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Teaching innovation: Hans Beldhuis on active learning classrooms

24 May 2022
Hans Beldhuis

Transforming teaching spaces into learning spaces – that is what active learning classrooms are all about. Hans Beldhuis talks about them in this episode of a series of short interviews on teaching innovation.

What do you do when it comes to teaching innovation at the University of Groningen?
I do several things. A few examples might help to provide an impression. Sometimes, I explain what innovation in teaching is. Innovation is a discipline aimed at resolving issues relating to teaching in a disciplined, systematic manner. Contrary to what many people think, it is not aimed at generating ideas. It is a field with a collection of knowledge, instruments, and techniques that can be learned. It could thus be approached as a science. In teaching innovation, we use ‘evidence-based’ methods as much as possible when designing course units. We conduct desk research in advance to develop a proposed approach (hypothesis). We then implement the plan in a structured manner (experiment) and, thereafter, we measure the success of these efforts. In some cases, this can lead to a publication. In this way, we also speak the language of the lecturer: that of research. I often emphasize that innovation should always serve an organization’s strategy. For this reason, the study trips that I organize to universities in other countries are quite valuable. In 2019, the Design for Action study trip took our diverse group to the United States.

You are working on active learning classrooms. What are they?
One of the strategic recommendations from the study trip was to transform our teaching spaces into learning spaces. There is a clear distinction between spaces that facilitate learning and our current spaces, which are strongly oriented towards lecturers. More specifically, they were originally designed to facilitate the dissemination of information from lecturers to students in the form of lectures. Our objective is to train our students as globally involved citizens and to equip them to take on the contemporary challenges facing science and society. Although didactics play an important role in activating the learning process in students, the design of the teaching space does as well. This leads to the active learning classroom, or ALC.

What is your role within these active learning classrooms?
In its work on ALC, the University of Groningen proceeds from the quality agreements and the Strategic Plan 2021-2026. As the ALC programme manager, I bear ultimate responsibility for the project and ensure that we get ALC off the ground in all the faculties. At the same time, in the Strategy Department of Education & Research, I am working on the link between the ALC and the teaching strategy, focusing on blended active learning and teaching innovation as an instrument. This can be translated into teaching innovation at the level of a course unit based on the golden triangle: lecturer – faculty teaching expert – central teaching expert. I’m from the ‘school’ of Herman Tjeenk Willink, and I create strategy and policy with a view to various aspects of implementation, in order to stay ahead of problems. The other school maintains strict separation between policy and implementation. The combination of these two roles thus suits me to a tee.

What are your plans for the future?
I am strategy-driven. In our Strategic Plan 2021-2026, active and collaborative learning are included in the sections on teaching and accommodation. The Faculty of Science and Engineering is working on the Feringa building, the Faculty of Arts is redesigning the Harmonie complex, and the Faculty of Law is working on the OBS 18 building. These are wonderful opportunities to contribute to the realization of strategic objectives for teaching and accommodation with various versions of ALC.

Are you doing this only for the University of Groningen, or also elsewhere?
There is a great deal of collaboration in higher education in the Netherlands. From the University of Groningen, therefore, we are actively contributing to three national special interest groups (SIG), including AI in teaching. This is how we are sharing our experiences and knowledge. Later this year, more than 60 colleagues from the SIG for Learning Spaces will come to the University of Groningen to admire our ALC. At the national and international levels, we are participating in various projects, including the Acceleration Plan, SURF, Comenius, and the Erasmus+ programme, in addition to one-to-one collaborations with Harvard and other international universities.

Teaching Innovation

How do you involve students in teaching innovation?
It is not always easy to involve students in teaching innovation. They are also busy. In 2018-2019, we created three interdisciplinary project-based minors. One resulted in the Minor in Rhetoric . From the outset, the design team included students, who have witnessed (and contributed to) the creation of teaching from their close position. In the evaluation, it became clear that, before their involvement, they had not realized how meticulous and structured such a design is and that it really does involve a lot of work.

What do you expect to be the greatest changes in the future?
In the coming years, the University of Groningen will primarily be a growing (large-scale) university. We must nevertheless consider how to ensure the small-scale teaching that is better suited to our educational strategy and the associated didactic model. Although it’s difficult to make any realistic prediction about impending major changes, open education and microcredentials will certainly have an effect, as they are part of the strategic agenda for higher education in the Netherlands. With regard to open education, the emphasis for the coming period will be on the use of open, as opposed to commercial, learning materials. The University of Groningen is participating in the national microcredentials project, in which we are developing and providing ‘teaching units’ of 3–30 ECTS credit points for professionals. We recently experimented with these units at the University of Groningen Education Festival. The project is part of a major European programme aimed at eventually making microcredentialing available to our Bachelor’s and Master’s students as well. It will thus contribute to the further flexibilization of higher education.

Previous interviews

Tom Spits
Teaching innovation: Tom Spits on Brightspace and MOOCs
Bas Baalmans
Teaching innovation: Bas Baalmans on Active Learning
Indira van der Zande
Teaching innovation: Indira van der Zande on Challenge-Based Learning
Mellie Pullman
Teaching innovation: education beyond traditional classroom encounters

Last modified:24 May 2022 12.36 p.m.
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