What Active Learning Has in Common with Today’s Engaged Workplaces

What Active Learning Has in Common with Today’s Engaged Workplaces

By Peter A. Bacevice, PhD

Last week I attended the annual SCUP conference where the subject of active learning was vigorously discussed.  Active learning means that instead of faculty and other teachers didactically transferring information to students and hoping that they learn something, students take more active responsibility for their own learning and the learning of their peers.  Active learning realigns the relationship between students and faculty as well as among student peer groups, and it also assumes that students are renegotiating the spatial and virtual learning environment in new ways.  More importantly, as students increasingly become familiar with this type of learning experience, they will be more prepared to work in some of the most progressive organizations that are embracing new workplace paradigms.

Why active learning methods matter

One session about active learning really helped me crystallize a key insight.  An active learning environment is a place where students and faculty genuinely want to come together and be present.  Even if it’s an 8am course on a Monday, people would feel that they missed out if the course was embedded in an active learning environment. 

The physical spaces in an active learning environment support much more purposeful discussion, team-based problem solving, thought experimentation, and technologically-enhanced information sharing.  This type of environment provides richer ways for the learner to make sense of information.  It also provides more ways for students to interact with and learn from one another – ultimately showing why active learning methods are so effective.

Active learning’s influence on the workplace

There are emergent parallels between the way that students are learning today, and the way that the latest cohort of the workforce is working and shaping the contours of today’s organizations.  Some of these similarities are visible in the common design principles of learning environments and corporate workplaces. 

Corporate workplaces are increasingly providing a range of spaces and settings to accommodate many different work styles and work patterns for individuals and teams – much like how universities are designing academic facilities with an equally impressive range of spaces for different learning styles and to support both individual and group learning needs.  Spaces are being designed with a greater sense of purpose.  Just like in the design of learning environments, workplace design is about creating an environment where people want to be present. 

The tech sector as a leader in workplace engagement

The technology sector is an exciting place to see some of these changes happening.  For example, companies that do a lot of customer education are borrowing from active learning principles and providing product education that is less about “telling the customer how something works” and more about facilitating experiences among different customers and enabling them to learn from one another. 

Change is also visible in the workplaces of many leading tech companies.  As technology is disrupting many conventional systems and industries, workplaces in the tech industry are rethinking the nature of work and providing an environment and tools that enable a more engaging work experience.  Just as an active learning course can draw students to an 8am course with a more purposeful experience, a more engaged workplace design can do the same by making people feel excited about Monday mornings.

Investing in the mutual success of others

Much like a university education where students take responsibility for their work and what they gain from it, the workplace is increasingly seen as a purposeful experience where increasing levels of autonomy and flexibility provide more opportunities for outcomes that are rewarding to the employee and profitable to the organization.  In both domains, people are working more closely with one another – virtually and face-to-face – to ensure mutual success.

A major take-away from SCUP and the discussions in which my colleagues and I regularly engage is that people find more meaning in what they do when they have both the freedom to engage in self-authorizing behavior around what they do – while assuming the responsibilities that accompany it.  Such responsibility includes the success and well-being of peers.  This wisdom transcends the boundary between learning and working.