Trust academics to design classrooms of future, says president

US university leader explains how top teachers were selected to design a new multimillion-dollar teaching centre

June 14, 2017
Teacher writing on glass wall in classroom

How do you create a university building that will encourage outstanding innovative teaching?

That question has vexed architects, educationalists and higher education leaders throughout the world for years despite billions of pounds being poured into flashy campus facilities. However, one US university believes that it has found a relatively simple answer: ask academics to design their own classrooms.

While undertaking a major upgrade of its Rhode Island campus, Bryant University asked its most innovative teaching staff to take the lead on the creation of a $31.5 million (£24.8 million) Academic Innovation Centre.

Teachers from all disciplines were invited to submit ideas for a syllabus that would be taught in a bold new way, with an eight-strong faculty committee choosing the best applicants to guide architects on plans that could put their ideas into action.

Not all ideas put forward by this teaching brains trust made it to the drawing board, however, with some rejected after being tested on students in specially adapted classrooms, explained Ronald Machtley, Bryant’s president.

“We started with just a couple of classrooms that cost about $15,000 each to convert,” said Mr Machtley, who viewed such investment as worthwhile when planning a multimillion-dollar project.

“In one case, we put touchscreens into the desks, but that really interfered with teaching,” he said. In other trials at the five-year pilot stage, academics experimented with the position of desks and chairs, changing their spacing and position depending on the different courses taught in the classroom, added Mr Machtley.

“Some faculty went through four or five iterations before they found the right set-up,” he said.

While academics and architects visited world-leading teaching spaces at Harvard and Stanford universities to gather ideas on good design, this testing process was invaluable to the success of the facility, which is about to celebrate its first anniversary, said Mr Machtley, a former Republican representative for Rhode Island who has led the private university since 1996.

“If we had gone straight into the building process, it would have been an architectural nightmare,” he claimed.

Thanks to the trial phase, Bryant was able to “replicate great ideas from Stanford, but improve on them”, he added. For instance, lecturers found classes worked better when there was more space in-between seats – something that was made possible by using light and movable furniture, rather than fixed chairs commonly found in lecture auditoriums.

This process even saw academics agree to scrap one of the “historic fixtures” of US academia – the lecture podium, said Mr Machtley.

“We spent a lot of time talking about the podium and decided that when faculty go behind it, they are not as effective when teaching,” he said.

Classrooms in the new “very transparent building” have several glass walls, which, Mr Machtley believed, had led to a “remarkable transformation” in student attitudes to learning.

“You don’t see students wearing hoodies any more – they are looking much tidier and are sitting up in class because they know that they are on display,” he said. “Faculty are also excited because people are walking past and looking into [their] class [and seeing] enthused students there.”

Academics debated the steepness of some of the tiered classrooms, with arts and humanities scholars arguing for more vertiginous slopes than those lecturers in the sciences, he said.

Completed in September 2016, the centre also has five flat classrooms, 23 breakout study rooms and lounge seating, as well as large amounts of glass that can be written on, whiteboard surfaces and multiple docks for devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones, which all aim to improve student collaboration and the generation of ideas.

Academics wanting to teach in the Academic Innovation Centre must submit a case to its faculty committee to justify use of the new facilities, which won the top design award from the US-based College Planning & Management magazine, said Mr Machtley.

“Universities [in the US] often say that we are ‘institutions with 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress’, but teaching in this building shows that you can take pedagogies and make them relevant to students,” he said

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