What Are Innovative Teaching Principles In Modern Universities?

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A rapidly changing society, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the education system, and the changed learning strategies and expectations of students oblige educational institutions to constantly improve learning and study processes on purpose to achieve maximum learning and student engagement and the highest learning results. Vytautas Magnus University constantly invests in the improvement of the study process and the development of teachers’ competencies. The p, established a few years ago, has become the essential axis of the University, all seminars, courses, and creative workshops are organized for teachers and employees that meet their competence requirements and needs. At the moment, the most relevant topic is how to get students back to actively participating in the study process after the pandemic, how to turn the challenges posed by artificial intelligence tools into an opportunity, and how enabling technologies can improve the quality of teaching and increase student engagement – says VMU vice-rector of studies dr. Simona Pilkienė. According to the vice-rector, innovative learning and teaching methods were developed, tested, and applied at Vytautas Magnus University in order not only to constantly improve the study process but also to train teachers for all schools in the country. Therefore, cooperation with foreign partners is ongoing, implementing projects and initiatives.

On May 31 – June 1, VMU Professional Competence Development Center organized an innovative training – „Trends in Hybrid Education“, which was attended by teachers and non-academic staff of Vytautas Magnus University. The training was conducted by two experienced international trainers and innovative teaching experts – Drs. Roelien Wierda and Ron Barendsen (MEd), who are lecturers at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands and have extensive experience in Innovative Pedagogies, Universal Design for Learning, CompetencyBased Learning, STEAM education, ICT tools, Blended and Hybrid Learning and Design Thinking. Drs. Roelien Wierda currently teaches e-pedagogy, linguistics, and educational sciences at NHL Stenden University and coordinates the NHL „InnovationLab“ – together with her colleague Ron Barendsen (MEd) – which is a unit focusing on Innovative educational practices and research. For the past 25 years, Ron Barendsen (MEd) has lectured in Educational Sciences and e-pedagogy at NHL Stenden University. Besides, both of them are the co-founders of „MySchoolsNetwork“ – an international social network for schools, moderated by student teachers. The lecturer Drs. Roelien Wierda and Ron Barendsen (MEd) shared their insights on Innovative Pedagogy principles in modern universities.

Lecturer R. Barendsen (Photo by I. Baltakytė)

How would you describe the Innovative Pedagogy at universities nowadays? What innovative methods do you usually use in innovative teaching?

In the Netherlands, we can see a gradual move away from traditional teaching forms (lectures, listening, and taking notes) to a more active research and design-based approach. Design-Based Education is the official educational philosophy of NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences. Another important pillar in our country‘s universities is Universal Design for Learning – a framework that helps course designers and teachers create more inclusive learning arrangements. In our daily practice, we always have students work on authentic tasks from the world of work, we usually flip our classroom and make sure that flexibility is structural in our modules. This means that students can work at their own pace and in the modality they choose to reach the intended learning outcomes.

Could you shortly introduce the main principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in teaching?

Universal Design for Learning is a framework that works with any kind of educational philosophy. It reminds me of architecture, which uses Universal Design. As all kinds of styles and universal designs have to ensure that all users of buildings can access that building, like small people, tall people, people with and without physical disabilities, and people with strollers and wheelchairs. So in this sense, it is not an educational philosophy, but a set of construction principles to help create inclusive learning environments, regardless of the educational philosophy of a school or university

UDL addresses the three brain networks – strategic, recognition, and affective. It also offers 3×3 guidelines, on how to facilitate learning for the widest range of students possible. Teachers could think of offering information not just via text, but also through images, video, and audio. Secondly, I recommend suggesting a clear (online) formative assessment line for students, so that they could monitor their progress anytime anywhere. Thirdly, teachers should think of taking different interests and needs into account and offering different tasks or texts, which students can choose from to reach the same desired learning outcome.

if you are interested in Universal Design for Learning, please find the online self-study course and the booklet on UDL for VMU community, created by Drs. R. Wierda and R. Barendsen (MEd).

Lecturer assoc. prof. dr. Roelien Wierda (Photo by I. Baltakytė)

What are the benefits of UDL in the teaching and learning process?

In traditional educational design, you design for the average student (but research has shown there is no average student), so you don’t design only for very gifted students, you don’t design only for slow-working students. Students are unique, so by applying UDL a wider range of students can optimize their performance.

Concerning the benefits for teachers (by implementing Universal Design for Learning), is that as a teacher you will see more student engagement and increased performance. This will result in increased teacher satisfaction. Because very gifted students usually could have the feeling that they’re going too slow, that there’s not enough challenge, and the slowest students could feel that instruction and tasks are too difficult. Of course, you need more time and more effort when you are working like this, particularly, when you are starting. But our experience is that the investment will pay off with interest and that as a result, we have happy teachers, happy lecturers, and happy students.

Lecturer R. Barendsen (Photo by I. Baltakytė nuotr.)

Do you agree that Blended or Hybrid Learning motivates students to involve in the learning process and more?

Of course, Blended or Hybrid Learning can contribute to optimizing the flexibility of the learning trajectories of students. The HyFlex approach is the latest development where students have a choice between attending synchronously online or synchronously onsite or a-synchronously online, depending on their needs and situations. We do feel it is vital to include a substantial deal of student interaction in this approach, to avoid the „black hole“ – that online teaching tends to be when you can‘t find any interaction between lecturer and students. You could use innovative online teaching (learning) platforms, for instance – „Nearpod“, „Padlet“, „Mentimeter“.

What are the benefits of STEAM education in universities? What professional and personal skills are being developed in STEAM education?

STEAM is an interesting education development, which taps into big societal challenges, such as climate change, sustainability, etc. By combining Arts, Sciences, and Technology it approaches students and their learning as a holistic experience where a diversity of knowledge, skills, and attitudes are combined. When we name the skills obtained through  STEAM education, we refer to 21st-century skills such as Critical thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Information literacy, Media literacy, Technology literacy, Flexibility, Leadership, Initiative, Productivity, and Social skills.

Steam is popular in the Netherlands for primary and secondary education. And therefore as teachers, we have to follow it. In our university, you could find STEAM, especially in the chemistry, maths, and physics departments.  Today we have the gymnasium for gifted children close to our university. Our department has developed a STEAM project for this school quite recently – the students from the school come to our university where our preservice teachers have prepared a STEM module for the pupils   They work on coding computer micro bits to do all kinds of environmental measurements. That’s the combination of coding, engineering, and programming with the environment. As a result, we have students of the university helping students in secondary school to go through the program and to accomplish that task. In order to make education meaningful to our students we could work with groups of kids from the schools in the region. For example, we had a primary school group (11-year-old students), who was working on an environmental project called „Green Pepper“.

Lecturers assoc. prof. dr. R. Wierda and R. Barendsen (Photo by I. Baltakytė)

What are the advantages and disadvantages of artificial intelligence used in the teaching (learning) process? Do you believe it is a big threat to teachers or an additional productive teaching tool, which could save teachers time and preparation?

We believe there are more opportunities than dangers, but lecturers will have to seriously reconsider the tasks they set for students. Anything that is too generic can be done by Open AI such as ChatGPT and should be replaced by tasks that are more specific, authentic, and linked to individual students‘ research and practicums. We as teachers have to discuss – what kind of tasks are authentic enough for the students to do themselves, or maybe based on AI as a starting point, and then do themselves.

At the end of their bachelor program, our students have to write their educational thesis. Now, if you put 3 or 4 keywords into AI, then you get your educational philosophy. Together with the departments, we try to figure out how can we set the task in such a way that it becomes personalized, so they have to link it to their actual practice, research, and actual examples that they have in their portfolio.

I am a language teacher and in fact, use it a lot. For example, if I have a very complex text on C2 level of the European framework, I can ask AI – could you create a version on B2 and maybe even on A2? Could you make a summary? Or could you create several open questions? Can you create some multiple-choice questions? And then I go over it and check this. What used to take me half a day, now takes me about 1/4 of an hour. For instance, if I have a scientific article and I want to make a summary for my students  I could ask AI to create a summary to save time.

Lecturer assoc. prof. dr. Roelien Wierda (Photo by I. Baltakytė)

Could you give three pieces of advice for our university lecturers – how to create interactive and interesting content for students? 

In our department, we take the self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) as our starting point. The self-determination theory stresses that people need autonomy, a sense of competence, and a community to function well. So students and lecturers need to be part of a community, to perform at the appropriate level, and to have enough choice when it comes to determining the stages of a learning journey.

We heard that many Lithuanian teachers were complaining that after COVID-19 students don’t want to come to the university and they would rather prefer lectures online – we don’t have that problem in the same degree in our department. The situation may be quite different but in our experience, if you want your students to come to the university, you have to offer something more than what they can watch at home. Suppose your lecture consists of a „PowerPoint“ presentation with some comments – why students should travel to the university if they could watch it at home? Teachers have to make sure that the classroom experience includes all students and that it has a strong added value.

Innovation lab at NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences (photo by lecturer assoc. prof. dr. R. Wierda)

Firstly, keep your students‘ adrenalin flowing by using student response systems, such as „Nearpod“ or „Mentimeter“ to ask them for their opinion, to check their understanding; in other words, to keep them involved and engaged. Secondly, ensure that you know what your students already know, what their learning needs are, and what their expectations are so that you can tweak your course design accordingly. Tools we use for this are „Google“ or „Microsoft Forms“.

Also include formative testing and feedback in your course so that students can monitor their progress during their learning journey. In this way, they will feel the responsibility for their study success much sooner than when you just “send” information and instruction. Tools you can use for this are H5P and „Microsoft/Google Forms“. Moreover, you could get teachers to think about flexible testing. This gives the student ownership of the learning process. We have very good experiences with this. This system depends on clear learning outcomes and clear rubrics. It gives students much more autonomy, one of the pillars of the self-determination theory when it comes to motivation.

VMU Professional Competence Development Center invites not only the VMU community, but also society to participate in professional development training. You can find more information about learning opportunities at mokymosiakademija.vdu.lt.

Interview by Gintarė Visockytė

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