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My Ideal Classroom, Part 1: Information Technology

Jen Marc Cote's vision of classroom in the year 2000 (image created in 1899). Students seated at desks while wearing headphones.Having taught on four different campuses over the years and in a few dozen different classrooms, I’ve developed some strong opinions about what my preferred classrooms are like. I imagine that not everyone would agree with these opinions, but I know what works well for me and the students in my classes. (If you’re interested in the design of classrooms and computer labs, then you might also be interested in Jason’s “Re-imagining the Student Computer Lab” and Jeffrey’s “Redesigning the Classroom: Let’s Start with the Wall.”) In this post, I describe what I’ve come to want in terms of information technology in the classroom. Future posts will describe other features of my ideal classroom.

Whiteboards!

First of all, I’m addicted to using multi-colored dry-erase markers for writing on the board. And second, whiteboards are great for using with the classroom projector. Why even have a pull-down screen? Why not just project onto a big whiteboard? Or better yet, paint the entire wall with whiteboard paint and project onto that. (Granted, glare can sometimes be a problem.) This allows one to mark up with dry-erase marker–in an easy and low-tech way–whatever is being projected, something I have been known to do from time to time. (I stole this from my friend and colleague Dave Marlow, who started making copyediting marks on a projected document we were discussing in a committee meeting one day a few years ago).

The classroom computer

Given a choice between having a classroom equipped with only a computer and having a classroom equipped with only a whiteboard, I’ll choose the whiteboard. That said, it’s quite useful to have a computer in the classroom connected to a ceiling-mounted projector. It really doesn’t matter to me what operating system is on the classroom computer; I’m usually going to use it to access and display information on the Internet for a variety of purposes: most often we’ll be analyzing an online document, watching a video clip on YouTube, or demonstrating a database.

In a perfect world, using the computer would be as seamless and obstacle-free as possible. Please don’t require me to go through a long and complicated process for starting up the computer, opening a browser, and displaying the content I might want to display that day. I don’t need the browser asking me every. single. time. I launch it and log into a password-protected site if I want it to remember the username and password. No, I don’t. I’m never going to. If I tell the web browser “No,” the first time it asks me, then it should remember that answer from then on. This might seem like a small thing, but I frequently walk from one building to another to go from one class to another. The semester schedule gives me 10 minutes to do so, and when you factor in the handful of students who might need to ask me a question or two right after class ends, then it’s clear that I don’t have a great deal of time to waste in getting the next class session underway. Every minute is wasted that I have to spend on a time-consuming and non-intuitive process for getting the computer going and the appropriate Web page loaded. (I’m also getting out my books, my dry-erase markers, and notes for that day’s class.)

Document camera

In my writing classes, we often combine in-class (pen-and-paper) writing activities with “on the fly” editing and analysis of the results of those activities. It’s extremely helpful to have a document camera to project one student’s writing onto the whiteboard where we can respond to it (and perhaps copyedit it with those dry-erase markers I mentioned above).

Remote control of the classroom computer

A podium up front that only one person can control at a time results in a “re-centered” classroom. In many classroom situations, this might not be a problem. For those of us interested in a participatory pedagogy, however, it’s much better to be able to sit at a desk in a circle with the students and control what’s being projected (or allow a student to control what’s being projected) with a wireless keyboard and mouse or similar tool. Sometimes I want to lecture (usually at the beginning of a particular unit), but sometimes I want to have a discussion in which all students are encouraged to participate. The physical arrangement of people and desks has a significant effect upon the success or failure of such discussions, and I’d rather not have to abandon the computer altogether in order to move from one mode of pedagogy to another. And if we’re in a computer lab classroom (see below), it’s quite helpful to have the ability to let any student control what’s on the projector from their own computer; this is an easy way to have students display the results of their work.

Arrangement of student computers

In a classroom filled with computers—one for each student—it’s most helpful to have them all facing the wall so that the instructor can move freely and easily from computer to computer, providing feedback and assistance to the students as necessary. This also makes it easy for all of the students to turn around and face each other and the instructor for a discussion or a demonstration of how to achieve a particular task.

My perfect computer lab classroom would have a conference table in the middle of the room so that students can easily turn around from the work they’re doing on the computers to sit at the table. The conference table would also help with the problem of students having no place to put their notebook and books if the desk is currently covered with the cpu, a mouse, and a monitor.

How about you?

What are your ideal classroom features (and why)? Let’s hear from you in the comments!

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by Cristóbal Cobo Romaní]

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