This has long been the image of a classroom layout. However, with new research into the ways students learn and how their environment interacts with that process, the classroom setting has become the centerpiece of new college education movements.
Many classrooms have been modified from the traditional style, and for good reason. Research shows that the facing-forward lecture classroom has fallen out of fashion because it fails to help students fully engage with classroom material. New designs are tackling the issue of student learning by taking control of the spaces where students and teachers interact.
Auburn is part of the trend. Anna Ruth Gatlin, an interior designer who joined the College of Human Sciences this fall, helped design room 023, a study space in Lowder Hall that uses up-to-date research and understanding of student learning to create a multifunctional and adaptable environment.
“The goal for this project was to provide a flexible space for Harbert College of Business students to informally gather and collaborate, study in groups or teams, work on projects, and host other business schools for workshops and events,” Gatlin says. The new space illustrates the research being widely incorporated into classrooms. Students can choose to work together or individually, and there is constant access to outside resources, whether through the people visiting the space or through internet access.
Gatlin’s design shows the flexibility that universities across the country are trying to achieve in their classrooms. “There’s really no ‘ideal classroom layout,’” Gatlin says. “Everyone teaches a little differently, just like everyone learns a little differently. The key to a successful classroom design is, in my opinion, flexibility. So that a classroom can work for the user group that’s occupying it.”
Other examples of new classroom layouts that incorporate this flexibility include the larger classroom spaces, where students sit in tiers rather than flat rows to have a better view of their professors and the information presented. In small classrooms, desks can shift into circles and horseshoe shapes, allowing students to face one another to encourage discussion and debate, or to gather together in clusters to discuss problems in small groups.
These changes in design may seem small, but they show that students are no longer seen as passive learners in higher education. Flexibility in the classroom ensures that students are able to engage with classroom material successfully in their own ways, and professors are granted creative license to manipulate their teaching environment to best suit the class material. These new teaching methods utilize the technological resources available to students and professors.
The all but universal use of laptops, tablets, and cellphones has made it impossible for educators to dismiss technological tools in the classroom. The typical computer lab and lecture hall now includes electrical sockets
every two seats to accommodate students’ laptops, and classes have materials online that students can access at any time and from anywhere. These are all logical modifications to classrooms and teaching that make sense in our tech-driven era.
Achilles Armenakis, emeritus professor, sees technology as a tool that gives students the power to expand the classroom themselves. “Technology allows for an individual experiential-type learning,” he says. “Professors need to realize this, encourage it, and incorporate it into the learning experience.”
Technology-heavy classrooms are in demand for a variety of reasons. Quick access to information is vital to expanding course material and student understanding, and in more specific tech classrooms these spaces also prepare students for future work environments. A new analytics lab developed by faculty members Ashish Gupta and David Paradice will open later this academic year in Lowder Hall and enable business students to access and learn programs that would require higher computing power than that of a typical student laptop. “It gives the students an analytics environment that will simulate a work environment,” Gupta says. “We will teach them Big Data technologies, exactly the things that are state-of-art and highly in demand. They will learn Big Data infrastructure and how to develop data science applications using Hadoop, Spark, and deep learning.”
As universities move forward with their pursuit of efficient teaching environments, how much reliance should they place on technology? Professors, while among the first to praise the use of technology and fast information access, find that there are some caveats.
Pei Xu, assistant professor of business analytics, notes that there is a trade-off with the use of technology in her classroom. Applications have made it easy for students to show their attendance and actively answer questions in real time, but there are other concerns with so much technology in the classroom.
“Allowing students to access information instantly and visit remote resources does benefit the learning process,” Xu says. “But at the same time, students may also be overwhelmed and distracted by the vast networks of information out there. Students could gradually lose the power to concentrate and think deeply during precious class time.” The barrage of notifications from phones, emails, texts, and applications can raise the level of distraction.
Classrooms today illustrate a delicate balancing act between information and the vehicles we use to convey knowledge. In a world filled with data, there must be the discipline to know when to stop, a discipline professors must help instill. Streaming videos or using applications in the classroom has the potential to help students, but if there is no significance or relevance to class material drawn from these activities, the class becomes more about the spectacle of technology than the learning process.
Finding a proper balance emphasizes the importance of the professor’s role. In all the discussion of million-dollar classrooms and technology, James R. Barth, Lowder Eminent Scholar in Finance, says the people in the classrooms can’t become secondary.
“The emphasis should be on human capital far more than physical capital. Always,” Barth says. “Physical capital, including the seats, technology in the classroom, access to the internet, all of that is important, but far more important is the teacher and the student’s interaction. It’s human capital that matters most. You get a good education not being in a billion-dollar building, but having a great teacher and interacting with someone who knows the material well.” Knowing the material, according to Barth, means continuing to supplement class material with new external research.