Today’s college classroom is changing. Technology, and its breathtaking ubiquity on campuses, is forcing administrators to either adapt obsolete facilities to the demands of the digital age or to build new classrooms that incorporate the infrastructure to support countless screens, projectors, smartboards, cameras, speakers, and the like. What often results is a space so overburdened with state-of-the-art equipment that the content of the course begins to feel subordinate to the means of its delivery.
Reflecting upon this familiar scene, it becomes easy to understand why this situation happens with the regularity that it does. As architects, we are expected to plan for flexibility, longevity, and durability. When it comes to designing these important learning spaces, our position seems reactionary or, more precisely, precautionary. We seldom know precisely how a space will be used and who will be using it because, often, the college or university doesn’t know. Without the precise parameters for possible programmatic uses, architects justifiably err on the side of over-designing a space to support any eventuality.
This hyper-equipped classroom often fails as a learning space for the students and instructors it is intended to serve. This fact was made clear after a visit to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s technology-laden classroom at the University of Virginia this fall. Professor Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Modern Media Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as an instructor at UVa’s Law School and has written extensively on media, technology, and intellectual property. His book, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry), articulates his unique stance on how technology and media influence the way we think. While sitting in on one of Professor Vaidhyanathan’s classes and observing the way a group of third and fourth year students interact with him and his media-enriched lecture, I noted some difficulties with the way contemporary classrooms are designed and ultimately used.
During an introductory discussion with students about the classroom, many were quick to describe design flaws that made their participation in class more challenging, not easier. Criticisms fell into two basic categories: technology-related issues and spatially-oriented topics. The class noted a kind of paralysis that results from an overstimulation of the senses resulting from so many screens and so many different sources of information. There was consensus that the class would be better served with half the number of screens (we counted more than 30 fixed screens, not including students’ individual laptops). Students also noted a vague but persistent discomfort with the “directionless orientation of the classroom” due to speakers and screens projecting audible and visual information around the entirety of the room. It was unsettling for students to hear their instructor’s voice everywhere and yet not know where he was.
Spatially, the classroom was set up in clusters of round tables, each seating up to eight students, outfitted with smaller fixed screens to support small group interaction. Many students were distracted from the course content by what their neighbors were doing on their personal devices. In lecture-dependent classes like Professor Vaidhyanathan’s, these intimate groupings make the room feel more cozy while also introducing potential diversions. And in a room with more than 30 screens, many students felt as if they weren’t well enough positioned to experience uninterrupted viewing. It was suggested that elevating all screens so that they were above a seated person’s head and removing the table-mounted ones would alleviate this problem.
It should be noted that some of Professor Vaidhyanathan’s colleagues have reported great success with this same room, due in part to their group-based approach to teaching. In those settings, the small groupings of students and distribution of screens aids in supporting multiple, simultaneous learning exercises. But in the case of Vaidhyanathan’s class, the room seemed to serve as a constant reminder that it was designed for other purposes – or rather every purpose. But to Professor Vaidhyanathan’s credit, the content of his course, his larger-than-life presence, and his deep understanding of the issues ameliorated the shortcomings of the space.