Rethink Your Course by Thinking Backwards
Ava Wolf
July 12, 2016
Most iFLEX faculty need to modify at least some of their course design to take advantage of the collaborative features of the iFLEX classroom. One new faculty member remarked, “I looked around at the students sitting in groups and suddenly realized that I couldn’t teach the way I usually did. I had to rethink a lot of things about my course.”

Rethinking your course doesn’t have to be hard, especially if you start by thinking backwards. Jay McTighe and Grant Williams worked with hundreds of teachers on curriculum design and lesson planning before coming up with the Backwards Design model described in Understanding by Design (2004). The 3-step model is student-centered and can be applied to any subject matter. Use it correctly and a single lesson (or even a whole course) almost writes itself.

Not convinced? Try it. Think of a topic you teach and write down the answers to the following questions:

  1. What do I want students to know or be able to do by the end of this lesson?
  2. How will I know that they know it?
  3. What are the best and most engaging ways to get them there?

Step 1 becomes your learning objectives, those key ideas that are most important to know about this topic. Step 2 becomes your gradable assignments that measure practice or performance.  Step 3 becomes the learning experiences, including instruction, that your students will engage in while in class or online.

The iFLEX classrooms offer real opportunities for teaching your subject. Room enhancements like flexibility, increased writing surfaces, and technology can facilitate new and different learning experiences. If you’re not sure how to fully engage your students, try thinking backwards.

Link to Understanding by Design

Simple Whiteboard Strategy Gets Students Creating and Critiquing
Ava Wolf
February 17, 2016

Whiteboards, or glass boards, are a standard feature in iFLEX classrooms. This is because early research on flexible learning spaces found that furniture on wheels and lots of writing surfaces were the two features most likely to improve student engagement in the classroom. Students like to roll around, and they like to write and draw on whiteboards.

But after they brainstorm a list of topics, or draw a concept map, what can you do to encourage more deep thinking and idea sharing outside of their groups? Biology teacher, Dave Matthes, from the University of Minnesota suggests a simple but effective method he calls Create, Rotate, Critique, and Revise.

Start by posing a question or problem that all groups will work on at the same time. Be sure that the problem is challenging and too big for one person alone to solve. You want students to remain interested and engaged as they struggle to create possible solutions.

When each group has created a working solution on their whiteboards, you ask them to rotate around the room. Each group moves together viewing other group solutions. But they don’t just view they must critique the other groups—adding questions, making suggestions, and pointing out errors—right on the whiteboards.

Students rotate and critique until every group has returned to their home base where they review the comments from their peers and get one last chance to revise their work. Done right, you will sense a heightened state of engagement in the room as each group tries to figure out the right answer, which you will now give them.

This method works well with manipulatives like graphic elements or foreign language cards, word and number puzzles, equations, political analyses, and any other problem that has a complex set of parts and one right solution. Create, rotate, critique, and revise is a simple but highly engaging method for building excitement and encouraging deep thinking in your iFLEX classroom.

Top Trends in Higher Education Classrooms
Ava Wolf
January 20, 2016

One of the exciting things about iFLEX classrooms is that they’re so different from traditional classrooms. Educators and school planners have come to better understand the ways that students communicate, socialize, and learn, and they are incorporating these insights into classroom design on this campus and others. A recent article in American School & University outlines the top trends driving design decisions in higher education.

  1. Student-centered design—The top trend in classroom design calls for spaces that cater to individual learning styles and personalized learning experiences. Tables and chairs arranged in small groups allow for cooperation and collaboration, and multiple writing surfaces promote idea sharing and independent thought. New trends in soft furnishings such as couches and cushion chairs offer students comfort and the opportunity to choose how they learn best.
  1. Flexibility—This buzzword of modern design is practical as well as trendy. New classroom designs offer more room for students to move around, and more variety in tables and chairs that can be rearranged easily. Flexibility also means that the classroom can adapt to different learning styles—visual, aural, tactile, and kinesthetic—as well as changes in learning theories and instructional strategies.
  1. Technology—An essential part of student learning, technology can no longer be an afterthought in classroom design. Multiple monitors, mobile devices, and interactive touch screens for faculty and student use are increasingly seen in classrooms. These devices need power sources, and powerful data networks to access a dizzying array of online resources.  Improved ergonomic features allow students to focus on and utilize technology for longer stretches of time without putting undue stress on their bodies.
  1. Learning anywhere—The mobile nature of learning offers design opportunities that are no longer limited by time and space constraints. Informal learning spaces where students can gather to socialize, collaborate, and relax are gaining attention inside the classroom and in adjacent hallways, nooks, and alcoves. Reliable wireless, shared monitors, charging kiosks, and flexible furniture support this anytime, anywhere mode of learning.

The skills and knowledge needed by students today require a different kind of learning environment built on innovative design strategies that accommodate new ways of teaching and the evolving needs of students. iFLEX classrooms at the University of Illinois are in line with, and even leading, these trends.

Technology Integration in iFLEX Classrooms
Ava Wolf
January 13,2016

Technology alone won’t make you a better teacher, and good teaching is good teaching whether you’re using an iPad or a piece of chalk. But there is a kind of crackle in the air when the right tool is used in just the right way and the classroom seems to hum with engagement.

Educational technologists have a model for thinking about technology as an integral part of the teaching and learning process. It’s called SAMR, an acronym describing four levels of technology integration: Substitution-Augmentation-Modification-Redefinition. Here’s an example:

Students can use a pencil to write a paper, but substituting a computer changes that experience. They can write individual papers, but using a tool like Google Docs can augment the writing process. Students can further modify the writing experience by publishing a WordPress blog that is read around the world, or they can completely redefine the written work by creating a digital story through multimedia.

At each level technology transforms the teaching and learning process. In fact, some learning experiences wouldn’t even be possible without technology, such as students using their cellphones to create story essays and sharing them in blogs.

Combining SAMR and iFLEX forces us to think more deeply about learning goals (what do we really want them to learn?) and how we can match those goals to room technologies (what tool or activity will make this happen?) The iFLEX classroom offers many opportunities for using technology, but it’s up to us to figure out how to use it to transform teaching and learning.

We can help. Contact