PhilaU Nexus Learning Hubs Enhance Active Learning and Engagement

The Spinelli Family Nexus Learning Hub opened in summer 2014.

The Spinelli Family Nexus Learning Hub opened in summer 2014.

Two new Nexus Learning Hubs—active teaching and learning environments unique to Philadelphia University—greeted students when they returned to campus this fall.

The Doug Schwab ’76 & Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab & Family Nexus Learning Hub was established in Tuttleman 209 and The Shirley S. and Robert A. Barnhardt ’59 Nexus Learning Hub was opened in Downs Hall 2.

“These new learning spaces enable instructors to rethink conventional pedagogical methods and adopt those that orchestrate deeper, more meaningful learning experiences through active and collaborative methods,” said Jeffrey Ashley, director of Center for Teaching Innovation and Nexus Learning and coordinator for the Active Learning Space initiative. “Given our distinctive Nexus Learning approach –active, collaborative, connected to the real world and infused with the liberal arts—our focus is on transforming more traditional classrooms to these active learning spaces across the University.”

The two new Hubs bring the total on campus to four: the Spinelli Family Nexus Learning Hub and the Martinson Family Nexus Learning Hub opened, respectively, in Hayward Hall 111 and 211 in summer 2014.

With the installation of the first two Hubs, the University “began an initiative aiming to radically transform existing traditional learning spaces into intentionally designed learning environments that  minimize the physical and technological limitations of traditional classrooms and maximize the beneficial evidence-based approaches of active, collaborative, real-world pedagogies,” according to new assessment report by the Center for Teaching Innovation and Nexus Learning.

Health sciences students collaborate in the Martinson Family Nexus Learning Hub,

Health sciences students collaborate in the Martinson Family Nexus Learning Hub.

Last year, through surveying more than 500 students using the two inaugural Hubs, conducting class observations and soliciting feedback from faculty members, it was found that the Nexus Learning Hubs fostered significant gains in students’ ability to collaborate with each other and learn through multiple means.

“These spaces have enhanced all the conditions that we know foster learning, from the increased ability of students to collaborate with each other and faculty members to the comfort level and mobility of the chairs,” Ashley said. “The gain in those conditions catalyze better learning experiences.  For most of us teaching in these spaces, we get to see it firsthand.”

Donor Robert Barnhardt came to PhilaU in 1961 as associate professor of textile engineering and later became chair of the department of textiles. He also held top leadership positions at North Carolina State University, including interim chancellor.

“The Nexus Learning Hubs are the best teaching environments available anywhere today,” Barnhardt said. “Some 50 years ago, then-President Bertrand Hayward and Dean Donald Partridge took a chance on me and hired a novice who struggled with chalk and blackboards. It is rewarding to see how far we have come.”

The new learning spaces feature amenities designed to encourage collaborative engagement. Movable, comfortable furniture and whiteboards facilitate learning, which encourage interaction and discussion. Technology components include a main projection system that allows instructors to digitally write with their fingertip, capture digital notes and display content on any of four large monitors in each corner of the rooms. The monitors are optimized with wireless capability to allow students to display digital content from any device. And pops of color and variable lighting technology create an environment that heightens creativity. The Hubs allow for seamless interactions and transitions from different modes of active learning.

“The spaces serve as pedagogical playgrounds for our faculty, spaces where they can explore teaching methods that are student-centered, rather than ones that are instructor-centric,” Ashley said.  “That really changes the role of the faculty member from dispenser of knowledge and content to one of facilitator of a learning experience.”

History students at work in The Doug Schwab ’76 & Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab & Family Nexus Learning Hub.

The Doug Schwab ’76 & Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab & Family Nexus Learning Hub opened fall 2015.

Donor Doug Schwab said he was “intrigued” with the technology and concept of the Nexus Learning Hubs. “It’s night and day compared to the classrooms I was in—our computer labs had punch cards,” he recalled.  “It’s a whole different era and the Nexus Learning Hubs add value to a PhilaU education and enable our graduates to be ahead of the curve in a competitive market.”

While the Hubs offer a variety of physical and technological tools to support experimentation, one of the most popular tools so far is the personal whiteboard for each student in the room.  According to the report, faculty members said the whiteboards increased active methods of engaging students in course content.

“I think the active component of writing on the boards increases focus,” said Lisa Farkas, adjunct professor who taught a developmental psychology course last year in a Hub. “Rather than asking a question and waiting to see if anyone volunteers to answer, asking them all to write something down forces them to stay ‘in the moment.’”


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