The Physical College

In a New York Times opinion piece that appeared last month, Jeff Selingo of The Chronicle of Higher Education lays out ‘urgent needs’ for American colleges and universities. There are many; we are not in a position where coasting along on old assumptions will suffice. But Selingo completely ignores one area where change must come, the physical layouts of our learning spaces. These, too, must be changed if higher education’s changes are to be successful.

Selingo’s ‘needs’ are but one list among many, of course. None of us is going to agree with them all, or with his rankings. They are:

  1. Improve usage of technology in the classroom;
  2. Offer more online instruction;
  3. Make ‘academics’ the top priority;
  4. Cut back on the quest for ‘research’ status;
  5. Make sure all courses a student takes count for the degree.

The last three I agree with, but would change their focus and wording. The first two? Well, they are laden with assumptions that I am not sure I can accept. They are built upon current visions of the structures of education, structures that center on the traditional classroom and sage-on-the-stage extension into the digital world (what is a Massively Open Online Course, or MOOC, without the concept of the lecture?). Second, they assume that technology in the classroom and online instruction are two different things, assuming the classroom walls as barriers that need not be broken down.

In the late 1960s, in an article called “Good-Bye, Teacher,” experimental psychologist Fred Keller describes a much more flexible system of space for higher education, one not bound by traditional concepts of the classroom:

[On Tuesday] John receives… instructions and some words of advice from his professor…. He is… advised that, in addition to the regular classroom hours on Tuesday and Thursday, readiness tests may be taken on Saturday forenoons and Wednesday afternoons of each week – periods in which he can catch up with, or move ahead of, the rest of the class.

He then receives his first assignment [with] “study questions”, about 30 in number. He is told to seek out the answers to these questions in his reading, so as to prepare himself for the questions he will be asked in his readiness tests. He is free to study wherever he pleases, but he is strongly encouraged to use the study hail for at least part of the time. Conditions for work are optimal there, with other students doing the same thing and with an assistant or proctor on hand to clarify a confusing passage or a difficult concept….

On Thursday, John… decided to finish his study in the classroom, where he cannot but feel that the instructor really expects him. An assistant is in charge, about half the class is there, and some late registrants are reading the course description….

On the following Tuesday, he appears in study hall again, ready for testing… He reports to the assistant, who sends him… to the testing room…. .The test is composed of 10 fill-in questions and one short-answer essay question….

[John’s student proctor] runs through John’s answers quickly, checking two of them as incorrect and placing a question mark after his answer to the essay question. Then she asks him why he answered these three as he did. His replies show two misinterpretations of the question and one failure in written expression. A restatement of the fill-in questions and some probing with respect to the essay leads Anne to write an O.K. alongside each challenged answer….

As he leaves the room, John notices the announcement of a 20-minute lecture by his instructor, for all students who have passed Unit 3 by the following Friday, and he resolves that he will be there.

Rather than a structure bound by walls and hours, Keller’s flexible suite of need-determined rooms can make for a learning environment that can make use of our new technologies indeed–and without removing what is so important in fact-to-face instruction (face-to-face not just with instructors, but with fellow students).

If we are going to improve education, we can’t just imagine technology as the way, the answer. We also need to re-examine our very ideas of “classroom,” of “meeting,” and of process (and more). What I would like to see is a jettisoning  of the formula of place-bound and time-based empires presided over by solo teachers. A suite including a small lecture hall (for lectures, films, performances, etc.), a seminar room, a technology center, a laboratory, a lounge (set up for comfortable reading and talking), and study space that can be used by individuals, pairs, or small groups could replace it (much as suites have replaced rows of rooms in college dormitories). Oh, and offices for the faculty and for student proctors, offices physically open to all. Within each suite, flexible schedules could be created by the group (say, five members, each from different but related departments) allowing for oversight and involvement.

A suite of this nature could become a locus for learning, a real learning community, with faculty put together because students taking the course from one would likely be taking one from another. It would extend outward through digital devices connecting students with each other, with proctors, with instructors, and with events taking place in the suite.

We can’t improve the use of technology in the classroom until we improve our idea of the classroom. Nor can we create really effective online instruction until we can connect it to the classroom. Until we re-envision the classroom itself, the meeting of Selingo’s first two points will ultimately prove to be nothing more than additional smoke and mirrors. Without changes to the structures of the physical college, the virtual college will never have the anchor it needs for real stability and success.

As the ones most directly involved with classroom space, we on the faculty need to start pushing for increased influence in designing renovations and new construction. We don’t do enough of this, generally doing little more than lobbying to increase the spaces dedicated to our particular disciplines or making the case for new devices in our classrooms and labs. Rarely do we argue that the opportunity is being missed if a new type of structure is not considered, arguing that we are at a junction where we really can make a ‘new’ university that integrates digital possibilities and extant resources that can revolutionize education. Like Selingo, we may argue for change but, also like him, we forget to examine our assumptions, making that change far less than it could be.

Our physical plant, in this sense, may be assumption #1.

My own list of needs, then, would be somewhat different from Selingo’s

  1. Improve or replace the classroom concept for better usage of technology and on- and off-site learning;
  2. Offer more options for instruction within flexible environments;
  3. Integrate ‘academics’ into the greater society by lowering college walls;
  4. Facilitate the faculty desire for ‘research’ status by creating environments that combine research and teaching;
  5. Make sure that students understand the relationships between all courses they take, their personal plans and interests, and the degrees they pursue.

I was glad to see Selingo’s piece, though I disagree with particulars and worry about assumptions. We need this discussion and need to start pushing for change that goes right down to the very basics of our structures and systems.

2 thoughts on “The Physical College

  1. You agree with “Make sure all courses a student takes count for the degree”? So students will not be allowed to explore any subject that does not lead to their degree? Is the purpose of colleges to educate or to issue degrees?

    • That’s a complicated question, and is why I reword Selingo’s point, making it “Make sure that students understand the relationships between all courses they take, their personal plans and interests, and the degrees they pursue.” The background to this is the fact that too many students are finding they have to take more courses than they thought they would have to in order to gain a degree. Personally, I would like to see fewer requirements and more room for exploration, but most important is making sure students know the trade-offs they face.

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