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New Learning Spaces: Smart Learners, Not Smart Classrooms

We keep pouring piles of expensive multimedia equipment into our classrooms and declaring them to be smart classrooms. We want our classrooms to be smart because of the mistaken belief that most learning occurs in classrooms and that smarter classrooms will somehow produce better learning. In many cases we have turned classrooms into complex tangles of technical gadgets that are nearly as difficult to operate as B'eing 747s.

The goal of improving teaching and learning is critical, in fact essential, for every student and therefore for every college and university. But turning our classrooms into spaces resembling Hollywood studios is just throwing great quantities of money at this issue instead of addressing the really difficult problems that need to be solved to improve learning. The most serious of those problems is that most teaching and learning d'es not occur in classrooms, that teachers and learners have no formal training in teaching or learning, that we have not developed and deployed the tools that teachers and students need for teaching, learning, and administration, that we have not used the technology we have—and will have—effectively, and that we have not addressed the fact that individuals learn in very different ways. Building the smart classroom of the future is not just insufficient; it is a wasteful misallocation of scarce university resources. We need smart learners, not smart classrooms; and smart classrooms are not enough to get us there.

The “Classroom”

Traditionally classrooms have been the place where students and teachers were brought together to enable learning. Where a course required hands-on practical experience, teachers, students, and the requisite equipment were brought together in laboratories to supplement the learning done in classrooms. We have classrooms because until recently it was the only way to have a group of students hear and interact with a teacher and their peers at the same time. Today, with archived streaming video available on the Web, no one must be in a classroom to hear a lecture. Students can hear it live anywhere or hear it later as many times as they’d like. With e-mail, chat rooms, electronic forums, and other interactive communication and collaboration tools, no one needs to be in a classroom to interact with peers and faculty. In some respects the interaction possible electronically is not as good as what is possible live, but in other ways it is much better. We can probably do without classrooms entirely though we may choose not to eliminate them. If we do keep them, they need to become an integral part of a student’s learning space and our allocation of resources to improve learning must include the entire learning space, not just the classroom. Laboratories are more difficult—possibly impossible—to completely eliminate, but they also need to undergo radical change in ways beyond the scope of this article.

It was always known that learning occurred wherever a student went, not just in classrooms and labs. Students study in their dorms, in the library, under trees, and at home. They learn in lively interactions with their peers, faculty, and acquaintances. They get flashes of inspiration, intuition, and insight while daydreaming, walking alone, and showering. If we want to improve learning we need to improve the entire student learning space, not just classrooms and labs where students spend a very small percentage of their learning time.

“Smart classrooms” are a bad compromise between professional multimedia recording studios and traditional talk and chalk classrooms. Instead of turning most of our classrooms into smart classrooms, we should create a few no-compromises studios for recording multimedia educational presentations. These studios would allow for scripted material, retakes, out of sequence recording, special effects, editing, and the host of other professional performance features that would be incompatible with doing this in a classroom.

To be really smart about our classroom we need to make sure that one d'esn’t have to be very smart—or very rich—to use them, especially since their importance will fade. Students and faculty members should be able to bring their laptops (or whatever favorite mobile device they prefer) to a classroom and just use them. The only thing one might plug in is power. Projection would be done wirelessly for all students and faculty, and the controls for this would be via software from the network. Recording would be done automatically. The money saved by making these classrooms less smart, but much easier to use, would help pay for the studios we really need.

The focus up until now has been on classrooms, not the learning space outside classrooms and labs. The tools necessary to deal with learning outside the class or lab were limited. Students could tote text books, calculators, and class handouts with them to learn outside the lab or class, but until very recently not much more than that has been possible. Even today with Internet access the classroom is still considered the center of learning. The Internet has often been used just for downloading music, gathering a few facts for a paper, or accessing a calendar.

If learning is viewed as a continuous process, most of which necessarily has to happen outside the few hours a week of class and lab time, then our plan to improve learning must include the entire learning space and not stop at the exit of a classroom or lab. When actual classroom attendance becomes optional, as it will, then a real classroom may have physical and remote attendees. In addition, a student will be able to turn to any willing network-connected person or group of people for help and collaboration. Network tools that track online people’s skills and willingness to offer help will automatically search the world for the best people to collaborate with or seek help from for any given situation. This will add to the richness of the collaboration and interactivity, which will no longer be limited by constraints of the size of a classroom or the location of the students and faculty.

All students and faculty in the near future will own mobile wireless intelligent network connected devices that work effectively everywhere. These devices—whether computers, PDAs, or specialized appliances—will be portable enough or will offer compelling enough services so that students and faculty will carry them everywhere. All of the course material, supplementary material, and learning and administration tools will be available from those devices. Given the right tools and training, the focus of learning will move from the classroom to the learning space environment that teachers and students will be able to access wherever they are. Everything said or seen in a classroom will be captured for access—when it happens and for later review—in a student’s learning space.

Today there is a sharp distinction between classes and labs. Classes are for learning while labs are for doing. But doing is vital for learning and needs to be able to be done not only in class, but again and again everywhere in a student’s learning space. Students will learn better if they get lots of experience doing things that are too dangerous, too expensive, and too unusual to do in a real lab. To accomplish this we need virtual labs to supplement real labs. In virtual labs students will do simulations of the laboratory experiments and their own creative explorations. “What happens if I add nitric acid to that flask?” might cause panic in a real lab, but it is something any student could try in a simulation. A simulated explosion or simulated release of a deadly toxin might not have the impact of the real thing, but being able to experiment freely will unleash an awesome flow of understanding.

While real labs usually can’t be done in class, virtual ones can and should. Virtual labs allow doing to be an integral part of every learning experience. They can be done at anytime anywhere. No student should ever walk into a real lab with having done the experiment—and related personal experimentation—in the virtual lab.

Training the Trainers

People who do the majority of teaching at colleges and universities (professors, lecturers, TAs, etc.) get no formal training in teaching at all. First grade teachers teaching addition to 6-year-old children have more training in pedagogy than tenured professors teaching advanced calculus at a research university. Why do we think that a professor who cannot use a piece of chalk and a blackboard to teach effectively will be able to do better when we give him or her computers, VCRs, DVD players, PowerPoint presentations, video cameras, the Internet, and a smorgasbord of digital media?

All teachers at a university must have formal training in teaching. Improving their teaching skills must be considered at least as vital as improving their skills doing research and publishing papers. Many universities have created programs that address this issue, such as Carnegie Mellon University’s superb Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence ( We also need to teach teachers how to use the current technology tools to enable them to apply those tools to the pedagogical principles they’ve learned. The skills acquired by teachers need to be assessed and remediated as necessary and kept current. Students get no gain from a smart classroom or smart learning space when the teacher in that space lacks the ability to teach or use the technology effectively.

Training the Learners

What kind of learning skills do we teach most students? None. We have teachers who can’t teach teaching students who do not know how to learn. In this Darwinian process, those students best able to excel under these strange circumstances go on to get their Ph.D.s and become the next generation of teachers. Students are not taught how to take notes, how to get organized, and how to deal with the universe of data that obscures the information they actually need to understand. At some universities students have access to millions of books and everyone has access to billions of Web pages, but most have no idea how to use either effectively.

We also suffer under the myth that students need no technology training when they enter a university because we’re sure that they know more about technology than people a few years or decades senior. How d'es being able to outscore a librarian in a video game or code a simple Web page in HTML naturally lead to the ability to properly format a bibliography in Microsoft Word, create a chart in Excel, solve a problem in Mathematica, or use a course management system? Because most students somehow survive in spite of their shortcomings in learning and technology skills we pretend there is no problem.

It is not as visible or measurable as putting video projectors in classrooms, but teaching students the essential skills to learn—taking notes, organizing, prioritizing, and managing projects to name a few—and to use the current tools and technologies for learning will have a far greater impact on improving learning. Students need access to their learning space all of the time. This means that every student must own at least one mobile wireless intelligent network-connected device that is required to participate in learning. Many schools give or require that students own a computer today. Tomorrow, without a similar device there will be no entry to the learning space.


Teachers need tools to present their material in pedagogically correct ways across the student learning space—not just in classrooms and labs. The tools must be easy enough to use so that faculty can assemble the material themselves. A critical pedagogical element is the creation of virtual labs. These are so difficult and expensive to create that no faculty member or individual IT department could create all the virtual labs necessary. We must either buy them, or better yet, establish a university consortium to collectively create and share them. Every lab we create must be customizable by the faculty to suit the unique needs of a particular group of students—or an individual student.

Students should expect learning space presentations that are evening news quality, though of course they would be interactive. The faculty needs tools to include animated graphics, audio and video clips, and audio or video conferencing with remote experts. Team teaching should be the rule, with appropriate local and remote experts handling the material each can present best.

Faculty need administrative tools to do continuous assessment and to encourage collaboration and interactivity. Even in a physical classroom, many attendees might be at remote locations. The tools that faculty use must operate effectively in this environment. Faculty also need an environment that removes or eases the administrative tasks involved in teaching, leaving more time to focus on developing and presenting course materials.

Students need tools to help them take notes, get organized, manage their work, and assess their knowledge. These tools must work across the entire learning space. Students need tools to help them annotate material presented to them including material from virtual labs. Students will not take notes on bits of paper in the future learning space, nor will they ever use paper except for their own entertainment.

Of course students need basic assessment tools that allow them to test their knowledge, but they also need an adaptive assessment manger that tracks their progress and provides them with extra work in weak areas. The ultimate tool will be a virtual mentor that will bring the student closer to a one-on-one mentorship educational model.

All presentations and interactions need to be captured for later review by students. Also all work done by students needs to be captured—ultimately as part of a student’s electronic portfolio—but in the short run as a way to review material.

Effective Use of Technology

Adding technology to a process is often easy. Using technology to actually change and improve what we are doing is very difficult. For example, many universities have installed course management systems. Some have even added 100 percent of their courses to these systems. But a close look at one such typical university reveals that only a few percent of the courses include pedagogically interesting material in the course management system. The rest of the “online courses” consist largely of dull photocopied handouts that look even more anemic online than they do on paper.

For the learning space of the future we need to force a paradigm shift. We cannot treat the mobile wireless intelligent network-connected devices that everyone will own as portable desktop computers—which are actually treated today as desktop mainframes. We want to enable learning in every student’s learning space, but instead we have just put today’s learning tools—books, PowerPoint, Web sites, and so forth—online and declare educational victory. The devices we have available today and which will be even better tomorrow have virtually unlimited memory, intelligence, and network access. With them, we can build virtual communities, virtual labs, and virtual mentors. We can use these systems to integrate our learning across courses and across time, tying the work we did in American History in High School, for example, to the work in ethics we are doing as a junior in college.

Individual Learning

With the advent of enterprise portals the Web is in the process of undergoing radical change. These portals are user-centric and recognize that everyone is unique, works differently, and has different needs. The same kind of technology that enables portals to adapt to each person and allows each individual to determine the best way technology can serve them will dramatically change the way all of us use intelligent devices. In the learning space, this personalized adaptive technology will allow each student to learn the way he or she learns best. Students that need to move slowly in tiny steps over some material will be helped to do so while other students will be able to just review weak areas that their virtual mentor has identified. Students that are very visual will see lots of animations and images, those that are more comfortable with columns of numbers or graphs will be pointed to those.

Students will be able to move at their own pace and effectively determine their own grade. A student able to get to an 85 percent level of mastery might decide that’s good enough and go on to other things, or instead might decide to keep working until their level of mastery is 95 percent.

Humans have a voracious appetite for learning. We’ve had to work hard to turn the joy of learning into the drudgery of going to class. Our educational system has been teacher-centric. It is becoming classroom-centric and technology-centric. It needs to become learner-centric and to use the teachers and technology to unleash students’ natural desire for knowledge.

Smart Learners

We are building complex multimedia smart classrooms without training teachers to teach, learners to learn, and without building the tools and infrastructure necessary for effective learning in the broad learning space. Like a 747 without trained pilots, reservations systems, airports, or an air traffic control system we cannot expect to get off the ground, much less soar. We should be putting more of our money into making our learners smarter than into making obsolete classrooms smarter. Improving how students learn will benefit from great information technology and multimedia infrastructure, but ultimately our focus must be on getting smart teachers and students to use smart tools in a learning space that enables them to learn as individuals everywhere, all of the time. For universities to excel, smart learners have to become more important than smart classrooms.

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