Teaching technology

It’s a popular topic at the moment — technology in the classroom and how it will revolutionize teaching and schools at all levels. But while there have been significant advances in recent years, we still have a long way to go. As designers and educators continue to push the field in new directions, we’ve put together a quick overview of the current state of the technology, as well as thoughts about its potential.

Time and place

When considering educational technologies, my Arup colleagues and I find it helpful to think about two primary categories. The first, which we call “same place, same time,” encompasses those tools used to supplement the in-classroom teaching experience. The second, “different place, different time,” includes technologies that take the teaching experience in entirely new directions by freeing it from the confines of the classroom walls and schedule.

There’s no fixed definition of these snappy terms, and hybrids of course exist. Each institution, and even each teacher or professor, needs to define them for him or herself: an institution’s overall educational strategy and preferred pedagogical methodologies should always drive the approach to physical assets, including spaces and technologies.

With this in mind, let’s consider a few examples to explain where these two approaches can take us in the coming years.

Same place, same time

The old-fashioned chalk-and-talk is the most obvious example of same place, same time technology. This has been supplemented by projectors and simple audiovisual systems that display static media. More recently, multiscreen displays and simultaneous use of static digital material and video have become widely available. In some cases, the chalkboard has become an electronic whiteboard that permits teachers to capture and store information exchanges and transfer them from one classroom to another.

The rise of mobile computing has opened up a new world of same place, same time teaching. As laptops, tablets, and smartphones have become common in schools, there are more opportunities for students and teachers to interact in the classroom via digital tools — for example, when students connect their devices to classroom display screens, either wirelessly or on a network.

The business world is ahead of the education field in adopting systems that can allow all participants in a group to contribute content and manipulate it in a shared digital workspace

Although common, all this is still a long way off from being a true shared digital workspace. In this respect, the business world is ahead of the education field in adopting systems that can allow all participants in a group to contribute content and manipulate it in a shared digital workspace across multiple screens and electronic pin-up boards, even when using different personal devices and operating systems. So far, issues of scale and cost have prevented the technology from migrating from the boardroom to the common classroom.

Motion control — the ability for students and teachers to manipulate digital objects through gestures or verbal commands picked up by sensors in the room — also presents exciting possibilities for improving classroom instruction. Movies such as Minority Report have created an expectation that widespread motion control is just around the corner, and in simplified versions and limited applications this is indeed the case. Technologies like Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-control device for the Xbox, and Leap Motion, the movement-sensing hardware device due to hit the market shortly, are bringing it to the mainstream.

Designers and educators face an interesting challenge of applying this new capability in classroom teaching. The combination of multi-user, multi-platform, multi-device digital workspaces, large-format screens, and motion control promises an exciting classroom environment in the future.

Different time, different place

It all starts to get even more exciting when we add in the different time, different place technologies. Essentially, here we’re talking about videoconferencing and other sophisticated multimedia recording, storage, and transmitting capabilities that allow learners and educators to access materials and information when and where they need them.

Improvements in both videoconferencing capabilities and shared digital workspace technologies are getting us a step closer to the interactive, real-time experiences necessary for virtual co-location

Common videoconferencing systems split video and presentation feeds onto separate screens, allowing only one person at a time to control the presentation material. This typically allows only a monologue or a very impeded dialog, and is a long way from multiple users sharing information seamlessly and simultaneously, as they would if working collaboratively in one location. But improvements in both videoconferencing capabilities and shared digital workspace technologies are getting us a step closer to the interactive, real-time experiences necessary for virtual co-location.

To bring the teaching experience to a different time, we must add sound and video recording capabilities. This brings the addition of cameras, lighting systems, and recording systems to the classroom itself, accompanied by some intensive support facilities to handle the data generated and the production work needed.

With high-quality recording systems and high-speed data networks, today’s different place, different time experiences can be very high quality, and are getting better every day. Of course, like the telephone, these technologies require at least two participants. Partnering with other institutions, setting up remote hi-tech learning centers, and otherwise getting “teched-up” is therefore necessary.

Changing spaces

As with most new technologies, these new systems are mostly retrofitted into existing classrooms. But to make maximum use of the technologies, the design of the learning spaces needs to be rethought. A few examples can illustrate some of the reshaping that is now happening or could potentially occur.

Business schools are perhaps at the leading edge of adopting the technology and modifying teaching methods to reap the benefits it allows. Differently shaped classrooms and seating arrangements allow for maximum interaction of the students with each other and with faculty in different teaching scenarios. The spaces are developing into multimedia studios that allow seamless simultaneous use of multiple systems to enhance same place, same time learning, as well as using recording, storage, and transmission technologies to allow high-quality different place, different time learning.

Architecture teaching studios can make use of the same technologies in more intimate arrangements, adding things like electronic pin-up boards, augmented reality capability, and 3D printing to provide the tools and the medium of expression needed for the subject.

Medical schools can integrate the technology into teaching and simulation rooms, allowing remote instruction, consulting, and operation to be brought to procedure training. Similar approaches can be taken for many other professional schools (nursing, law, public health, engineering, etc.).

Then there are the so-called “immersive environments.” Imagine a room where all six sides are large, seamless screens on which any image can be displayed. Add in ambisonics — recording and replay techniques using multichannel mixing technology that can give a 3-dimensional or full-sphere sound field — and you can create the experience of being surrounded by a virtual environment.

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There aren’t very many of these around, and they, too, are still a work in progress, but they provide some great new opportunities. The Arup SoundLab exploits many aspects of this technology in its ability to create different acoustic environments and experiences.

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Of course, this all brings up interesting questions about the design of the buildings, spaces, and their infrastructure. How to accommodate the changing technologies; how to make the space suitable for a mixture of traditional and new tools; how to deal with scale (group and room sizes); how to manage accessibility? Room volume, acoustics, daylight, cabling infrastructure, ventilation, air conditioning, support spaces, access, and flexibility all need to be rethought to ensure a long and useful lifespan.

The technology is developing. The pedagogies are developing. The physical spaces are being created. The costs are coming down. And the demand is rising. In the next few years we are likely to see a greater demand for the technologies and the spaces that can maximize the benefits to be gained from them.

All this is not to say there isn’t still a lot of value to be wrung out of simple, time-honored teaching technologies, too. There is — but the capability to really enhance the experience is now here and ready to be utilized.

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