learning spaces can only act as catalysts for transformation when populated by teachers and learners. Bernadette's experience in an ALC was eye-opening in both positive and negative ways, revealing complex issues about the role of students in new learning environments. On the first day of her class, one student was overwhelmed by the electronic screens and the level of stimulation. The classroom triggered an emotional melt-down for the student, frightening everyone in the room and significantly disrupting and then ending the class. As Bernadette recounted later:

"As the teacher in this situation, I had to try to stay calm while dealing with the troubled individual and trying to protect the rest of us. When this student had calmed down some days later, it was clear that the level of electronic stimulation in that room was too much, and this student completed the rest of the course online. This incident really made me aware that for students who cannot tolerate a high level of activity, uncertainty, and electricity, this type of classroom may not be an environment that is conducive to learning."

Through their participation in learning activities and their expectations about how they will learn, students become change catalysts in physical and virtual learning spaces. For some years, researchers have advocated classroom environments in which teachers act as coaches to help students learn course content and academic skills.3 This participatory approach to teaching and learning is based on the idea that most people learn more effectively through classes incorporating experiential activities than through lectures only. With the advent of social networking and other Web 2.0 technologies, students often expect that these technologies will be integrated into their learning environments, just as they are in their lives outside the classroom.4 When their expectations conflict with university curricular and administrative practices, students may "tune out" of their academic lives. Finding ways for students to bring their participative culture into their classes, while also acknowledging the expertise and authority of the professor and university, is a balancing act that becomes acute in ALCs.

The authors of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation report on digital media and learning argued that people aged 18–32 — in effect, incoming college students — are "actively involved in…participatory cultures" characterized by "low barriers to…civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing creations, and some type of informal mentorship…. [They] also believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another."5 Because students come to university life already immersed in a rich culture of participation, creation, and connection, they bring experience and skills in this type of social networking to their learning environments.6 Integrated university programs for transforming learning environments, like the fellows' work in ALCs, can tap into students' rich experiences to help shape new ways of teaching and learning. As Amy noted in the earlier video clip, the absence of a focal point in the room flattens the implied hierarchy built into traditional learning spaces. Bernadette agreed: "Learning how to teach in a collaborative way and learning how to learn in a collaborative way are part of the purpose for the design of the space."

Faculty as Catalysts for Transformation

Lest we have given the impression that the physical environments, the technological tools, the institutional support, or the FFP were the transformational catalysts and that the faculty merely responded to them, we want to stress that each faculty fellow considered herself an equally important catalyst in the process. They experienced an amazing synchronicity in what they wanted to accomplish in their own courses and what was being offered through the FFP request for proposals. Upon reflection, the faculty fellows realized that as a group, they generally don't self-identify as early adopters of technological innovation. So there had to be more than the newest bells and whistles to draw them into the transformative process. They discovered a common desire to create authentic, relevant learning experiences that would prepare learners for their future professional work in very dynamic, diverse fields. Their projects aligned with the university's innovations in classroom space and technology tools, and the institution provided a support structure to help them learn and implement their ideas. Unfortunately, pursuit of this important alignment of space design, technological tools, students' needs, and faculty goals seems rare. The faculty fellows offer some of their own motivations as a glimpse into what may drive faculty to invest their time and effort in these important innovations:

"As a group we were driven in part by a heightened sense of a mismatch between traditional teaching in our respective disciplines and the dramatically changing reality of the professions students are preparing to enter. Catherine reflects on this pressure:
Catherine Solheim on Disciplinary Change

"Bernadette comments on the opportunity in emerging learning environments to emulate the new reality of practitioners:
Bernadette Longo on Authentic Learning

"Each of us is responding to a desire for authentic learning, or to perennial teaching challenges in our courses, or to a simple drive to improve and enjoy our teaching. It is the spark that gets ignited when we see these other catalysts for transformation as opportunities that align to our unique needs and interests."

Recommendations for Transformation

Ultimately, the point of a program like the FFP is to capitalize on the university's investment in new physical and virtual environments by fostering permanent change in the way teaching and learning unfolds. Amy expressed her own transformation in this way:

"I'm doing things in a completely different way from how I did them when I first taught in a higher education setting in 2003–4…. I see that what I'm doing through the FFP in the redesign for this specific class [in the Active Learning Classroom] has spilled over into my other classes, where I am also incorporating video."

For these larger course-crossing behaviors to take root, more faculty members must undergo their own transformations. In many ways the FFP faculty's transformations as educators reflect larger transformations occurring in almost every segment of society. Jodi's comment addresses the link between that societal transformation and the need for higher education transformation, using the FFP experience as a catalyst for change:

"We have to enable things to come together in a new way to create a new generation. And I could feel in the last month that I was transformed last year [via FFP]. And once that happens, you can't go back. You can't go back. And there's no reason to."

A challenge for students in this transformation process is what Henry Jenkins calls the participation gap:

Educators must work together to ensure that all young Americans have access to the skills and experiences needed to become full participants, can articulate their understanding of how media shapes perceptions, and are socialized into the emerging ethical standards that should shape their practices as media makers and participants in online communities.7

More than just having access to social networking technologies, students should be proficient in skills and knowledge learned through participation in online social activities, reflecting a shift from literacy in "individual expression to community involvement."8 As in other questions of equity, transformation of university learning environments needs to provide activities for students to learn the skills of a participatory culture, as well as activities that give students already proficient in these skills opportunities to be mentors and teachers.

Higher education is undoubtedly facing an imperative to transform. Our institutions, faculty, staff, and students all feel growing pressures to change from a variety of complex forces.9 What will it take to embrace transformation and move higher education forward? Answers are complex, but we believe that success — particularly in transforming classrooms — will not occur without engaging faculty in a systematic and sustained manner. Our FFP experience offers lessons for fostering transformative change on any campus:

  • Consider new ways to offer professional development — not a class or workshop on the newest technology tool, but rather opportunities to experiment with new approaches to teaching in an extended and supported community.
  • Integrate continuous support, such as technical and pedagogical experts, peer learning communities, and institutional incentives, as an essential and requisite element of effective professional development.
  • Encourage interdisciplinary professional development opportunities.
  • Create prototype designs for new classrooms, new pedagogical approaches, and new technology tools; allow faculty to interact with them early and often as they rethink how they teach.
  • Embrace risk and make failure (or at least imperfection) not only permissible, but valuable as a learning opportunity.
  • Offer ways to partner with and support faculty in the development of teaching and learning scholarship.
  • Involve undergraduate students as partners in the transformation process; develop feedback assessment prototypes for faculty to collect formative feedback.
  • Start early by offering graduate students — the next-generation faculty — opportunities to experiment and lead innovation.
  • Build in opportunities for structured and unstructured reflection.

As faculty and staff involved in the FFP at the University of Minnesota we feel fortunate to have leaders who recognized that truly transforming teaching and learning environments requires aligning multiple, interdependent catalysts, including the faculty, to produce the necessary changes. Anne summarized our impressions of the FFP developmental experience:

"If you want to be part of the national transformation of education, and not just because of the education technologies but because you value learning effectiveness, and see the paradigm shifting from content-centered to student-centered learning, then this program is for you."


All authors contributed equally to the writing of this article. The authors would like to acknowledge Lauren Marsh and Kim Wilcox for conducting the faculty interviews and for their important contributions as coordinators of this cohort's FFP experience.

  1. Diana G. Oblinger, ed.,Learning Spaces (Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2006).
  2. John Hattie and H. W. Marsh, "The Relationship Between Research and Teaching: A Meta-Analysis," Review of Educational Research, vol. 66, no. 4 (Winter 1996), pp. 507–542.
  3. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2001); and L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
  4. A 2005 Pew study found that more than half of all teens had created Internet content and one-third had shared their content. See Amanda Lenhart and Mary Madden, "Teen Content Creators and Consumers," Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington, D.C., November 2, 2005.
  5. Henry Jenkins with Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robison, and Margaret Weigel, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education in the 21st Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), p. xi.
  6. According to a 2009 Pew Internet & American Life Project report (by Sydney Jones and Susannah Fox, "Generations Online in 2009"), Internet users aged 18–32 (Gen Y) are "the most likely groups to use the internet for entertainment and for communicating with friends and family." Further, they are "significantly more likely than their older counterparts" to seek entertainment online through videos, games, and music.
  7. See Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences; Oblinger, Learning Spaces; and Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.
  8. Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture, p. xiii.
  9. See Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences; Oblinger, Learning Spaces; and Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture.