Redesigning the Classroom: Let’s Start with the Wall

Following Jason’s request for help in redesigning a campus computer lab, this post looks at one piece of cutting-edge technology to begin to suggest some ideas about our campus classrooms and what we might want from them going forward.

The Big, Cool Wall

This conversation about the classroom begins with what I found to be among the most thought-provoking sessions at the recent EduCon 2.2 conference, those led by Jeff Han and Toby Sanders of Perceptive Pixel.  Han is the inventor of the large, pressure-sensitive multi-touch wall that is well known if you’ve watched any of the major news channels, especially during the 2008 presidential campaign.  [Though you might have seen that use of it made fun of by a certain weekly comedy show.] In any case, it is an impressive hardware and software combination, especially when used in person (and even more so with several people at once).   Although it’s currently (way) out of the price range of educational institutions, it is already being used in a number of industries, including “medical imaging, broadcast, defense, energy exploration, geo-intelligence, and industrial design.

Han and Sanders’s goal in being at EduCon, a conference of largely K-12 educators, was to get feedback from teachers, administrators, consultants, and edtech specialists about the potential educational uses of their large interactive wall, and especially of the potential offered to students and teachers in the classroom.  [It's worth pointing out that Han and Sanders repeatedly noted that unless it was clear that their product meant something more to education than just a chalkboard on steroids, the company wouldn't move that way.]  After having a chance to see the technology in action and then to play with it ourselves, 20-30 of us sat down and talked about the future of the classroom and education. Several features of Perceptive Pixel’s multi-touch display kept being emphasized during the discussion:

  • Potential collaboration facilitated by the fact that multiple people can use it simultaneously
  • Ability to record all work done on the wall for easy playback
  • Potential to displace the keyboard/mouse combination as the primary form of input
  • Ability to create multimedia presentations/discussions/discursive explorations on the fly.
  • Appeal of a large digital display space: [Imagine depicting an original document side by side with the texts or art works or other creations it inspired (or that inspired it).  Think what one might do with the Declaration of Independence or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.]
  • Visualization and manipulation of 3-D images — general sense that this was much more than the chalkboard on steroids
  • Potential for 3-D rendering led to discussions of medical imaging and virtual science labs as obvious potential educational uses
  • Future possibility for individual/small group touch devices that could be linked to main screen(s) to show work-in-progress from within various points in the classroom.

So What?
Certainly I think most of us could come up with uses for a multi-touch wall in our own classroom, if we were given one.  But more interesting to me (and I suspect to the readers of ProfHacker) are the questions that a potentially transformative visual and kinesthetic interface raises about what we think the classroom should include going forward.  The traditional lecture classroom with chairs lined in rows facing the front podium and chalkboard has remained remarkably resilient over the last century or so as the dominant form of classroom setup.  The most common addition of technology to the college classroom has been to add a computer/DVD/projector to that traditional room, but even so, the setup remains remarkably one-way. 

What follows is an admittedly impressionistic list of what I found innovative, interesting, or inspiring about potential additions to the traditional face-to-face classroom experience seen in the interface created by Jeff Han and his company. Then I make some preliminary suggestions about the areas that we need to explore as we think about redesigning the classroom.

  • For me the greatest appeal of the large, multi-touch wall for the classroom lies in its potential for displaying thinking, learning, and collaboration in the classroom. For example, a digital wall as big as a decent-sized chalkboard makes it possible:
    • To reproduce and represent the work of numerous students (or of multiple student groups) side by side
    • To show all of the notes, conversations, and connections that led to a student or a teacher’s final result.
    • At my most idealistic, this kind of display offers a variety of ways to make visible to the class the life of the mind, to produce, as I’ve discussed in other venues, a snapshot of our intellectual life.
  • The possibility to trump (in some way) the mouse/keyboard interface that we have fallen into offers fascinating possibilities for the way we interact with information.  For example, is there something more intimate about a touch screen interface than the once-removed actions of the keyboard and mouse? If so, what are the implications for teaching and learning in the classroom?  [And no, I don't want to get into an iPad discussion here, though we can in the comments, if you insist.]
  • Several of the software tools already created by Perceptive Pixel lend themselves to innovative and useful (though not wholly original) ways of looking at and presenting information in the classroom: easily navigable hierarchical structures like the classifications of species (including automatic searching and loading of images of those species from the web); historical election data down to the county level (for presidential elections back a couple decades in the version I saw, but I suspect it could be expanded easily with existing data); the ability to snag video clips and and images on the fly to make a new presentation.
  • As an historian, I am enamored (perhaps to an unseemly degree) by the idea of reinvigorating the timeline and the map as complex, active tools that reflect vast amounts of data, including changes of time and scale, rather than a fixed, static set of points.  And as an historian of the US, I would love to be able to teach with an interactive map of the United States that allowed me to access and visually depict, on the fly in a classroom, the myriad of historical data sets (census, migration, crime statistics, voting records, etc.) that already exist, many in digital form.
  • Finally, the increasing ease and skill with which visual information is manipulated, however, also suggests that visual literacy is increasingly becoming a core skill.   Most colleges place at the center of their core values the critical analysis of arguments and evidence.  Increasingly, we will want critical thinkers who are able to analyze visually as well as textually.

Based on these (admittedly scattered) observations and my own experiments in teaching over the last decade, I’d like to see classroom redesign in the years to come  as growing out of an increased focus on:

  1. Flexibility in physical layout
  2. Truly functional collaborative spaces (physical and technological)
  3. Potential advantages of bringing in kinesthetic learning (an area just beginning to be explored in higher ed)
  4. Expanded visual presentation spaces in classroom
  5. Working with developers to create tools that provide new ways of presenting and interacting with data in the classroom environment.

In my next post on Redesigning the Classroom, I’ll talk about how I would, given the opportunity, hack  a version of a classroom redesign that would incorporate many of these principles (and, sadly, do so without access to a multi-touch wall).

In the meantime, I want to hear from all of you. What would you like to see in your ideal classroom of the future (or that you think you should have today)?  What would be the physical and intellectual space that you’d want to have?  What technology would you need?  Would you want?  Or, have I gotten it all wrong? [Is technology not part of your vision of the classroom of the future?  Do you think that the default classroom works just fine?]

*This post comes with the perhaps unnecessary caveat that different people and disciplines will approach their classroom spaces differently and the awareness that there will almost certainly continue to be a demand for traditional lecture-focused classrooms.  This post also comes with the necessary caveat that the goal here is not to sell anyone on the company or their technology, but rather to take advantage of the new perspectives and ideas that brainstorming about new methods of presenting and interacting with information brings to our discussion of the classroom. *

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