What If We Stopped Calling Them Classrooms?

What If We Stopped Calling Them Classrooms?

What do you picture when you think of the word classroom? That’s what professor Jerry Wind asked the audience at the the Reimagine Education conference this week, and he guessed that most envisioned a professor at the front of a group of students gathered in rows.

That’s a big problem that is slowing change in college teaching, argued Wind, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and one of the organizers of the conference. “The mental model of the traditional classroom is obsolete,” he told the crowd of college technology leaders. “It does not take into account all of the developments that we know about the way people learn.”

Experiments with MOOCs have shown that the optimal length of video lectures is 5 to 7 minutes, for instance, he pointed out, and he said interactive learning and peer-to-peer learning might be better done in completely different kinds of spaces, with new names.

“I think we should change the vocabulary,” he added. “Because the term classroom has the wrong implications.”

The conference session was pitched as a debate on the question, “Is the Classroom Dead?” with two people making a case for the need for in-person gatherings of learners, and two others, including Wind, arguing that the classroom has outlived its usefulness. I served as the moderator.

Barbara Kurshan, executive director of academic innovation at University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and the other member of team end-the-classroom, remembered one of her favorite teaching moments, which happened on an impromptu field trip with students.

“I was working in a rural school, and I was trying to teach math to kids—radius and pi—and I decided we were going to learn this by going to buy pizza at the grocery store,” she said. “The grocery store was unprepared for these kids. They were taking pizzas off the shelf and they were measuring them with their protractors. And that experience of being out of the classroom and experiencing together was just fascinating.”

Jeff Stebar, head of the education practice for the architecture firm Perkins+Will, suggested a few other names for a new concept of classroom: Learning environments, life spaces,  enlightenment zones, and, even, Starbucks.

Grace O’Shea, co-founder of the education start-up Room2Learn and a participant in the venture incubation program at Harvard Innovation Labs, argued that the classroom does need to change, but that there’s still a reason to get people together in what she called “learning environments.”

She agreed that change must be cultural as well as architectural. “I don’t think it would behoove anyone to change the learning environment and assume that teaching in that space would look differently,” she said. “There need to be shifts in pedagogy.”

Of course coming up with new language is tough. Textbook publishers, for instance, have been making new products that they don’t call textbooks, and free-textbook advocates call what they make “open educational resources.” Most students and professors seem to cling to the term, and idea, of textbooks.

And some radical new model might all work for advanced students or occasional field trips, but at least one member of the audience offered a reality check.

“That sounds incredible for an advanced student,” said John Lynch, an academic technology manager at UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities. “But what about a freshman who is just being exposed to English literature? Does this argument work for introductory experiences?”

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