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Create learning environments that drive engagement

By Team ISTE
May 11, 2015
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There’s a Golden Rule when it comes to creating or reinventing a learning environment: The environment’s design must support student engagement.

Sounds easy enough, but educators must be aware of the pitfalls – like incorporating technology into the environment and then focusing on the device rather than the learning. Or providing technology – say mobile devices – and then forcing students to be immobile while using them.

Colby Smart, e-learning specialist and professional development coordinator for the Humboldt County Office of Education in Eureka, California, is often called on to create learning environments that integrate technology. It’s a role he’s passionate about.

“You always hear about this resistance to technology. I don’t think there’s a resistance to technology, I think people just process things differently,” Smart says. “I enjoy providing the concrete models.”

He bases those models on a set of parameters educators must consider when creating learning environments: the students involved, the desired learning outcomes, the various ways to maximize a differentiated experience for students, the values of the organization and the identities of key stakeholders.  

Smart, who will be among the presenters tomorrow during an ISTE-hosted webinar, “New Learning Environments: Inside and Outside the Traditional Classroom,” also offers some best practices for establishing digital age learning environments:

  • The classroom or environment should be as modular as possible.
  • It should be able to meet the needs of the audience or the project.
  • It should include accommodations for devices, but not for a particular kind of device, because we live in a multi-device world.
  • It should have open Wi-Fi and various types of connectors.
  • It should support collaboration and problem solving.

Smart employed just these parameters and practices when he collaborated with Eureka’s Sequoia Park Zoo to create a learning lab where students use tablets to research the zoo’s unique ecosystem.

The zoo, as an experiential institution, sought to create a learning environment that would get visiting students (ages 8 to 11) moving, touching and engaged with the animals and the ecosystem.

“The zoo wanted to maximize the kinesthetic approach to learning by incorporating investigation and data analysis, so the devices could not be the focus,” Smart explains. “The focus is on how to maximize student engagement through project-based learning and leveraging kinesthetic opportunities for learning. So, in this case, we had to go with mobile technology.”

Amber Neilson, zoo education and operations supervisor at Sequoia Park Zoo, says the program encourages the use of multiple senses to assure student engagement and stimulate creativity. Students work in teams while visiting the animal exhibits, taking turns as recorders or photographers. The tablets allow students to take notes about their observations, record information from exhibit signage and take photos.

“There’s a lot of action. The animals are moving, the students are taking pictures, they’re sharing pictures, they’re creating intimate relationships with the animals and they’re using observation techniques to learn about the animals,” Neilson explains.

Back in the zoo’s learning lab, students use an app to create a “creature feature” flier that includes their photos and research, and then present their flier to fellow students.

During Tuesday’s webinar, Smart and a representative of a district that implemented 1:1 learning initiative will discuss the challenges they faced in executing their unique programs and will share best practices for leveraging mobile technology to inspire student collaboration and engagement.

Smart says webinar participants will leave with these takeaways:

  • How to identify the proper technology to meet specific learning demands
  • How to use mobile technology in ways that are authentically mobile
  • An understanding of student engagement outcomes of using mobile technology
  • An understanding of how mobile tech is impacting rural education
  • How to incorporate mobile technology into collaborative projects

Register now. Participants will have a chance to win a Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 Education.

Top image: By Redwood Coat on flickr