You may think you know what technology in today’s classrooms looks like. Computers. Mobile devices. Group projects.

And while all these tools are vital components of today’s higher education experience, they aren’t the only tools available to educators. As it turns out, they might not even be the most important ones.

That honor belongs to collaboration, aided by spaces specifically designed to facilitate increased engagement among learners as well as teachers.

“Classroom collaboration is necessary for future social workers to gain the interpersonal skills they will need to practice their work,” says Allison Buzard, director of Trevecca’s social work program. “Social workers work in a variety of settings from schools to nursing homes to lobbying groups to community development organizations and in all of them, they must collaborate with the individuals, families, or communities with whom they are working as well as with colleagues in their own organizations and from other organizations.”

According to a 2017 report from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, active learning classrooms were identified as the top strategic technology in higher education—and projected to be mainstream by 2022.

“Really what we’re talking about with active or agile learning classrooms is the flexibility of pedagogy in the classroom where students are more participants in the learning process,” says Dr. Tom Middendorf, associate provost and dean of academic affairs. “What you see in a lot of collaborative classrooms is essentially application. [This approach] takes the faculty member out of the ‘sage on the stage’ lecture style and makes them more of a facilitator of engagement and learning.”

Furniture plays an important role in this teaching style. Active or agile learning classrooms often feature round or curved tables that better support small group work and easier to reconfigure and move. Whiteboards, display screens and other technology—both low and high-tech—are often provided at each group station.

“It’s really less about technology and more about style and flexibility to utilize different modes of teaching,” Middendorf says.

Some of the rooms are designed specifically for group work, while others, such as the Media Arts Lab, create a space for instructors and students to engage in a learning activity or project together.The University now boasts four collaborative classrooms on campus—one in the McClurkan Building, two in the Mackey Building, and another in the Boone Business Building—with plans for more.

Buzard says the approach allows her students to practice skills they’ll use daily in their profession.

“Social workers believe that human behavior is a result of the environment … in which the human exists. We also believe that all humans have different paradigms or worldviews that stem from those social environments,” she says. “So, perspective-taking, non-judgment and empathy are three crucial skills for social workers. The collaborative classrooms create spaces in which our students can listen to one another, learn different perspectives and practice critical skills.”

Research backs Buzard up.

“Despite the professor's explicit attempts to conduct the same learning activities in both sections,” the study reads, “he behaved

For Middendorf, active learning classrooms aren’t a trend. Instead, it’s a teaching approach that better engages students, which in turn, better prepares them for their careers.quite differently in the two classrooms, lecturing significantly more in the traditional room and conducting discussion significantly more in the [active learning classroom].”A 2014 National Academy of Sciences study found that in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), active learning instruction leads to higher rates of student success than traditional lecturing. In a 2010 EDUCAUSE study that involved classroom observation of a professor teaching the same content in a traditional lecture hall and an active learning classroom, researchers found that the location even affected the instructor’s teaching style.

“Learning has to be about more than obtaining knowledge,” he says. “We need the flexibility to turn classrooms into laboratories where students are engaged in learning. There is a richness to learning in an environment that invites active rather than passive learning, where students participate rather than simply listen.”