What Will Active Learning Look Like During Physical Distancing?

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Advocates of active classroom learning styles worry that their favored approach will be difficult to pull off in physically distanced classrooms. What will active learning look like during physical distancing? Experts worry that instructors will revert to straightforward lecture. 

Campus administrators at many colleges have announced decisions to physically reopen campuses. These college administrators assert that in-person learning is superior to virtual learning and can be done effectively and safely in classrooms that ensure physical distancing. Plenty of faculty members agree with the first premise but are not so sure about the second idea. Many worry that in planning to reopen, institutions may be putting financial and enrollment considerations ahead of student and employee safety.

Faculty members and administrators who run campus teaching and learning centers also find themselves in a bind. They may share their faculty peers’ concerns about whether campuses can physically reopen safely this fall, and some (as they have expressed privately) have a seat at the decision-making table are internally arguing against a physical reopening. Their jobs require them to help their college or university develop the most pedagogically sound way of educating students no matter what scenario is at hand.

Can “active learning”—which refers to any instructional strategy that engages all students meaningfully in the learning process—survive classroom environments in this fall in which student and teacher interaction is severely limited due to physical distancing protocols? Or will a fall 2020 semester characterized by physically distanced classrooms lead to an inevitable resurgence of a lecture format that most learning experts agree is less effective?

Christopher Heard, a professor at Pepperdine University, wrote that he begun shifting his attention from “supporting faculty in making a rapid transition to remote teaching” for the spring and summer to “thinking about supporting faculty in transitioning back to on-campus teaching with protocols in places like:

6-foot physical distancing
Face masks
Chairs in fixed locations in the room (in some but not all classrooms, chairs will be rotatable 360 degrees)
Limited access to whiteboards (chairs will be too close to them for professors and students to use)
Minimization of student contact with shared surfaces and objects
No substitution of synchronous video sessions for physical class meetings.”

Heard wonders if his peers have already begun developing guidelines for how to conduct active learning under such constraints. If not, perhaps they could collectively develop such strategies.

Heard says he is motivated to write after contemplating how his own preferred teaching approach might transfer—or not—to an environment like the one described above. 

Heard uses the flipped classroom model, in which students come to class having read or studied in advance whatever content he hopes to examine.

In a typical active learning classroom, students are grouped closely together, in groups or paired, and Heard circulates between the groups as they discuss the problem or question he has posed. Groups are far enough apart that their conversations won't disrupt those of their peers, and there are lots of whiteboards or other writing spaces so they can brainstorm ideas together. Students are sometimes arranged in different patterns during the course of the same class session. The classroom benefits from students being able to move around and actively engage with one another.

Safety protocols this fall could disrupt this classroom setup in multiple ways.

Six-foot social distancing is likely to limit a classroom that used to hold 30 students to 16 or so. Chairs that are six feet apart (and perhaps even bolted down) would create challenges both with the distance between students in a single group and the lack of distance between groups of students. The situation becomes complicated if, as some health experts have recommended, students should all face the same direction to avoid spreading germs, even with the masks they’ll almost certainly be wearing.

Four students who are in a diamond shape six feet apart from each other may have difficulty hearing each other without raising their voices—and any elevated voices could disrupt the group that is in turn six or eight or ten feet away.

Students are likely to be discouraged from sharing whiteboard markers. It’s difficult to imagine instructors being allowed to move from group to group.

Essentially, any kind of movement necessary to generate an active learning classroom must come to a grinding halt.

The physical challenges may discourage faculty members to the point where they revert back to lecture mode.

Possible solutions?
Perhaps there is a way to bring web-conferencing technologies into the physical classroom so that students can engage in small group activity without breaking physical distancing regulations. 

A hybrid, synchronous approach in which students are both in person and remote may help out.

New technology tools such as Padlet, Mindmeister and Nearpad can be quite useful for professors and students during physical distancing.

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