aNewDomain.net — Anthropologist and tech-focused professor Michael Wesch says the architecture of our classrooms shapes the expectations of students and professors. After what happened to me in my own classroom this week, I’m behind him. Here’s what tech has to do with it.
To back up, Wesch’s belief is that if fixed seats in a forward position, you discourage discussion. You also imply that all the knowledge is at the front of the room. The more subtle implication is that, because the knowledge is up front, the students should or could ignore the info at hand in their minds or what’s readily available to them online.
The result of this setup is professors who merely lecture and students who ask such rote and unscholarly questions as “how long does the paper have to be” and “what will be on the exam?”
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I am a professor. Lately, my classroom’s projector broke down and I saw vivid proof of Wesch’s thesis regarding the organization of a room and learning. In my class, students sit at computers and I have a podium computer.
I use that overhead display during every minute of every class – for presentations and live demonstrations of all sorts of things. A snapshot of my real-life classroom is below.
When I discovered yesterday that the overhead display was out of commission, I had to improvise.
I sat down at one of the student computers in the middle of a row and resituated the students all around me. They had to either sit in chairs or stand.
Fortunately, because I keep all my teaching material online, I was able to use the exact same PowerPoint decks and do the exact same demonstrations that I would have used from the podium had the projector had been working. The material was 100 percent the same. Just the seating was disorderly, a minor price to pay.
In my entire career of teaching — and that spans decades — this was one of the best class sessions I can remember.
I should note that, later that evening, I taught a second section of the same class in the same room The projector worked fine for about half an hour this time. Then it broke again. We crammed in behind the student computer at center, just as before, and continued.
The class lit up.
Students listened, spoke, asked relevant, probing questions, answered mine, and made relevant comments. The mood was a lot more relaxed, too. They wisecracked and teased — but they were learning. The evening class turned out to be even better than the morning class.
Of course, the fact that my classes are small enabled the reorganization the broken projector caused. Even so, a few students has to sit too far from my screen to see it well enough, but they just turned on a couple of computers in the same row and navigated along with me.
In retrospect, we could’ve just used a screen-sharing technology and a Google+ hangout.
Michael Wesch, the theorist who speaks so strongly on the relationship of classroom architecture to learning, was right.
I’m no anthropologist, but these class sessions felt even better than the smallest seminar you’d hold for students around a conference table.
I saw it before my eyes. The ad-hoc seating arrangement turned the classes into focused bull sessions. And it did that by breaking down social barriers between the students and me and, more importantly, among themselves.
The success of this small, ad hoc arrangement is ironic, because it comes at a time when I have been doing so much writing about massive open online classes, or MOOCS. I’ve proposed teaching one.
It’s intriguing. Everyone knows MOOCs have the potential to be extremely cost efficient. My small class gathered around a PC was expensive physically and economically. The tech costs money and the students get fatigued standing up for so long.
Maybe there’s a middle ground. The trick, as I see it, is to just capture a fraction of the enthusiasm and interaction of the live class I had yesterday and share it with a mass audience taking a MOOC at the same time. Maybe.
Based in Southern California, Larry Press is a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a senior editor covering tech issues at aNewDomain.net and its upcoming Linux-focused sister site, aGNUdomain.net. Check Larry on Google+ profile to contact him and see what else he is up to here.