Step into the newest classroom at Madrid’s IE University and you find that there is no tiered seating, no whiteboard and no PowerPoint projector.
Instead, you are confronted with a curved wall of screens spanning 45 sq m. The wall displays the images of up to 80 participating students, who are joining the class from all corners of the globe.
In the centre stands the lecturer, either physically present or projected in hologram form and moved around the room by a robot. During the lecture students can contribute too, putting their “hands up” digitally to be invited to join the debate.
The lecturer can also draw on some of the latest teaching technologies during the session: they can pair students up for discussions, conduct live polling and view rolling data on students’ participation.
They can even monitor students’ attentiveness and emotional engagement using the cameras on learners’ tablets or mobile phones.
Is this teaching space, christened the Wow (Window on the World) Room, the classroom of the future? Or is it yet another case of technology being long on hype and short on substance?
During a launch event in Madrid, Santiago Iñiguez, president of IE University, told Times Higher Education that the Wow Room was “not a fad”, but showed the way forward for the development of 21st-century teaching spaces.
“We are going to make the learning process more effective, more enjoyable, and more flexible and adaptive to the needs of participants,” Professor Iñiguez said. “As a consequence of all this it will enhance the learning process and the results of learning; it will mark a significant jump in the history of education.”
Professor Iñiguez acknowledged that, for his prediction to come true, IE cannot rely on gadgetry alone: how the technology allows for the transformation of pedagogy will be key.
What makes the Wow Room innovative – and what IE believes sets it apart from HBX Live, Harvard University’s virtual classroom, perhaps the closest comparison – is the range of tools that it makes available in one space.
The Wow Room will allow students from around the world to work on documents and to analyse big data collaboratively, while they will also be able to take part in simulations in real time, with the idea that scenarios such as business situations and diplomatic conflicts could be played out with the live participation of experts in the field or processes including factory production lines.
Jolanta Golanowska, IE’s director of learning innovation, said that the Wow Room was a “platform built for collaboration” that should “yield a much higher engagement from the students”.
For academics, teaching to a wall of screens could be as engaging as addressing a traditional lecture theatre, Ms Golanowska argued.
“They get to see the faces of all the students and can feed off the energy of the students. They can move around and feel as if they were in a physical classroom,” she said. “You don’t have to be a performer, and I don’t think it requires magical skills to teach here; if you are a good lecturer in a physical classroom, that will translate pretty much seamlessly to this classroom.”
The other test of tools such as the Wow Room is likely to be whether they truly widen access to high-quality university education around the world, or whether they simply serve a small global elite. Initially the technology will be used on IE’s MBAs, fees for which range from €44,700 to €75,000 (£40,000 to £67,000), but IE hopes that it could be adopted more widely, and by other institutions, in future.
One significant advantage of the Wow Room’s technology is that it can operate on low-bandwidth connections, potentially offering opportunities for access from the developing world.
Mike Sharples, chair in educational technology at the UK’s Open University, said that the test of the Wow Room would be whether it led to the development of new teaching techniques that could not be delivered via other means.
“If all it amounts to is carrying on the 200-year-old format of lecturing by other means using technology, it’s not very exciting,” Professor Sharples said.
“If it can be used to explore genuinely interesting ways of teaching, like connecting to people in the field and allowing them to share experiences from where they are situated in different parts of the world, that could be very exciting.”