Rethinking the Classroom

By Patricia Patria, VP of IT and CIO, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Patricia Patria, VP of IT and CIO, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

For some universities, floor-to-ceiling whiteboards are increasingly cropping up in the classroom. For others, it’s all about reconfiguring furniture and open spaces. Still others offer an array of video conferencing technology as a learning option.

Higher education is clearly in the midst of many challenges, from cultural shifts to technological trends, to affordability to engagement. To address these challenges—and to help students learn critical skills to help them succeed in the workforce—many universities are changing the way they deliver education. To provide students with critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills, both physical and virtual classrooms are evolving.

Ultimately, there are a variety of solutions and benefits that universities can gain from these smart designs, whether they are physical or virtual classrooms.

From Active to Virtual Learning Tools

For students learning in physical classrooms, some universities are moving from traditional lecture style pedagogies to active learning classrooms. These classrooms offer flexible spaces that enable faculty and students to engage in this collaborative and cooperative learning, team-based learning, and problem and project-based learning. For those engaged in virtual learning, the dynamic is changing even more. From self-paced learning to elabs to AI assisted engagement, virtual classroom let students connect from anywhere while still engaging in both team-based and collaborative activities.

"Smart classrooms are the wave of the future for higher ed"

Because traditional learning models where students learn through memorization and recitation do not develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, learning styles are evolving to active learning where students are asked to engage in the learning process. With this model, during class time, students might working together in small groups, leverage problem solving and paired discussions, or engage in team-based learning.

To make this style of learning more effective, physical classrooms need to allow small teams of students to work together in pods. Furniture should be mobile and configurable to easily allow groupings of various sizes. Rooms should also be configured with multiple displays to allow for students to share content on screens with collaborators, or allow instructors to control content and displays from anywhere in the room wirelessly from a portable devices, such as a tablet or phone. By untethering instructors from the podium, it allows them to actively engage with students anywhere in the room.

Collaboration spaces, power and lecture tech

Collaboration through whiteboards is also important. Many universities are investing in floor-to-ceiling IdeaPaint that allows them to convert entire walls to collaboration space, leveraging whiteboard markers and erasers. For those that have the need to capture ideas digitally, you can use  digital whiteboards that are built into common collaboration tools like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. However, if you need a physical presence for your whiteboard that can easily store content for later distribution, interactive flat panel displays are a great choice.

With all of this collaboration enabling technology, power is also a critical feature of smart classrooms. Adding both power and data pods to floors allow teams of students to connect devices from virtually anywhere in the room while working in small group settings.

Finally, lecture capture technologies are also important. When classes are live streamed or recorded, this allows students to engage by taking part directly if they can’t physically make it to class, or leverage the recording after the fact if they want to review discussions or material that was covered.

As many universities look to grow online and hybrid programs, the classrooms of the future will continue to evolve. Although many institutions already leverage cloud-based learning management systems for content delivery, video conferencing software for collaboration and digital whiteboards, and lecture capture to record information for review at a later time, it often becomes a challenge to help online students feel connected and engaged. It’s equally difficult to support students with instruction needs that typically occur in person, such as in a lab work or via tutoring.

To address the challenge, emerging technologies such as virtual labs, virtual reality, and online support for course and research needs through chat bots can help deliver traditional services online. In addition, leveraging artificial intelligence to increase student engagement and learning, similar to the work being done at the University of New South Wales, can help virtual students feel more connected.

Although the pace of change can often be daunting, there are plenty of technological solutions that can enrich the learning experience, whether in person or virtually.

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