Will Classrooms Disappear?

What will the classroom of the future look like? As learning technologies change with incredible speed, how do planners, designers and decision-makers incorporate these new trends into classrooms? Better still, how do they design and equip classrooms so that they provide the flexibility to adapt to the learning requirements of the future?

By now, everyone has heard about how the Internet is transforming the delivery of higher education. Some have predicted that, in the not-too-distant future, the college campus as a physical entity will cease to exist. Others have postulated that, given the impossible task of second-guessing the technological infrastructure requirements of future decades, universities will be constructing more “disposable” buildings, which can be built cheaply and torn down as soon as they become obsolete.

While there is some truth in this, it seems more likely that the college campus will continue to have value as a place where people physically come together for scholarly pursuits. Administrators, educators and designers involved in higher education projects generally believe it is desirable to strike a balance between environments that support and encourage academic thinking, human interaction and technology integration. So what will learning environments need to support the learners of tomorrow?

Learning Environments

First let’s look at recent learning trends.

The term student-centered learning is the concept that the classroom experience is becoming more engaging for the student; the faculty’s role as lecturers to passive audiences is phased out in favor of more interactive and collaborative pedagogies. In this student-centered learning environment, students will increasingly be reaching college-selection age having experienced a wide variety of educational venues, including Internet use and the realm of edutainment.

To attract the best and brightest, learning institutions need to deliver both the physical environment that promotes face-to-face, real-time interaction and the technological tools to join larger groups via distance learning. Smaller groups will participate in interdisciplinary studies via cyberspace, dissolving traditional spatial and curricular boundaries between locations and departments and benefiting from cross-fertilization between majors. In addition, they will seek out learning environments that are designed to be experiential, where cognitive leaps can be made into complexities of everything from molecular structures to galactic bodies.

With these trends in mind, then, learning environments of the coming decade need a variety of venues and experiences to support learners. This includes everything from low-tech small seminar or group study-type rooms, to traditional lecture-style classrooms, to Web-based curricula, to virtual reality experiences.

New Traditional Classrooms

The new traditional classroom will be a variation on the broadcast-style, medium-sized mediated classroom. One typical arrangement is the case-study style classroom with built-in desks on tiers in a wraparound layout, accommodating 25 to 75 students, with data and power to each seat location. It will have a teaching station at the front where the instructor can manipulate a variety of audio-visual systems, including Internet connections, and communicate with other locations via distance learning, e.g., videoconferencing. While rooms like case-study rooms enhance interaction among students and instructors, the basic pedagogy is still that of an individual lecturer imparting information to students who listen and take notes in a relatively passive fashion.

An increasing number of seminar-sized rooms will foster dialogue between students and faculty. Institutions like Stanford University are now implementing programs that will bring together first- and second-year students with tenured faculty in this type of setting. Though these rooms are sometimes referred to as “technology-free zones,” they will not really be technology-free. They will often be designed with data ports along the walls or systems workbenches for students to plug in their laptops.

In essence, any place on campus can be a classroom. The Internet allows students to access an unprecedented volume of information from a wide variety of physical locations. Students can log on from a dorm room, the student lounge, the laboratory or almost anywhere that has a wireless network. A good example is the system at Carnegie Mellon University, where significant research has been done on wireless systems. Students can experience a variety of interaction via the Net -- asynchronous access to prerecorded lectures, class chat rooms or real-time “tuning in” to a presentation at a remote university. What sometimes gets lost in the discussion of these kinds of learning experiences is that, though they may seem spaceless, some physical infrastructure needs to support it invisibly (and house the staff required to operate and maintain it).

New Learning Technologies

There are some sophisticated emerging learning technologies that will become an increasingly important part of the educational experience. For instance, interactive visualization (3-D virtual reality modeling systems) provides a great deal of flexibility and visual clarity for collaborative work. The variety of audio, video, interactive display, projection and sound options promote communication, creativity and better understanding of complex concepts. They provide an experience that allows learners to be immersed in 3-D models, maneuver themselves within these environments and manipulate them using haptic interfaces. Another promising use of these technologies is in modeling abstract phenomena. Such modeling can lead to cognitive leaps on the part of the learner, who can grasp complex subjects much more quickly through this kind of experience.

This learning mode currently comes at a high cost. For example, a Computer-Aided Virtual Environment (CAVE) with Surround Screen Virtual Reality (SSVR) for a group of five to eight students costs between $400,000 and $2 million, depending upon the type of computer used to operate it. Despite the expense, students who are growing up in the world of edutainment and immediate access to vast educational resources will increasingly expect this kind of learning experience for their tuition dollars. Then too, costs for such systems can be expected to decrease as their use becomes more widespread.

A CAVE system does not easily lend itself to integration with a classroom the way conventional AV equipment does. On the other hand, a virtual reality (VR) theater could be used in place of a conventional medium-sized classroom. Where these sophisticated technologies are used, the tendency will be to move away from facilities controlled by individual departments toward more shared resources. Logically, these resources will reside in some centralized facility, be it a general classroom building or an IT (Information Technology) center. Such is the case at Virginia Tech and the University of Michigan.

One of the most exciting aspects of these technologies is the use of the same system for an almost limitless array of applications. The CAVE can be an anatomy classroom where students probe human organs in one class and then become an architectural history classroom in the next session by simply changing the software. Of course there are some uses, like the Virtual Telepresence room as a dance studio, for example, where room features such as flooring and mirrors make it a more customized application. So the degree to which these facilities can be shared varies. For the most part, however, their use can be flexible, provided the appropriate software is available.

Using traditional space standards as guidelines for planning these facilities is pointless. Typical net square footages per student start at around 25 for the VR theater and increase to 110 for the CAVE. Students per room range from 20 to 25 for the Virtual Telepresence environment to five to eight for the CAVE. Because of their cost in dollars and space requirements, scheduling must be carefully planned to maximize the shared use. Occupancy rates should also be maximized by planning class sizes based upon the largest number of students that can comfortably and safely fit at any one time.

While many faculty will be motivated by the enhanced teaching power of VR, an effective faculty training program is essential to promote widespread use. Also, the instructor interfaces in various settings can be standardized to a certain degree so that they find similar types of controls in each room.

The student experience will be increasingly enriched by the variety of learning venues available. Technological innovations will not take the place of real-time, face-to-face interactions. In fact, rooms that are free of more advanced technologies will continue to have an important place in the array of useful learning venues. Such spaces will be complemented by emerging learning technologies that are currently making their way from research-based applications to undergraduate teaching venues.

Classroom facilities must always be planned in the context of the academic mission. Because of the wide range of learning venues, architectural, engineering and planning firms can help higher education administrators strategize the type of classroom and technology needed. As pedagogy evolves toward a more student-centered, interactive approach, technologies will be there to enable and enhance it by providing experiences that will increase the depth of understanding of information and vastly improve the speed of acquiring knowledge.

Warren Hendrickson, AIA, is an architect and project manager with CUH2A, Inc., an architecture, engineering and planning firm with expertise in the design of higher education facilities. When this article was written, Leslie Louden, AIA, was also an architect and project manager with CUH2A, Inc. They offer special thanks to Virginia Tech for research assistance and Jonathan P. Kendall of IdeaReserve for consulting.