Integrating Active Learning into Infrastructure Security and Resilience Curriculum

Posted: January 15, 2016 at 2:51 pm

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Ryan Baggett, Ed.D.,Associate Professor, Homeland Security
Eastern Kentucky University

For decades, the concept of active learning has been an academic “buzzword” with faculty being encouraged to seek innovative alternatives to traditional lecturing in an effort to enhance student learning.   Since the term “active learning” can be defined in many ways, it will be broadly defined for purposes of this article as an instructor’s ability to create “a learning environment in which the student can learn to restructure new information and their prior knowledge into new knowledge about the content and to practice using it.”[1]  Despite the abundance of literature on active learning (outlining smart practices and effectiveness data), the propensity and practice of delivering passive instruction as the sole classroom strategy remains prevalent in higher education. The reality remains that faculty continue to rely on the presumed effectiveness of one individual verbalizing information to passive note-taking students (“sage on the stage” approach).  Whether it be habit or a lack of professional development/awareness on active learning strategies, faculty are encouraged to further investigate strategies to strengthen homeland security related instruction and learning. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to identify several active learning strategies with specific examples of applying those strategies within an infrastructure security and resilience curriculum.

Team-Based Learning (TBL)

One example of an active learning approach is team-based learning (TBL), an instructional strategy used for developing collaboration among students and faculty in an effort to analyze and solve content-based problems.   The attributes of problem solving and teamwork, both highly sought after by homeland security employers, are utilized in TBL to address and maximize course content.    Specifically, the Team-Based Learning Collaborative defines TBL as “an evidence-based collaborative learning teaching strategy designed around units of instruction, known as ’modules,’ that are taught in a three-step cycle: preparation, in-class readiness assurance testing, and application-focused exercise.”[2]   Hrynchak and Batty (2012) contend that TBL utilizes the main components of constructivist learning in which the instructor is a guide to facilitate learning in an environment where learners should encounter inconsistencies between preconceptions and new experiences to provide a basis for development of new understandings.  Further, this focus on relevant problems when accompanied by group interaction will promote learning.  Last, in order for learning to occur, a reflection component is essential.[3]  While TBL may require faculty to invest significant time in course preparation, the advantages of the approach have been well-documented.

First, by utilizing high levels of critical and creative thinking, TBL has shown effectiveness in increasing learning in subjects with higher complexity.[4]  The author has utilized this strategy for three years in a 300 level risk analysis course within an undergraduate homeland security curriculum.   The course includes various analysis methodologies (include both quantitative and qualitative) requiring the interpretation and application of results into written and oral products.  Risk analysis is a multi-disciplinary subject that requires higher order thinking, deeper learning, and application, which has been facilitated through the use of the TBL approach.

Additionally, TBL can be utilized to enhance student abilities to collaborate effectively and build social development.[5]   In an era of social media and texting, the ability to demonstrate social intelligence and effective communication skills has proven challenging for some students.  In this author’s experience, while some students may be gifted writers or accomplished test takers, their ability to work within a team setting with compromises and planning may be virtually nonexistent.  In homeland security and other public safety related fields, most tasks will be completed in collaboration with colleagues.  The ability to not only guide students in learning and applying a content area (such as risk analysis) while cultivating a life skill such as teamwork is of tremendous value not only to the student but to the faculty member as well.    Another valuable student-centered learning approach that is closely aligned with TBL is Problem-Based Learning (PBL).

Problem-Based Learning

Although originally utilized in medical school instruction, PBL has great potential for instruction within homeland security and related disciplines.   PBL uses simulated real world context (to include policy, process, and ethical dilemmas) that require deep understanding, analysis, and resolution.[6]   A core tenet of PBL is an emphasis on comprehension and application of information as opposed to rote memorization and regurgitation of information.  In short, the realistic contexts and problems identified in PBL makes learning more “profound, lasting and also enhances the transferability of skills and knowledge from the classroom to work.”[7]  With the ever-changing landscape of homeland security and prevalence of current events with embedded problems, the application of PBL to the classroom is facilitated.
For example, the author has utilized elements of PBL in many instances, but most notably within a 200 level physical security course.  First, the physical security course is designed to provide a comprehensive look at physical security to include physical design, integrated technology systems and strategies, as well as the identification and remediation of deficiencies through a physical security assessment.  Specifically, the course applies the physical security assessment process and includes several deliverables within a multi-phased project.

In order to successfully accomplish the project, students are required to work with the security point of contact within a critical infrastructure site to develop, conduct, and report on the results of a physical security assessment.   The assessment requires students to visit the facility to assess physical security features such as access control, lighting, surveillance, alarm systems, and other common physical security features and strategies.   In addition to the visit, the student also interviews the security point of contact asking various questions about facility operations and procedures.   In short, this “hands on” activity has provided hundreds of undergraduate students with the opportunity to apply the concepts and procedures they have learned in class during the semester.  When these current and future professionals are able to apply knowledge to existing problems it makes for an enriching learning experience that will undoubtedly aid them in their future careers.

Role Playing/Debate

The last strategy that will be identified is role play/debate, where students examine different points of view or perspectives related to an issue or problem.  In this method, students are able to immediately apply content regarding a decision on policy, resources, or some other outcome. As noted by Cherif and Somervill (1995), role playing provides an opportunity for “acting out” conflicts, collecting information about issues, learning to take on the roles of others, and improving students’ social skills.[8] By thinking beyond the confines of the classroom setting, students see the relevance of the content for handling real world situations.  Content for these role playing scenarios/debates can be obtained from a variety of sources to include, but not limited to, current events and case study texts, or they can be generated by students who are given certain content parameters.

An additional advantage of utilizing role play/debate is an increased level of preparation and communication abilities by the student.  Research has also shown that debate encourages class participation among those students who may not typically participate during class.[9] This strategy may also motivate students who are customarily ill-prepared for class sessions in that they know they will be required to persuasively and succinctly present a point of view and likely do not want to appear ill prepared in front of their peers.[10]

With regards to the application of role playing/debates to homeland security/infrastructure security and resilience courses, the obvious use is in courses which discuss legal and/or ethical issues.  For example, a 200 level homeland security legal and ethical issues course utilizes a mock trial approach twice during the course of a semester.  Students assume the roles of prosecution, defense, judge, and jury during the course of the trial.  Not only do students learn the details of the case, but they also report that they enjoy the experience.  Similarly, role playing is used in a 300 level infrastructure protection course when students are introduced to the importance of public/private partnerships.   In acting as either a public- or private-sector representative, students utilize critical thinking to determine the types of information they would have available to share in their current role, planning considerations that would be important in working with the other sector, and the overall importance of situational awareness between the two sectors.

In closing, faculty have a myriad of teaching strategies and methodologies available for use in their instruction.  The end goal for all faculty is to ensure that student learning occurs and that those students are prepared for future careers in the discipline.  While the practice of traditional lecture still has a place in a university classroom, faculty should attempt to augment the information dissemination with active learning strategies.   As such, faculty are encouraged to experiment with multiple strategies and determine the ones that work in each of their various courses.  In the author’s experience, it should be noted that not all active learning are applicable “across the board.”  The course topic, duration, and other characteristics make some strategies more effective than others.   When faculty discover the strategies that are most effective for their courses, they will undoubtedly witness deeper student learning, comprehension, analysis, and application.

Author’s Note:   Ryan Baggett, Ed.D. is an Associate Professor and Coordinator of the Homeland Security (HLS) program at Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety.  For more information, visit www.homelandsecurity.eku.edu or www.hlsonline.eku.edu.


[1] Dean A. McManus, “The Two Paradigms of Education and the Peer Review of Teaching,” NAGT Journal of Geoscience Education 49, no. 5: 423-434, available at https://d32ogoqmya1dw8.cloudfront.net/files/nagt/jge/abstracts/McManus_v49n5p423.pdf.

[2] “Definition,” Team Based Learning Collaborative. accessed January 2016, http://www.tblcollaborative.org/.

[3] Patricia K. Hrynchak and Helen Batty, “The Educational Theory Basis of Team-based Learning,” Medical Teacher 34, no. 10: 796-801.

[4] Christina Hamme Peterson, “Building the Emotional Intelligence and Effective Functioning of Student Work Groups: Evaluation of an Instructional Program,” College Teaching 60, no. 3: 112-121.

[5] David W. Johnson, Roger T. Johnson, and Karl Smith, “The State of Cooperative Learning in Postsecondary and Professional Settings,” Educational Psychology Review 19, no. 1: 15-29, available at http://biologytransformed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Johnson20071.pdf .

[6] Terry Barrett, “The Problem‐based Learning Process as Finding and Being in Flow,” Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47, no. 2: 165–174. doi:10.1080/14703291003718901.

[7] Shelagh A. Gallagher, William J. Stepien, and Hilary Rosenthal, “The Effects of Problem-based Learning on Problem Solving,” Gifted Child Quarterly 36, no. 4: 195–200, available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247858974_The_Effects_of_Problem-Based_Learning_On_Problem_Solving.

[8] Abour Cherif and Christine Somervill, “Maximizing Learning: Using Role Playing in the Classroom,” The American Biology Teacher 57, no. 1 (Jan. 1995): 28-33, doi:10.2307/4449909.

[9] Lauren Dundes, “Small Group Debates: Fostering Critical Thinking in Oral Presentations with Maximal Class Involvement,” Teaching Sociology 29, no. 2: 237-243.

[10] Steven P. Vargo,  “Teaching by Debate,” Center for Teaching Excellence (West Point, N.Y.: United States Military Academy, 2012), available at http://www.usma.edu/cfe/literature/vargo_12.pdf.

Write to the Editors at ciprpt@gmu.edu