Focus groups -- A good place to have your say on classroom needs, technology

Asynchronous learning, synchronous learning, blended learning, flipped classrooms, LMS, BYOD, MOOC, EOR.*

What's a learning ecosystem?

"It's holistic view of what's needed in learning, from technology right down to the whiteboards and the furniture."

--Jim Twetten, director of academic technologies, ITS

Technology is fueling a lot of acronyms and activity in higher education of late. It's also creating challenges for those building and equipping tomorrow's learning ecosystems. To build physical classrooms and electronic learning systems for the long haul, planners need good intelligence about which educational trends are likely to stick, what new innovations are just around the corner and what emerging technologies soon will become teaching necessities.

At Iowa State, key groups involved in learning ecosystem planning are seeking that intel from the campus community and MindWires Consulting, a California firm that specializes in digital education planning and assessment.

 A closer look at the learning and teaching environment

The campus groups -- information technology services; the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching, and facilities, planning and management-- are several months into an intensive assessment and review of the learning and teaching environment at Iowa State. The assessment asks the question: How well are we facilitating world-class learning at Iowa State and what critical needs are emerging as we face the challenges of the future?

Key elements of the assessment, which should be completed in November, are:

  • Individual interviews with university leaders
  • Focus groups with more than 200 Iowa State administrators, faculty, instructional support staff and students
  • Interactive consultant-designed workshops to explore trends in learning technology and online education
  • Surveys querying the opinions of faculty, staff and students

Focus groups, next week and early October

Focus groups with faculty, instructional support staff and students will be held Sept. 19-20 and Oct. 1-2. Representatives of MindWires Consulting will query faculty and staff about their needs in the classroom and talk about trends in learning management systems and online strategies and potential plans for Iowa State.

Share your thoughts

If you willing to share your thoughts about classroom needs, volunteer to participate in focus groups Sept. 19-20 and Oct. 1-2.

Individuals in units across campus are invited to participate in a focus group, said Jim Twetten, director of academic technologies in information technology services. He encouraged others who want to participate in a group to complete the volunteer form on the assessment site.

"We want a broad mix," he added, "from the tech savvy user to the tech skeptic and everyone in between."

"It's important that we consider the whole learning ecosystem in the broadest possible sense, getting input from all perspectives," said Ralph Napolitano, associate director for online learning in the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. "We have an extensive hierarchy of support structures aimed at providing a rich, multi-faceted world-class educational experience for all of our students -- however and wherever we reach them.  Our task presently, is to best facilitate all of the supportive connections that enable the ISU brand of hands-on, world-relevant education to continue to grow and thrive in the age of technology in learning."

October surveys

Two surveys on the needs of the ISU learning ecosystem will be conducted in October. In the first, faculty and instructional support staff will be asked to detail instructional needs. A second survey to all students seeks to better understand student expectations about physical and virtual learning spaces and related technology. This survey will explore such things as the number of electronic devices students own and how they could best use them in their academic pursuits.

Plan will shape investments

The assessment will be used to help develop a long-term direction for the learning ecosystem at Iowa State, Twetten said.

"It will guide us as we make investments in Iowa State learning technologies and classroom environments, helping us to spend our funds even more wisely."

Twetten noted that the annual operating budget for the academic area of ITS is nearly $3 million.  "And that's just in ITS. There are colleges and departments making significant investments in their own learning ecosystems, as well, and this process will help inform those entities, too."

Napolitano added, "As the landscape of online educational tools and learning technologies continues to inspire many innovative directions in blended learning, we purposefully remain focused on the basic pillars of value, reach and service."

Process details, history

The assessment and review, officially designated the Learning Ecosystem Assessment and Review of Needs (LEARN) process, is run by a small steering committee, co-chaired by Twetten and Napolitano. A larger committee facilitates information flow between the university community and consultants. A list of committee members and details are on the LEARN website.

A 2012 discussion about reviewing Iowa State's learning management system (Blackboard) sparked the review and assessment of the entire learning and teaching environment.

"Based on discussion with faculty, we opted to take a holistic view," Twetten said. "The interface between technology and the physical components of a room is really getting blurry. You can't just say, 'All I want to talk about is the learning management system when things used in the physical classroom like video capture software or clickers have significant ties back into that system.

"Our intent is to find out what's needed in our entire learning ecosystem."


*LMS, "learning management system;" BYOD, "bring your own device;" MOOC "massive open online courses;" OER, "open educational resources"