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The Imagined Space of The Web 2.0 Classroom

Web 2.0 and new media have influenced the design of physical classroom spaces, just as they have offered new virtual spaces for interaction.

Human-created space, especially indoor space, influences how we feel and what we want to do, including how well we learn. Some indoor spaces are destinations, such as a great coffee shop with interesting furnishings and colors and curves and varieties of surfaces, and others, such as traditional classrooms, are not because they are too institutional--flat, colorless, uninviting.

But, ironically, with the addition of information technology and needed upgrades to accommodate the requirements for new technology, classrooms are themselves becoming more like destinations. And, even more interestingly, classroom walls are dissolving into the larger virtual classroom, the imagined space of the Web 2.0 classroom, within which students and faculty interact.

You may have noticed that some or maybe most classrooms on your campus are being upgraded as technology is added to the rooms. Maybe they are called “smart classrooms,” or “technology classrooms,” or maybe just “the new standard classroom.” And perhaps you have also noticed that these rooms are furnished in more interesting ways than older classrooms. Hard surfaces are replaced with soft (carpeting instead of tile; acoustic tiles in the ceiling; upholstered seats instead of hard plastic). Colors are becoming more interesting and are varied on different walls. Window treatments are attractive and durable instead of flimsy and easily damaged. Lighting is soft and indirect.

Accommodating technology, that is, making it usable in a room, does require many changes: Rooms should be square or rounded instead of rectangular since sight-lines and visual display of information is now as important as the sound of voices; moving furniture for different ways to work with technology should not cause a sudden roar of noise, chair and table legs scraping on tile, but instead the soft rolling of table and chair on a soft surface. In other words, new classroom design is not based on unquestioned tradition but is based on new practices developed within the field of media architecture.

One service that technology is providing to higher education is a chance to rethink how classrooms should be constructed. We have another example of unintended consequences: Bringing in technology resulted in softer seats for students! The amount of money institutions spend on technology required that it be installed for the most impact. Therefore, very quickly in the last decade, new customs developed that spread throughout academia. If redoing a classroom by adding a significant set of technology tools ranges in cost from $80,000 and up (wireless hubs, rewiring, new secure doors, new lighting, new floors, laptops and projectors, new furniture appropriate for collaboration, etc.), it makes sense to include the cost of a media architect who is either inhouse or provided by the architect.

But, another unintended consequence is that even as the room becomes more secure with stronger doors and windows and movement detectors, the walls are psychologically dissolving. The conversation that starts in the classroom continues in e-mail, blogs, wikis, Twitter, or in dozens of other ways to collaborate in the Web 2.0 world. This conversation is not so segmented as ten years ago when it was more limited to the time in the classroom. Just as the book extended the reach of an author in time and space, so does Web 2.0 extend the reach of a teacher.

The challenge is, then, how to use this new extended classroom? For some faculty, the idea of the virtual classroom is a nightmare: “I don’t want to be on call all day and night!” And this is realistic and understandable. Still, the virtual classroom is a fact of life and many faculty members have found ways of redesigning their practices not just in the physical classroom, but in the larger virtual classroom.

For example, since class discussion is now possible in, say, a Google Group, or through a conferencing system, or by using any of a number of possible Web 2.0 tools outside of class hours, the time spent in the actual physical classroom could be used for doing actual work while in the company of the expert--the teacher. In many fields, a studio approach to teaching can be devised and then analysis of the work done in the room can follow online in the interstices between class times.

That’s just an example. The point is that technology being added to classrooms offers options for pedagogical approaches. I’ve been talking and working with faculty members for 25 years who continue to struggle with how to take advantage of those options, so I know it is not a straight-forward path. Only recently, in the past 5 years, has new classroom design in higher education settled into a predictable pattern.

There is an EDUCAUSE Constituent Group called Learning Space Design which can help educators reconceive how physical classrooms can be used and designed. See This group is co-led by two internationally recognized researchers: Richard Holeton, Director, Academic Computing Services, Stanford University, [email protected] and Phillip D. Long, Professor of Innovation, University of Queensland, and Visiting Research Scientist, MIT, [email protected] who work at opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean, Palo Alto, CA and Brisbane, AU.

In the meantime, consider this issue: The technology that is being installed in learning spaces offers rewards and seems to invite different patterns of interaction than those of 10 or 20 or 50 years ago. The new learning spaces are not designed around the acoustics of one voice but around the acoustics of many voices; not designed for the furniture to stay in one place for one purpose but to move the furniture into varying arrangements; not designed for passive but active learning. Lecture is still easily accommodated in these rooms, as it should be, since the lecture mode is still necessary as part of the mix of approaches.

We find now in the physical learning spaces this basic new fact: Educators have many more options for how to interact with students than ever before. The spaces are telling us to experiment. Let’s keep doing so and let’s share our discoveries.

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