The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: At the COAL FACE: a guide to active learning in multi-campus, multi-modal and distributed learning environments

Janet Buchan, Kristin Wicking, John Smithson and Melanie Birks

James Cook University


This Guide provides practical strategies to guide the design of active learning experiences in complex, multi-campus and distributed university learning environments. The title of the Guide describes the aspirational purpose that grounded a project to address the needs of regional Australian learners. The aim of the COAL FACE was to develop Communities of Active Learners that are Flexible, Adaptive, Connected and Engaged.

James Cook University is a multi-campus, regional university and offers courses (programs) across multiple sites: campuses, remote study centres and external (home) to ensure students have access to relevant and high quality courses at their point of need. Figure 1 illustrates how a multi-campus, distributed community of learners might be represented, whereby the site-based learners are connected as a community of learners via technology and other strategies. Some of the challenges addressed in this OLT Extension Grant Project (within the discipline of Nursing) included maintaining curriculum consistency and providing active learning experiences across sites to meet professional accreditation requirements. Course delivery is done within the context of very different affordances of the learning spaces, technology (including videoconference) and physical resources available to learners at each site and in their own personal learning spaces.

The COAL FACE Project was funded by an OLT Extension Grant that built on the Spaces for Knowledge Generation (SKG) Project (Souter et al., 2011). The SKG Project developed seven principles of learning space design that support an active, constructivist learning environment. These were the CAFE BAR Principles – Comfort, Aesthetics, Flow, Equity, Blending, Affordances, Repurposing.

The COAL FACE research sought to understand the student learning experience in the diverse learning spaces – physical and virtual (online) – that make up the learning environment in a multi-campus, multi-modal, regional university. Practical issues and barriers that impact on the student learning experience were identified (Birks, M., Buchan, J., Smithson, J., & Norris, P. (2014); Smithson, J., Buchan, J., Birks, M., Wicking, K., McDonald, H., & Riddle, M. (2014).

As the research progressed it became clear that the solutions to improving the student experience which emerged from the data, lay in three key areas. Firstly, identifying the basic needs of the learners. These are the 3G ESSENTIALS (see Section 2). Secondly, creating the learning environment. This process is supported by applying the COAL FACE Principles. Finally, employing active learning strategies and blended learning experiences. These are described in the Case Studies from the COAL FACE.

The unique contribution this work makes is to get educators to focus holistically on creating the student learning environment from within a complex, multi-campus learning environment.

The COAL FACE Principles for Creating Distributed Learning Environments are a key outcome from this research and are described later in the Guide and illustrated through case studies.

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