If there ever was a time for exploring “innovative learning environments” (ILEs), that time is now. March 2020 brought closed schools and both instructors and students working to connect and complete the school year. Fall 2020 meant a reconfiguration of the very definition of “classroom.” The concept of innovative learning environments is not new in 2020, however. For over a decade researchers have been exploring ILEs—what works, what doesn’t, how to find the best approach to learning at all educational levels.
When dealing with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) higher education the stakes are higher and the questions more complex. That’s why, in 2018—in a move that today may seem prescient—Jungwoo Ryoo, professor of information sciences and technology and head of the division of Business, Engineering, and Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State Altoona, and Kurt Winkelmann, professor of chemistry and department head at Valdosta State University, started the “eXploring the Future of Innovative Learning Environments” (X-FILEs) project, which, says Ryoo, “is designed to address the question, ‘What are the near-term and longer-term impacts, opportunities, challenges, and future research initiatives related to the development and implementation of innovative learning environments in higher education STEM disciplines?’”
Professor Jungwoo Ryoo (center) poses with members of the X-FILEs project.
Ryoo explains: “The goal [of X-FILEs] is to basically capture the status quo and make some predictions regarding technologies coming out and the ones that are already here and how they are relevant to the classroom.” To do that, with the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, Ryoo, Winkelmann, and project facilitator Lawrence Ragan brought together education administrators, instructional designers, STEM researchers and faculty, and industry experts who both had an interest in STEM in higher education and understood its importance for the future.
Three webinars, followed by a two-day, in-person workshop, involved much discussion about ILEs and what they can do to transform a student’s experience in higher education. First, to anticipate the needs of a STEM student, the group tried to answer a large number of hypothetical questions. Who would a potential STEM student be—college-age or nontraditional? Would that student attend school completely in-person, completely online, or some hybrid? Would that student already be interested in STEM or need additional information to make that decision?
Once the student has decided on STEM, what would that student’s needs be? And, as important, what would be the hurdles for that student, for example, cost, technical support, family responsibilities? Looking ahead, the group considered where that student might be in eight years and how the educational experience would be changed from what it is today. Types of ILEs, such as personalized and adaptive learning and multimodal learning formats, as well as technologies such as cross reality (XR) and artificial intelligence (AI), were also identified and considered.
As part of the X-FILEs Jam, student teams responded to this statement: “Using what you’ve learned about innovative learning environments, create a solution that improves or enhances the student experience for a challenging dimension of college-level STEM education.”
Ryoo and Winkelmann recognize that students should also be part of the conversation so they held the X-FILEs Jam where student teams, also using creative thinking, responded to this statement: “Using what you’ve learned about innovative learning environments, create a solution that improves or enhances the student experience for a challenging dimension of college-level STEM education.” Videos of their webinars can be found on the Jam website.
The X-FILEs project is “still going,” says Ryoo, and “the latest development is emergency remote teaching (ERT) and learning,” which, with the pandemic onset, has become quite pertinent. Ryoo and Professor Jill Castek of the University of Arizona recently did a virtual presentation on ERT for the Emergency Home Learning Summit. That’s another project, though. For now, working with the X-FILEs project has led to a new book by Ryoo and Winkelmann titled Innovative Learning Environments in STEM Higher Education: Opportunities, Challenges, and Looking Forward (SpringerBriefs in Statistics series) where they share their research and discuss the future of ILEs.