Wednesday, December 05, 2012

How a broken projector improved my class

I teach in the "smart" classroom shown here. The students sit at computers and the professor has a podium computer. I use the overhead display during every minute of every class -- for presentations and live demonstrations of all sorts of things.

Yesterday morning, I walked into the classroom and discovered that the overhead display was broken, so we had to improvise. I sat down at one of the student computers in the middle of a row (the one with the arrow) and the students crammed in behind me -- sitting on chairs, tables and standing. All of my teaching material is online, so I was able to use the exact same PowerPoint decks and do the exact same demonstrations as I would have used from the podium if the projector had been working. The material was 100% the same -- only the seating arrangement changed. I don't know whether you can picture the scene, but it was cramped and disorderly. (I wish I had taken a picture).

Why am I telling you this? I have been teaching on and off during my entire career, and it was one of the best class sessions I can remember.

I taught a second section of the same class yesterday evening in the same room. The projector worked fine for about half an hour, then broke again. We crammed in behind the student computer and continued. The class lit up. Students listened, spoke, answered questions I threw out, asked a lot of good questions, made relevant comments and wisecracked and teased. It was even better than the morning class.

I was able to do this because my classes are small. A few students were too far from my screen to see it comfortably, so they turned on a couple of computers in the same row and navigated along with me. (We could have automated that by starting up a Google Hangout and sharing screens).

The success of our re-arranged room would not have surprised Michael Wesch, an award winning professor of anthropology who has long noted the impact of room design on teaching. (For a taste of his thoughts on the topic, watch this 3m 46s excerpt I cut from a talk he gave upon receiving an outstanding teaching award).

I'm no anthropologist, but these class sessions felt better than a small seminar around a conference table. The ad-hoc seating arrangement turned the classes into focused bull sessions by breaking down social barriers between the students and me and, more important, between themselves.

The success of this small, ad hoc arrangement is ironic, because it comes at a time when I have been writing about massive open online classes, MOOCS, and have proposed teaching one.

MOOCs have the potential to be extremely cost efficient, but my small class gathered around a PC was extremely costly -- the California taxpayers would not sustain it and the students would get tired of standing up after a while.

Could we capture some of the enthusiasm and interaction of the live class I had yesterday and share it with a mass audience taking a MOOC at the same time? Maybe.

-----

For more on Michael Wesch: