My course this past semester began like so many others: 14 students and I arrived every Tuesday and Thursday morning in an uninspiring space of concrete-block walls and fluorescent lighting, with few windows and fixed desks all facing forward, ill suited to the discussion-based, flipped format of the class. So, a couple of weeks into the semester, we decided to go nomadic.
We had pedagogical reasons for doing so. The course focused on how the built environment both reflects and affects our ideas here, looking at how philosophical concepts, cultural constructs, and social, economic, and environmental constraints help shape the spaces that human beings inhabit. Given that, it seemed appropriate to experience a variety of spaces and to reflect upon the relationship of each one to the content of the course.
We learned a lot. I offered to find the spaces in which we would meet, but my students jumped at the chance, with each volunteering to take a week, scoping out the possibilities and notifying the rest of us of the location via email as they crowdsourced our classroom. I realized in the process how much students want to take responsibility for where and how they learn, something that educational institutions have largely taken from them.
We noted as the course progressed how much the spaces in which we met helped shape the conversation, as we expected, given the focus of the course and the fact that all of the students were either undergraduate or graduate architecture students.
Unexpectedly, the continual change in learning environments also helped the students learn the material. Certain ideas became associated with particular locations, and recalling a space seemed to help the students remember a concept. We talked in class about how students in pre-Gutenberg Europe learned to mentally construct “memory palaces” as a mnemonic device to help them remember information attached to objects and spaces in their imagined structures.
For our nomadic class, the campus itself became our memory palace.
We mostly stayed on the campus to ensure that students could get to their next classes, but once liberated from linking our class to a single location, my students began to imagine all sorts of creative learning environments. One student, for example, suggested that we hold our class on the light-rail train that runs through the campus and connects it to both downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. While I vetoed the idea for practical reasons, it did spur a useful discussion about everything from how physical movement often prompts intellectual exploration to how the rails have been thought of in the past as a way of bringing education to people — Cedric Price’s 1966 “Potteries Thinkbelt” proposal in Britain, for example.
The class, in other words, challenged the very idea of the “classroom.” Colleges and universities often struggle to find enough classroom space for all of the courses departments want to offer and faculty members want to teach. And new teaching methods and learning technologies have made many existing classrooms, especially those with sloped floors or fixed, forward-facing desks, increasingly obsolete. Our nomadic class discovered that campuses, rather than lacking classrooms, have all kinds of educational spaces not used or thought of as such.
Granted, we had a small class and an early one, starting at 8:15 a.m., and we recognized that a large class meeting in the middle of the day would have a much harder time moving around the campus. But the locations my students selected also said a lot about what kinds of environments they wanted to learn in. Most of them chose lounge-like spaces, with comfortable seating, ample daylight, and — when the weather turned cold — locations that had working fireplaces! Colleges and universities do not have too few classrooms; they have too few spaces that they call classrooms and all kinds of “classrooms” that go by other names.
My students encountered only one department — psychology, of all fields! — that did not want us to meet in one of their lounges. But we were welcomed or at least tolerated everywhere else we went. We also found ourselves, on occasion, meeting in the midst of other students who were sitting and studying nearby. While we did everything possible not to disturb them, we also found some students listening in on our discussions as impromptu auditors, which struck me as one of the great values of being on a campus, as opposed to taking classes online: the serendipitous encounters that become unexpected learning opportunities.
While I could tell that my students enjoyed our nomadic existence, I wondered what they would say in their evaluations of the class. As it turned out, all of them enjoyed that aspect of the course (and, fortunately, other aspects of it as well), and a few wrote that it had made learning fun and the subject matter more engaging, which we all want education to be. The rise of MOOCs has challenged in-person, face-to-face education to reimagine itself, and while my pedagogical experiment may not work for everyone, I do think it offers experiences not replicable in the online world.
Education in some places began as an itinerant experience, as students sat with a sage under a tree or with a scholar in a coffee house, and its future may end up looking a lot like that past — if we remain open to how students seem to want to learn.
Thomas Fisher is a professor in the School of Architecture and dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.