University of Vermont

Transforming Learning Environments

New book provides insights into the future of education from faculty and staff in the College of Education and Social Services

Laurie Gelles and Guitar Hero controller
What would 20th century philosopher John Dewey have thought about video games? They can enhance students' capacity to learn, says Laurie Gelles, citing Dewey's ideas about making meaning through experience. (Photo: Sally McCay)

In her most recent book, Fayneese Miller, dean of the College of Education Social Services, calls on members of her faculty to tackle a wide range of critical issues facing education now and in the future. They all attempt to address one overarching question: what is needed within systems of education to prepare the next generation of leaders for a competitive global environment?

The answers that lie within the pages of Transforming Learning Environments: Strategies to Shape the Next Generation (Emerald Books, 2013) focus on online learning, technology, leadership, curriculum innovation, and English Language Learners to show the challenges facing traditional educational practices and the ways learning environments are responding to the new reality of globalization. Miller, who wrote the introduction and served as editor of the book, sought the opinions of 18 experts, including 10 from UVM, to contribute chapters that she placed into four sections: Leadership Transformations; Thoughtful Cultural Models in a Globally Dynamic World; Implementing Change in the Way We “Think” and “Do” Education; and Technology as an Agent for Transformation.

“The chapters are a spectrum of what is going on in the world of higher education at this critical juncture in our history," Miller says. "If those in higher education are not amenable to change, as imposed by the outside world, they could be rendering themselves obsolete. As John Dewey states, ‘knowledge and habits have to be modified to meet the new conditions,’ so do the authors of the chapters in this volume.”

Preparing the next generation of tech-based teachers

Many of the UVM contributors, including associate professor Cynthia Reyes who wrote a chapter addressing cultural competency using the digital narratives of middle school English language learners, were already teaching the contents of their chapters to UVM students. Reyes writes about a model that utilizes digital narratives to develop cultural competency in teacher education programs and other institutions that struggle with the meaning of the concept. She uses a digital story project she helped conduct at a local middle school as an example, showing the positive effects of students narrating their own stories based on the core values that guide their daily lives. She also challenges readers to think about innovative ways to integrate more student voices and how storytelling can inform pedagogy.

“I care deeply about the notion of safe spaces in the school community for all students, and because of my own experiences as a child of immigrant parents I am also drawn to the school experiences of young adolescent students who have refugee or immigrant narratives and who are English language learners,” says Reyes, who utilizes iMovie technology to create the digital stories, which she says improves literacy, technology, writing, speaking and listening skills. “I wonder about places in the school where they can explore their multicultural and multilingual identities and to do so on their terms. Digital storytelling, as far as I've read in the literature and what I've experienced in collaborative research with other teachers and students, demonstrates that it can be a transformational tool for English language learners as they write about and share their narratives with their peers and adults. The digital tool can also be reaffirming for students who want to become skilled writers of English. It gives them access, in a sense, to explore the English language and that can be a powerful process for teachers to observe.”

Also under the technology section is a chapter by Laurie Gelles, director of technology and communication in CESS, titled “From Pong to PS3: How Video Games Enhance Our Capacity to Learn and Build Community.” Gelles, who recently received her doctorate from UVM’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program, focuses on ways technology can help build capacity for learning, in both traditional and non-traditional settings. She teaches about this concept in an undergraduate course titled “Video Games and Learning Theory” that focuses on conducting new research related to multisensory learning environments.

“There has been a huge push to integrate technology into learning environments in order to replicate the way that people most regularly experience and interact with information,” Gelles says. “The real trick is figuring out why we are so drawn to interactive technologies in the first place.”

Her most recent study made use of the video game Guitar Hero II in an attempt to measure the effects of multisensory learning. Following Dewey’s ideas around rich learning environments and making meaning through experience, Gelles explains that technology allows for the simulation of real-life experience and provides people with ways to mimic sensory environments that would otherwise be unavailable.

“Video game designers have figured out how to create sensory-rich environments that don’t overload our cognitive abilities,” she says. “Cognitive load theory talks about the importance of balancing the way that we process information. Taxing one area with too much information can slow the learning process. Our next steps should be applying these types of gamification strategies to our curriculum design and learning environments. By doing this, we can enhance both our capacity to reach our students, and perhaps their capacity to learn.”

Creating global citizens

DeMethra LaSha Bradley, assistant dean for student administration and licensing officer in CESS, offers a chapter under the cultural models section written from the perspective of a student affairs administrator, titled “Incorporating Concepts of Global Citizenry into Student-Centered Academic Advising.” She unpacks the concept of the global citizen with this definition: “Global citizenry consists of awareness, responsibility, the ability to respect and value the difference in others, a willingness to act even when in the minority opinion, and continuous learning to understand the world and all its functions.”

Bradley, who received her Ed.D from UVM in 2009, includes narrative examples from her own professional experiences in higher education and provides concrete ways to incorporate concepts of global citizenry into academic advising. These include knowing the delivery method of academic advising at your institution; listening to your students’ dreams and goals and responding with concepts of global citizenry in mind; using social networking to spread concepts of global citizenry; and casting a wide net to catch any possible cross-campus colleague collaborators.  

“I try to create connections for students beyond the classroom and encourage them in their global citizenry,” says Bradley, “Academic advising is just one of the many facets that institutions can use to meet their global goals. This office is a hub for instilling values to make a difference, and we can’t do that in an increasingly globalized world if we don’t have students who travel the world and understand what being a global citizen really means.”  

Other UVM contributors

Other contributions from UVM faculty and staff include chapters by Penny Bishop, professor of middle level education and director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, and John Downes, associate director of the Tarrant Institute and doctoral research fellow, titled “Responsive Technologies for Young Adolescents;" Robert Nash, professor in CESS, and Vanessa Eugenio, office/program support, employer relations, and technology specialist, titled “Teaching About Religious and Spiritual Difference in a Global Society;” Maureen Neuwmann, associate professor in CESS, titled “Developing Teacher Leaders to Transform Classrooms, Schools, and Communities;” and Holly Buckland Parker, senior academic services professional in the Center for Teaching and Learning, titled “Learning Starts with Design: Using Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in Higher Education Course Redesign.”