Creating Space for Transformative Learning

Sep 30, 2017 / Message from the Dean

[New Learning Commons at the College of Veterinary Medicine]

This message will appear in the October 2017 issue of the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association Bulletin.

The college is committed to excellence in teaching

I hope you will come back to Urbana soon to see the first expansion of the college’s classroom space since 1982. The southern end of the first floor of the Basic Sciences Building, which once held row after row of bookcases in our library, has been renovated into our new Learning Commons.

The centerpiece, literally and philosophically, of this space is an 80-seat “iFLEX” classroom, a term that expands to “Illinois Flexible Learning Experience.” While the room may not look revolutionary at first glance, Dr. Brian Aldridge sees in it the glimmers of an Illinois veterinary curriculum 2.0.

For starters, this room isn’t set up as a lecture hall, with seats all facing one way. Instead, there are ten groups of tables and chairs, all of which are on wheels to be easily reconfigured.

“The structure changes how teachers teach and facilitates training students to work in teams,” notes Dr. Aldridge. The goal is “active learning,” as opposed to students passively receiving knowledge from an instructor positioned at center stage.

“In this generation of information overload, knowledge means less and less. We all have knowledge at our fingertips, so memorizing and regurgitating facts is not necessary,” he asserts.

“Acquiring knowledge isn’t the focus; developing problem-solving skills is the focus. Students do this in the presence of an expert who can help them think things through. The teacher is there to cultivate students’ innate desire to learn.”

Features of the Learning Commons

  • 80-seat flexible learning classroom with a main projection system for full-class presentations and 10 locally controlled flat screens for small-group work
  • A smaller flexible learning space for classes, clinical rounds, or small group study
  • Six conference/meeting/small group rooms
  • Extensive quiet study space with natural light (shown above, with an inset photo of the space under construction in February 2017)
  • A smaller Veterinary Medicine Library, with selected physical resources and ready-access to librarian Erin Kerby
  • An office for the Student Chapter of AVMA

This $2.25 million renovation project was funded by the college, the campus Provost’s Office, and the campus library.

An elective course for first-year veterinary students on sustainable livestock production illustrates this idea. Using an approach called the “flipped classroom,” Dr. Aldridge and co-instructor Dr. Jim Lowe require students to view selected lectures online, before coming to class.

The online lectures are 5- to 10-minutes long and were originally created for a MOOC (massive, open online course) which the two professors launched in 2015 and which has been viewed by tens of thousands of learners worldwide. (See https://www.coursera.org/course/sustainablefood.) Each micro-lecture covers a single concept. Dr. Aldridge views the lectures as an “ingredient cupboard.” From it, he can create endless “recipes” of content to address specific teaching objectives and audiences, from professional degree programs for veterinary students or medical students to continuing education for veterinarians and global education for producers or animal owners.

In the first-year elective, class time is devoted to small-group discussion of the ideas presented in the lectures. Instructors circulate to serve as resources and to gather real-time feedback about students’ grasp of the information and need for further instruction.

As participants in the MOOC, veterinary students join a global community of learners that expands their understanding beyond their own experience. (How else could a veterinary student in Illinois have engaged in a detailed conversation with a rabbit farmer in Russia?)

[Brian Aldridge]Dr. Aldridge brings an infectious passion for students and teaching to his many roles, which include clinical professor in the Integrated Food Animal Systems section, boarded large animal internal medicine specialist, affiliate of the campus Institute for Genomic Biology, leader on the steering committee for the campus Data Science Initiative, and member of the faculty of the new Carle Illinois College of Medicine. He co-teaches a course for residents and master’s degree students on effective biomedical teaching. He also led the team that developed the college’s strategic initiatives under the goal “Provide Transformative Learning Experiences.”

At present, active learning strategies such as the “flipped classroom” and team-based learning are used in electives more often than in the core curriculum at Illinois, but Dr. Aldridge is eager to see technology in the classroom facilitate a change.

“We have the best students on the planet: they’re bright and motivated. The college is committed to excellence in teaching,” he says. “The Illinois curriculum implemented in 2009 got many things right, but there should be a constant evolution of the new idea. We are looking for the Illinois curriculum 2.0 and 3.0.

“We should explore the online, modular approach to teaching as a way to address the mad debt students take on, which is non-sustainable, and to expand the diversity of the student body. Perhaps a portion of the curriculum could be delivered through distance learning, and we could introduce a model of veterinary school where students could be working during the day.”