Classroom Design | Feature

Fitting Old Classrooms for New Ways of Learning

Is it possible to implement new learning approaches in old -- even antique -- classrooms and other college spaces? The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA has become expert at it.

Wren BuildingCredit: Jrcla2 via Wikimedia Commons

Professors teaching in dated classrooms often complain that the antiquated facilities stand in the way of new modes of learning and instruction. Desks may be locked in "sage on the stage" mode, for example, or rooms may lack the power outlets to support students' mobile devices.

To find out how higher ed institutions are reconciling modern pedagogy with not-so-modern learning spaces, CT went to The College of William & Mary, the acclaimed "second oldest" institution of higher education in America after Harvard, which possesses something even Harvard doesn't have: the Sir Christopher Wren Building, the oldest academic building in continuous use. If "old" exists in education, this is surely where you'll find it.

Construction of the Wren Building, initially known as the College Building and later as the "Main Building," began in 1695, even before the town of Williamsburg existed. (The structure had been chartered two years earlier by King William III and Queen Mary II of England, and thus known as "'their majesties' Royal College of William & Mary.") It was finally occupied in 1700 with two purposes: to educate boys between 12 and 15 and young men in philosophy and divinity.

Now the school serves 8,258 undergraduates and graduates at three campuses, including the 1,200-acre main one in Williamsburg, another in DuPont Circle in Washington, DC, and a third at Gloucester Point at the mouth of the York River across from Yorktown.

Wiring Behind the Walls

Gene Roche, director of academic information services for William & Mary and an executive professor in the School of Education, recently gave a phone interview from one of the classrooms in the Wren Building. As he described it, the walls are "colonial blue." Portraits of George Washington and a former college president hang on either sides of a fireplace. At the other end of the room is suspended an oil painting of former Chancellor (and late Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher. Candelabras light the space.

Beyond the historic elegance, "All the wires are hidden carefully behind the walls," he pointed out. Wireless access to the Internet is ubiquitous on this campus that has seen the education of four presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler).

Down in the basement, classes meet in a space described by Roche as "the old kitchen, with cobblestone rocks and rock walls." On a recent visit, he watched a faculty member read passages out of a book as students sat working on their laptops and tablets.

Elsewhere in this building, learning spaces are outfitted with projectors and other devices. In other classrooms, the technology might typically be stashed into a "big podium," but here it's tucked away into little cupboards along the sides of the room.

The trick, said Roche, is to maintain the pristine historic nature of the 314-year-old building even as it's updated to address evolving educational needs.

From Elegant to Immobile

Not that the building currently standing is exactly the same one designed in 1693 and constructed between 1695 and 1700 — that one burned in 1705. Its replacement was gutted again by fire in 1859. What remained was used in the next structure, but that one only lasted for three years when it was burned by federal troops in 1862. Following the Civil War, the brick walls that remained were used to reconstruct the college. In each case, the original foundation and remaining exterior walls were reused in the construction of the new building. In the late 1920s, Wren underwent a restoration at the same time the entire colony of Williamsburg received a makeover funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. The latest restoration took place in 1999 to modernize the plumbing, electrical, heating and air conditioning, and, of course, the network.

Whenever remodeling goes on in the original campus, said Roche, the college calls on a corps of historians, archaeologists and others from Colonial Williamsburg to work with students in the painstaking task of unearthing clues to the past. "You can't turn over a shovel without having something historic turn up," he noted. For example, the Wren Building's 1999 remodel uncovered brick foundations that were later excavated and determined to be "undocumented" outbuildings that probably played a role associated with slavery.

Not all the academic buildings on campus as immaculate or distinguished as the Wren Building. Like many other higher ed institutions in the U.S., William & Mary was hit by a wave of expansion during the 1970s and 1980s. The classrooms churned out in that period are the toughest ones to adapt to new modes of learning, said Roche: That was an era dominated by "tiered classrooms" and architecture that "was not particularly inspiring." The seats in those rooms "are bolted to the floor still" because tiers are expensive to take out, he noted.

Lesson learned, most new buildings on campus are designed to allow people to change things around. "The furniture is designed to be light and relatively easy to move. You've got lots of wires running through all the conduit, so adding lecture capture or two-way video conferencing is just a matter of bolting the actual end point on to the wires," Roche explained. In some classroom spaces, the college is putting in raised floors that give installers access to infrastructure for upgrading technology as it evolves.

But even now, Roche emphasized, there's a place for the traditional lecture hall-style space, albeit not necessarily outfitted with a "sage on the stage." "There is still a fair amount of work that students have to do where they have a conceptual base they need to master, a vocabulary they have to learn. The objectives of those courses are pretty well understood," he said. "Those courses lend themselves to what we would consider to be lecture-discussion as opposed to pure lecture. I don't think at William & Mary you'll find much where the faculty member goes in and performs. It's much more likely that even in a pretty traditional classroom, students are expected to participate and the faculty member is going to lead that discussion."

Creating Knowledge

Meshing the classroom environment with the new models of learning taking place in those spaces is driven by two forces, Roche said. First, "we want as much student engagement as we can manage." That means playing down the idea that classrooms are "where knowledge is transmitted"

More effective, he noted, is to "build spaces where knowledge is created. That might be a physics lab or biology lab or computer lab or a lab sitting outside our high-performance computing operation. It might be a sculpture studio or a ceramics studio."

Second, even in spaces where instruction is intended to be "more traditional," the college attempts to "make it as easy as possible to rearrange and reconfigure [the room] depending on what you're trying to accomplish there."

When the Mason School of Business moved into a new facility in 2009, the College introduced the Design Studio, which looks industrial, with sticky notes and rolling whiteboards, stand-up desks, exposed beams and pipes, and mobile furniture and walls that can be written on, to encourage the "mindset and methods of design thinking."

Roche, who is acting as a guest lecturer in a number of classes, will be presenting in the Design Studio on the ethics of robotics and what happens as "robotics increasingly replace human mental labor as opposed to physical labor." There's no reason, he said, "we couldn't have that discussion downstairs [in the Wren Building's cobble-stoned kitchen] and read some of those early science fiction works about what happens when robots run amok."

Ultimately, insisted Roche, there's nothing about a physical space that should prevent students from being able "to interact with each other, question each other, to think about new things."

Beyond Physical Spaces

Not all learning at William & Mary is taking place in physical spaces. Digital initiatives abound too on campus, including an online prototype course that brings students together virtually from around the world in a Second Life-type environment where, as one campus article describes, participants are present as "virtual replicas of themselves with the capability to walk, talk, sit and raise their hand." Other instructors are flipping their classrooms by offering prerecorded lectures and then using video technology to interact in real time with their students.

Gene Roche, director of Academic Information Services, an executive professor in the School of Education and director of university e-learning initiatives, pointed out that at this institution with a reputation for "high-touch teaching," the integration of e-learning allows the faculty to personalize the content and help their students master the content. An instructor, for example, may give an online test and then adjust instruction when the class comes together in person to help those who failed the exam and allow others to work on small group projects.

That accomplishes two outcomes: Faculty can make better use of their face-to-face time and students can take control of their own learning, which is, he pointed out, "one of the most important things we could do for a person."

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