Tech-savvy classroom aims to transform learning

Yale’s new TEAL classroom at 17 Hillhouse Ave. promotes an interactive learning environment.
Yale’s new TEAL classroom at 17 Hillhouse Ave. promotes an interactive learning environment. Photo by Yale University.

This semester, Yale will debut its first Technology Enabled Active Learning (TEAL) classroom, which aims to improve students’ classroom experiences through a more interactive learning format.

In the new classroom — which is located on the ground floor of 17 Hillhouse, Yale’s old health center — students will sit with laptops provided by the classroom at 10 round tables, each of which is equipped to project student work onto one of 10 flat-screen displays around the room. The professor can walk among the tables with a wireless microphone or stand at an instructor station in the middle of the room, from which he or she can control the five additional projectors and screens and eight high-definition whiteboard cameras.

Modeled on similar facilities at North Carolina State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the TEAL classroom will be home to at least five courses, mostly in the Physics Department, beginning this semester.

“The idea is for the room not to [have] one-way teaching between professor and student,” said El Lolis, the Information Technology Services technology project manager for the TEAL classroom. “It’s supposed to be more of an interactive, ‘lecture-lab’ type of environment.”

Lolis said the room, which is available to any department, is intended to be flexible and to enable the professors to develop their own methods for using the technology.

The TEAL format is an adaptation of the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) model, which was developed at NCSU in the 1990s by Robert Beichner, a professor who specializes in education research. Beichner, who estimates that the SCALE-UP format is now used in over 150 schools, said the format allows schools to take collaborative and discussion-based learning found in smaller classes and “literally scale them up to large enrollment classes.”

Provost Peter Salovey said he first became enthusiastic about TEAL when he was an accreditor for MIT in 2009 and sat in on a demonstration of one of their TEAL classrooms. Salovey said he believes the TEAL format reflects the changing nature of education.

“Although we have many inspiring lecturers, the future is really not lecture-based learning,” Salovey said. “We have a generation of students coming up who’ve led their lives online, and this kind of approach is just much more familiar to how they think and learn and what they’ve experienced in their lives, than a faculty member standing behind a podium and saying things and the student writing things in a notebook.”

Physics professor John Harris — one of the professors signed up to teach in the TEAL classroom this term — said he is excited to try the new format with his introductory physics course for nonscience majors, “Quantum Physics and Beyond.”

Harris said he and Helen Caines, who also teaches the “Quantum” course, have had to limit their class sizes to 25 in past years so they can sit around a large, oval table and have open discussions. In the new TEAL classroom, Harris said they will be able to team up to co-teach the course and have room for almost 100 students.

Harris said he thinks the TEAL classroom will prove popular in future terms, and Lolis said ITS is already talking about putting in another TEAL space.

“Once people get wind of this, it’ll be oversubscribed,” Harris said.

Harris said the Yale Science Council has been considering how to bring more active learning to science education for more than five years, and began pushing for a classroom with the technology of the TEAL classroom a few years ago.

According to Beichner’s studies, students taking part in the SCALE-UP format tend to do about a letter grade better on a standard test than students who learned in a traditional lecture format. SCALE-UP is also different than online education, he said, because it is face-to-face and helps students grow by developing “teamsmanship skills.”

John Belcher, who developed the first TEAL classroom at MIT, said he began looking into SCALE-UP when he and his colleagues became frustrated with the low attendance rates at their lectures, despite the good reviews they received on student course evaluations.

“There’s just a tradition of students not coming to class,” Belcher said, adding that students assume that the “passive” learning they do in the lecture hall could just as easily be done on the Internet. With a TEAL classroom, professors can monitor student attendance. Belcher said he now supports a “blended” learning format, where students engage in passive learning online on their own time, while active learning is done in a TEAL classroom.

TEAL has been a success at MIT, he said, though he added that MIT initially faced criticism for adopting TEAL because the teachers had not been properly trained in the new technologies.

The classroom has nine chairs per table.

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