Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A wall of screens is not the classroom of the future

CSU College of Business collaborative classroom.
Photo by CSU Photography
Colorado State University’s College of Business has installed 27 high-video screens to create "the classroom of the future". The screens are on the back wall of a classroom, which accommodates 37 students in the room and 88 remote on the screens. Some universities have gone further with a curved screens 360 degrees around the walls. However, I suggest these are a gimmick, a like flying cars, and are a future of the past.

HD screens and cameras are now not reasonably inexpensive, so it is tempting to fill classrooms with them. However, we should use the technology to overcome the limitations of physical classrooms, not perpetuate them.

If each student is displayed on screen life size, then this is only going to work for a small class, of less than one hundred students. For hundreds of students you would need a huge wall, and the instructor would not be able to clearly see any of them. Also the students in the room can't easily see the remote ones, even in a small room for a hundred students (in Colorado State's example, the screens are behind the students).  This would accurately emulate a large lecture theater, where the instructor can't see most of the students clearly, and students can't see each other, but is that a good thing?

Plan of Jeremy Bentham's
panopticon prison
drawn by Willey Reveley 1791.
From Wikipedia
In the modern classroom we don't want students passively sitting listening to the lecturer. We want students talking to each other. Building an electronic version of Bentham's panopticon, with the all-seeing teacher in the middle, and each student isolated, is not the way to do this.

The obvious solution is not to try to mimic the bad features of a physical classroom. Rather than dozens of screens, just have one on each wall, with the image of whoever is speaking enlarged, and everyone else reduced to thumbnails. This is what readily available, cheap or free, videoconferencing software already does. It is what most of the students in  “Room of the Future” see anyway, as they do not have a wall of screens at home.

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