The Impact of Classroom Technology on Student/Teacher Communication

Winston Churchill famously said, “we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” This is especially true in schools and universities, where new technology in the classroom is reshaping our definition of what a learning space is and does, and fundamentally changing the nature of the interaction between teacher and student. Members of GFF’s education studio recently met for a strategic conversation on the current and future impact of classroom technology with Craig Janssen and his team at Idibri: technology designers, theater planners and frequent collaborators with GFF.

Today’s learning space technology goes far beyond classroom computers and power point. Digitally native and often more comfortable with technology than their instructors, students increasingly demand immediate access to information and media-rich content. Educators are finding ways to integrate new media into the classroom experience, but no matter how rich the content, passively looking at a screen is not an ideal learning methodology. At a deeper level, new technology creates opportunities to increase student engagement by enhancing active learning.

Instructional Technology and Active Engagement

Direct dialogue between student and teacher, now seen as a critical component of engaged active learning, has not traditionally been a part of the classroom experience. One successful tech-supported solution to this problem is the flipped classroom model, where teachers record the “lecture” portion of the course material to be watched by students individually outside of class, and then use class time for students to collaborate and for teachers to focus on coaching and interacting directly with students, maximizing the learning effectiveness of the time spent together.

Distance learning creates a whole range of new possibilities. In the asynchronous model (think TED Talks and Coursera,) course material is available on-line, to be watched by students at their convenience, making information available to a wide audience. While the TED model makes learning available to nearly anyone at any time, it relies on each individual to take what they will from the presentation, with no opportunity for person-to-person engagement and no sense of community (a demonstrated key to student engagement.) In the synchronous model increasingly favored by universities, students all watch the same presentation at the same time. During the presentation, students can interact with each other and with the instructor using a chat-type platform. While not as effective a face-to-face interaction at facilitating student engagement, this model has proved itself more effective both as a more satisfying on-line learning experience than asynchronous learning and at helping students retain information.

Two Innovations at The Harvard Business School

The Harvard Business School has taken the idea of direct engagement through distance learning to an innovative extreme. The case study model, where students can engage with one another as well as with the instructor, is a core feature of the Harvard Business School pedagogy, and the university sought to create a new venue which would allow this same degree of engagement for remote learners. Originally dubbed HBX and now called Harvard Business School Online, this unique space is as much television studio as classroom. Only the instructor is physically present, supported by a production crew. Students remote in by both audio and video, telepresent to the instructor and each other. As each individual student takes the virtual stage, producers instantly make that feed available to all, facilitating both Q & A with the instructor and direct exchange between students.

Idibri provided audio and video design for Klarman Hall, also at the Harvard Business School. This 1,000-seat auditorium and convening venue combines the elements of a large-scale conference center, performance space, and community forum. While most auditoria prioritize communication from the platform out into an audience, Klarman Hall is designed to connect voices from all over the world. Like HBX, Klarman Hall was conceived to support the Harvard case study method of teaching, but in a live and expanded format. Interlinked sound systems allow for presentation and musical performance, while a voice lift system makes students in the hall audible to the speaker and the rest of the audience. The oversized multimedia screen supports concurrent media presentations, allowing a variety of ideas to be expressed at once.

Start with the Why

New technology opens a wide range of new possibilities for the classroom, but the question of why is just as important as how. The fact that a cool new technology is available does not necessarily make it an appropriate fit for a particular institution’s pedagogy. Educators and administrators need to consider not only the “wow factor” of bringing new tech to campus but also the integration of that tech with current and future pedagogy, faculty training and capability, and most importantly, how that technology enhances the learning experience. Craig Janssen, Managing Director of Idibri, adds, “The technology shift we are seeing in education isn’t about the sophistication or advancement of the systems, but rather how much control the technology gives to students and audiences. For years, there was a single path of communication from the platform into the seating areas, but now it is much more bi-directional. The technology is designed to create engagement rather than to simply deliver content.”


Jonathan Rollins is a Principal at GFF Architects.