How the next generation of college classrooms gives students an edge

Welcome to the lecture hall of the future.

What do you remember about college classrooms? A single wall of chalkboards? A stuffy auditorium with a lone podium? With technological innovation come changes in design, equipment and even teaching and learning styles. Texas Christian University is leading the charge with the innovative Rees-Jones Hall — a technology-rich location that leads to collaborative learning and improved student outcomes.

"The environment is designed to embrace learning," says Romana Hughes, assistant provost of educational technology and faculty development, who oversees the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence at TCU. "It's one thing to spend an hour in a space and take notes. Research shows that students' attention levels drop after 10 minutes, so adding variation in presenting content helps re-engage students throughout the class period."

Since Rees-Jones Hall opened in August 2014, nearly 3,200 students per semester are engaging more with their instructors, fellow students and subject matter. It is used by 33 disciplines and serves class sizes from 60 down to the single digits. There are also 14 study rooms that are usually available 24/7.

"It's a space with natural light that's refreshing to walk into, versus a large lecture hall that doesn't have windows or space for computers or books. So Rees-Jones Hall channels a different mindset," Hughes says.

That's true of both its styles of classrooms — the nine "next generation" (or "next gen") classrooms and two "smart classrooms."

In the next gen classrooms, tables can be arranged in rows, groups, a U shape — really any configuration that best fits a class and its goals. There's also significantly more wall space for both faculty and students to write on. Podiums are on wheels, and wireless projection systems and keyboards allow faculty to control what's being projected from anywhere in the room.

"They no longer stand behind a podium and lecture," Hughes says.

Joanna Schmidt, classroom integration developer at the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence at TCU, notes how these seemingly simple changes in design improve students' experience: "It gives them a space to work collaboratively, encouraging them to take more ownership of the learning and to generate ideas, answers or questions, rather than simply recording information given to them."

The advanced classrooms also offer the ability to record, show cable TV, play a Blu-ray or DVD, project an image from a document camera and even use the microphones and camera in the classrooms to connect with guest speakers and scholars via Skype or Google Hangouts, Schmidt says. AirMedia, a presentation tool, also allows both students and faculty to share content with the class from their personal devices to a wall monitor or projector — or even to other students' devices.

"The projection wall that traditionally showed the instructor's content can now become a communal space," Schmidt says. "That encourages a more reciprocal environment in the classroom."

That kind of environment has a direct impact on helping students get the most out of their classes — and education. "These large and flexible classrooms, laden with technology, make a huge difference in keeping students engaged in active learning," says Jacqueline Lambiase, Ph.D., professor and chair of TCU's Department of Strategic Communication who has taught several classes in Rees-Jones Hall.

As advanced as next gen classrooms are, the smart classrooms build on the concept with an even more futuristic approach. The class and instructor have Microsoft's Surface Pro 3s that can wirelessly project content, and the furniture is set up in collaborative pods for student groups of six, each equipped with a monitor.

The collaborative nature of the classrooms and all their capabilities encourage faculty to focus courses around group learning and rethink both what and how they teach, Schmidt says. And the advantages to students have been immediately clear.

"The options to create interactive sessions and fully engage students unfold in the smart classroom. Students enter the classroom with new expectations and enthusiasm," says Keith H. Whitworth, Ph.D., an instructor in the Department of Sociology at TCU.

But it's what students take away from courses taught in the classrooms that is particularly exciting.

"Teaching in the smart classroom has challenged me as a professor to develop more effective courses that combine technology and active learning strategies," says Casey Hall, Ph.D., assistant director of education in the Department of Child Development at TCU. "As a result, I have seen increases in students' participation, involvement, depth of knowledge, and the ability to use and apply the concepts we are learning in class."

-Alicia Doyle for TCU

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