21st Century Classroom

Build It Before They Come

Creating a full-scale mock-up of a new classroom can help faculty better understand their needs and help design teams avoid costly mistakes.

Designing break-the-mold classrooms--learning spaces that depart dramatically from traditional classrooms--comes with increased risk, especially when the design will be replicated multiple times within a new building. One way to reduce risk is to build a life-size mock-up classroom before making final design decisions.

A project I worked on a number of years ago at Harvard Business School (MA) taught me how valuable this extra step can be.

Hawes Hall, completed in 2002, was HBS' largest investment in new classroom space since the 1950s. The three-story building was designed specifically to take advantage of the newest technologies, featuring a series of amphitheater-style classrooms where professors could both present information from a variety of sources (such as PowerPoint, Internet, or teleconference) and facilitate student conversations around business case studies.

Faculty defined some of their needs early on. The professors agreed that a small podium was required (see photo C, below),but, as most of them constantly walk around the room, they would likely not spend much time there. What they needed in lieu of a substantial podium was desk space--a place to keep papers and handouts and occasionally sit down (see photo D, below). Small group discussion is central to case study pedagogy, so faculty requested that student tables be arranged in a U-shaped configuration with comfortable, movable chairs. They also wanted AV controls that were easy to get to, but not obstructive of the instructional space (see photo B below).

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In addition to these specific faculty requests, designers integrated other best practices in classroom design, such as acoustic and lighting considerations. Because of the noisy nature of case-study instruction, acoustical treatments were designed to void sound from outside elements (air handling system, adjacent classrooms and corridors), and room surfaces were chosen to provide sufficient reverberation characteristics. Good-quality lighting that could be zoned to accommodate AV presentations was also part of the design from the beginning.

However, the question of the number of projection screens was not immediately settled. Until Hawes Hall was built, no classroom at HBS had ever had more than two projection screens. But faculty wanted to expand the use of videoconferencing and computer display, so the design team began to explore the possibility of adding a third projection screen.

Avoiding Costly Mistakes
The design team comprised architects and engineers; business school faculty and administrators; audiovisual, acoustic, and lighting consultants; and a project manager from Harvard's facilities department. The team's overriding imperative was to make sure the design of the room--which would be replicated throughout the building--truly met instructional needs. HBS was not looking to save money, but the school wanted to avoid making costly mistakes.

Thus motivated, the design group proposed a full-scale mock-up of a 96-person classroom, which would enable team members and faculty to review furniture placement, table widths, lighting, the three-screen display, and the overall "feel" of the room, before making any final design commitments.

The mock-up was the most comprehensive I had ever seen. Built in the basement of another Harvard building, in a space originally used for a swimming pool, the room was constructed with unpainted drywall. The tiered floors were built using exact dimensions. Every student desk was fabricated from plywood and placed and sized according to plan. Several different chair styles were located around the room. The ceiling was unfinished, but a few different types of lighting fixtures were hung and tested. The three projection screens were sized for optimal viewing, their location marked on drywall in three spots at the front of the room.

The design team was pleased with the results, but faculty members were clearly disappointed as they entered the mock-up. Something about the feel of the room was off. Even though it had all the elements they had requested, the space did not achieve the kind of intimacy they were discovering was necessary to successfully facilitate the case study discussions that were the basis of their instruction. The U-shaped arrangement of desks, they felt, spread the students too far apart from one another. Furthermore, the faculty felt that the front of the room was too wide, giving the instructor too much room to move from one side of the room to the other.

The architect and AV consultant were encouraged to attend some classes to see firsthand the dynamics of class discussions and to observe how a professor might move around the room. After several observations, the design team began to understand better the notion of intimacy, the effortless communication among students, and the precision and fluidity with which an instructor would execute his lesson plan--presenting information, writing key words on the blackboard, distributing handouts, working through a spreadsheet, moving among students, and so on.

Redesigning for Intimacy
These direct observations, along with faculty feedback, led the architect and AV expert to rethink some of the assumptions of the design. In particular, designers saw that the three projection screens that faculty had asked for required a lot of space--an expanse of wall that was working against the intimacy that faculty now realized they also wanted for the room. But rather than do away with one (or more) of the screens, the designers chose to shorten the width of the left and right screens, which helped narrow the front of the room. They also reduced the overall width of the U-shaped seating. The faculty immediately felt the change in intimacy in the new mock-up and approved the adjustments, leading to the finalization of the design for Hawes Hall.

A fair question is: Why didn't the team do these classroom observations before they designed the mock-up? The short answer is that the architects, who had designed many other lecture halls and had interviewed the relevant faculty, didn't think they needed to actually observe. It was an important lesson learned: Classroom planners should always interview and observe teachers in action, in order to understand the subtleties of the instructional requirements. This is particularly true when specialized pedagogies--such as the case study method--are being employed.

But if we hadn't done this mock-up, it's debatable whether we would have caught this problem, even had the designers done more observation. The mock-up gave the faculty a unique opportunity to experience the proposed environment, enabling them to more accurately describe their needs. "Effortless communication" among students and faculty is not exactly the same thing as "intimacy" in a 96-person amphitheater. By actually sitting in the room that they would teach in, faculty were able to articulate what was missing for them in the design--something they never could have done by looking at architectural plans, and something designers could not have picked up on through mere observation.

Anticipating Future Needs
Even if a special-purpose classroom is mocked up prior to construction, it is difficult to know how the space will be used over time, especially in terms of technology. Therefore, it was imperative for us to build into the space anticipated technology needs.

Three projection screens were installed at the front of the room (see photo A). However, only two projectors were initially purchased. Provisions in the ceiling were made for AV and LAN connectivity, structural support, and power for the eventual purchase of a third projector.

Floor and wall boxes were provided around the room to accommodate auxiliary remote control panels, to support guest presenters by providing technical support in the audience (see photos E, F below).

Even though each classroom is equipped with remote control, pan/tilt/zoom video origination cameras at the front and the rear of each room, base building provisions were made around the room, in the walls and floor, to accommodate broadcast-quality cameras that could be brought in to record lectures that would later be made into commercial DVDs (see photos G, H below).

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The equipment racks housing the AV equipment were sized to allow for the addition of more equipment over time.

A rather large space within the building was dedicated to serve as a central media head end (CMHE), a wiring, signal switching, and media distribution hub, to interconnect all of the classrooms. Originally I over-estimated the amount of space necessary for the hub, thinking that the allocation would inevitably be reduced. It wasn't. The good news is that tie lines from other buildings were interconnected in the CMHE, and the space now serves as a hub for not one but multiple buildings.

Though classroom mock-ups are not normally part of the design process, they can be incredibly useful in identifying shortcomings before final construction begins. Indeed, one might argue that a college or university dedicated to creating unique and successful learning spaces should devote time, space, and resources for mock-up classrooms. The up-front cost for this experimentation can pay dividends in the end, by enabling the creation of superior learning spaces over time.

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