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Death of the Classroom? And, Thank You—It’s Been Great Fun

In 1999 Roger Schank, then at Northwestern University, said,“Classrooms are out! No more classrooms! Don’t build them!” Prof. Schank, now at Carnegie Mellon University West, was making the point that learning through active engagement and failure—learning by doing—connects our affective and intellectual experiences in a way that’s essential for effective learning. This d'esn’t happen often enough in the contemporary classroom. At that time he advocated the “rule of 1/3”—children (and adults) should spend a third of their time talking with each other in face-to face-interaction, a third of their time doing something (building things), and a third of their time engaged in computer-based instruction.

Traditional classrooms don’t necessarily prohibit building things or doing technology-supported inquiry, but they have not exactly facilitated the flexible transition from one learning mode to another. Some 10 years ago, the Great One (that’s Wayne Gretsky, for all you non-sports fans) attributed his skill on the ice by saying, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” So where are the classrooms going, and are we building them to what we currently “know,” based on our past and current experiences, or for tomorrow?

The Time Scale Problem

Learning spaces are capital projects. The calendar of any capital project is years; life cycles of 40 to 80 years are expected. On the one hand, that makes sense. When you’re investing $15 million to upwards of $300 million in a building, you figure the investment should last. Going back to the funders two years after a new space was built to spend more money upgrading it based on changing needs is generally as desirable as a root canal. You just don’t want to do it.

The time scale of learning technologies is best measured in months or years, single digits, please. Where these investments are central to the delivery of instruction in the new building you face three challenges: figuring out the right thing to do now (or when the building eventually opens); identifying how you’re going to pay for the maintenance and upgrade of the technology you know will be mid- or even late-life by the time the building is in use; and, last but not least, building a space that provides the kind of technology-enabled learning experiences that you anticipate in 2035. After all, the building is still in early- or mid-life at that time.

Of course, building facilities staff and architects know the difficulty of finding any school building over five years old where space is utilized as originally intended. For buildings over forty years old, the original intent is almost certainly lost. Educational needs are, unfortunately, articulated in terms of the experiences faculty have had. Even the architects and planners tend to optimize for the current practices and needs of the client. Some commission study groups do visioning activities. These are often fun and liberating, but largely fail to influence much, because their predictive value is understandably limited. Who’s going to build classrooms to the vision of a planning group laying their view of where technology-enabled spaces will be in three years, let alone 20 years?

What Do We Know?

There are some things we can count on. It may seem trite to say it, but a reminder is essential to lay the groundwork:

• The future of learning environments will not be like today (as my friends would be quick to tell me, that’s one of those “ripped from the headlines” kind of statements from the Journal of Duh…).
• We will be just as under-resourced tomorrow as we are today.
• Technological change will either continue at current rates or increase.
What should those of us interested in using technology for teaching effectively do? How can we advocate for ephemeral technologies whose value decreases by the minute, but whose costs are planned annually at best?

Returning the Focus to the Interaction

Technology-enabled spaces can provide value across 24 hours of the day, but what students and faculty want to do in them differs from morning to afternoon to evening, and late into the night. Do the spaces adapt to these usage patterns? Typically, we build a mixture of spaces and students migrate to them based on their needs, leaving some always underutilized. In an age where real estate is often a limiting variable, enabling spaces to themselves adapt to different uses may be more effective. As the time scale becomes weeks or months, these spaces are often referred to by architects as multi-functioning spaces. They share the characteristic of flexibility, taken to a new level.

What we’ve learned so far tells us that technology-enhanced learning should be enabled in learning spaces but rarely built-in. The infrastructure is part of construction design, but the devices students interact with should not be. In fact, an interesting future design strategy is to begin with the rule “no space will serve only one function”—and see where that leads you. You may need to break the rule, but it should be for cause, not by default.

Faculty need to switch among learning modes within the same instructional period. That means switching from lecture, to team interaction, to individual reflection and study, to hands-on building or experiment, and back again, in the same or adjacent spaces. Everything we’ve learned about how we learn points to this pedagogical flexibility as critical to effective learning. From the faculty perspective, this is no easy recipe. In fact, the impediment to building technology-enabled spaces that you might mistake for comfortable lounges or labs, depending on the time of day, is the cultural history of the professoriate. Now that’s another challenge. Thank You

As you know by now, Syllabus is revamping its style and extending its portfolio to try to be more inclusive of the entire university and its technology needs. A new look will be unveiled next month. However, one of the changes is in format, and a consequence of that is the departure of the regular column, and thus the regular columnists.

It’s often hard to tell when you’re sitting in your study writing words that will not appear for another two to three months if you’re really providing anything of value. I’ve received e-mails, but more often it’s in a comment here, or a P.S. at the end of message there, suggesting that there are some readers beyond my immediate family.

So while the grind of writing a monthly column, and the relief at not having that pressure in the future, are things I’m looking forward to, it has been also a pleasure and privilege to share things I care about with you. The discipline has been valuable. The unceasing creativity of my colleagues trying to make education technologies achieve their promise has provided inspiration and comradeship. Communicating your work with a voice has been a challenge. I’ve learned a lot. Thanks. Consectatio veritas apud amici <exit column 48>

Notable Technology Prognostications

"I watched his face (Samuel F.B. Morse) closely to see if he was not deranged, and was assured by other Senators as we left the room that they had no
confidence in it either."
—Senator Oliver Smith of Indiana, 1842,
after witnessing a first demonstration of the telegraph

"Well-informed people know it is impossible to transmit their voices over wires, and even if it were possible, the thing would not have practical value."
—Editorial in the Boston Post, 1865

"There's a lunatic in the lobby who says he's invented a device for transmitting pictures over the air. Be careful, he may have a razor on him."
—Editor of the London Daily Express,
commenting to a staffer on someone who had asked
to see a reporter and was waiting downstairs, exact date unknown.

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than one and a half tons."
—Popular Mechanics,
Forecasting the Relentless March of Science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
—Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
—The Editor in Charge of Business Books for Prentice-Hall, 1957

"But what . . . is it good for?"
—Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Divisions of IBM,
commenting on the microchip, 1968

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
—Ken Olson, President, Chairman,
and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
See references - Cerf, C. and Navasky, V. (1984).


Fielding, Randall (1999), Learning Cycles and Roger Schank,, last accessed July 31, 2004

Cerf, C. and Navasky, V. (1984). The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative
Misinformation. New York: Pantheon Books, selected quotes
online at sbot/toolkit/tnc.html, last accessed July 31, 2004.

Project Kaleidoscope,

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