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Re-thinking School Architecture in the Age of ICT

Michael Trucano's picture

in Colombia, entering a school of the past ... or the future?What will the school of the future look like?

Most likely, it will largely look like the school of today -- but that doesn't mean it should. Few will deny that it will most likely, and increasingly, contain lots of technology. Some may celebrate this fact, others may decry it, but this trend appears inexorable. To what extent will, or should, considerations around technology use influence the design of learning spaces going forward?

Of course, with the continued rise of online 'virtual' education, some schools don't (or won't) look like traditional 'schools' at all. Various types of structured or semi-structured learning already take place as part of things that we consider to be 'courses', even if sometimes such things don't conform to some traditional conceptions of what a 'course' is or should be.  The massive online open course (or MOOC) in artificial intelligence offered by Stanford has received much recent attention, but the phenomenon is not necessarily new (even if its current exemplars are marked by many characteristics that are indeed new, or much more developed, than those previously to be found in, for example, large 'distance learning' courses).

Let's leave aside the case of the 'virtual school' for a moment and assume that there will continue to be a need for a physical space at which students and educators will gather and interact. (Such places may be access points to virtual education, or featured various types of so-called 'blended learning', where face-to-face interactions are complemented by interactions in the virtual world -- or vice versa.)  Indeed, let's assume, for our purposes here, that the school as a concept will presumably be along for many decades to come, and that it will have a physical representation of some sort. What might such a school look like, especially in the era of ICTs?

There has long been experimentation on the margins or at the fringes exploring new approaches to school architecture, but, generally speaking, such actions have usually been confined to isolated pilots on the periphery of mainstream practice and/or the result of an indulgence in high profile (and admittedly sometimes quite cool) architectural fancy.

I regularly see presentations on 'the school or classroom of tomorrow'.  Usually, to be honest, this largely looks to me like most classrooms or schools do today, just with a lot of cool gadgets introduced.  And often, if I am brutally honest, it looks like a school of yesterday with lots of technology added.  I sat through one of these sorts of presentations a few weeks ago that left me and my colleagues shaking our heads, and recalling the pictures of typing classes from the 1930s and 1940s that accompanied an EduTech blog post last year that asked, School computer labs: A bad idea? I also thought back to a visit I made a few years ago to a school in Cambodia where a 'future classroom' meant that rows of sewing machines had been replaced by computers. In these sorts of cases, one can concede that the rooms do indeed look superficially different, while at the same time suspecting that pedagogical practices and learning activities may remain the same.

Given the changes that massive investments in new technologies are bringing about in some places, policymakers and planners are asking themselves whether it is more cost effective to retrofit old classrooms, or if instead it might be more economical to build new ones. Even in eras of fiscal austerity, new schools do continue to be, and are being, built around the world, especially in countries whose ambitious Education For All goals continue to require new school construction to accommodate the many new students entering (or re-entering, or continuing) formal schooling. In some places, the success of EFA initiatives in helping to swell primary school enrolments is having a knock-on effect at the secondary level, where new schools are required as a result.  It is perhaps worth noting that, in some of these places, plans are simultaneously underway for large scale introductions of ICTs and computers for the first time.

looking down ... or forward?

If indeed building new schools is feasible, should we take this opportunity to reconsider our approach to school architecture, and how it might support or inhibit various types of learning practices that are desired?

Each year the World Bank co-sponsors a global symposium on ICT use in education with the government of Korea and other partners. As part of this event, hundreds of policymakers from around the world have journeyed to Seoul to share experiences and learn lessons from Korea's efforts to use educational technologies. For many of these folks, Korea represents a potential model for the future of education in their countries about which they want to learn more. Given the strong results that South Korean students have demonstrated recently on international assessments like PISA, and the large investments to introduce educational technologies into schools during roughly the same period of time, this interest is not too surprising. (We, and our Korean partners, are of course quick to remind participants that correlation is not necessarily the same thing as causation.) The symposium always includes a site visit to KERIS, the country's national ICT/education agency, which has been at the forefront of the planning and implementation of ICT-related educational initiative in Korean schools and whose headquarters includes a prototype 'classroom of the future'. It's neat stuff -- these things usually are -- but each time I leave the 'u-class', I am more convinced than before that, as these things age, they often reveal as much about a particular vision of the future from the past as they offer insight about what actually might be coming next.  (The phenomenon is not unique to the school sector, of course: The folks at Disney are in a constant struggle to make sure that the version of 'tomorrowland' in their themeparks does not morph into 'yesterdayland'.) This is not to criticize attempts to imagine the future in this way, whether in Korea or in Europe or elsewhere -- prototypes of these sorts have very real practical values and can be important tools to move policy and planning discussions along in useful ways -- but rather to highlight how difficult the whole exercise can be.

framed by their environment

As many countries embark on ambitious plans to build new classrooms, and retro-fit old ones, in part to accommodate (or anticipate) the introduction of new technologies, what guidance might we have for them?

Currently, many places are struggling with questions like how (or whether) to introduce new network cabling (and allow for this cabling to be easily accessible and easily replaced when more advanced options become available); how to plan the physical structure of a school keeping in mind the potential topologies of wireless networks (should more permeable walls be considered?); and how to meet current and projected future needs for access to electricity and electrical outlets in new places.

While the specifics of such questions may be changing, people have been asking (and anticipating) these sorts of questions for many years.  (Here, for example, is a study from Australia in 2000 on The Impact of ICT on Schools: Classroom Design and Curriculum Delivery [pdf]; such questions were being explored more than a decade before that as part of the seminal Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project [pdf], and anticipated in speculative academic papers even earlier).

will their environment shape their learning, or vice versa?

Given that technological life cycles can be measured in years, while buildings last for decades (and that traditional pedagogical practices often persist even longer), how can policymakers plan for the unexpected?

In some places (like in the example of the Cambodian school mentioned above) places that were once meant for practical hands-on 'handicrafts' instruction and courses are being converted to computer labs.  In some 'advanced' school systems (some schools in Finland come to mind), there is renewed interest in tradition crafts instruction -- not, as in the past, to meet labor market needs for handicraft skills, but rather as part of an interest in education in design, with physical modeling in clay and wood complementing virtual modeling with computers.

Often as a result of partnership with industry, some planners are exploring the extent to which 'normal' classrooms should model 'modern workplaces'.  Just which sorts of workplaces such classrooms should model can, not surprisingly, be a hot topic of discussion in such places. Historically such considerations have often been related to planning for so-called TVET initiatives (technical and vocational education and training), but the large scale introduction of ICTs in an era where ICT-enabled services industries continue to grow has broadened such discussions in many places.

The promise and potential for new technologies to enable increasingly 'personalized' learning activities and approaches has led some planners to consider how to allow for classrooms (or 'communal learning spaces') to be re-configured and segregated as needed.  This can allow individuals to pursue different learning activities at the same time in the same classroom.  It is also an acknowledgement of the fact that, in a space where the traditional 'front' of the classroom (represented by a blackboard and podium or teacher's desk) may just be one focal area among many -- with (for better or for worse) the screen in front of a student perhaps the most important visual focus point during much of a class period.

(Have a look at some of the classroom set-ups that characterize the School of One initiative in New York City, or San Diego's High Tech High, to get a flavor of how some of this might look in practice.) 

... and people say that introducing technology into schools will lead to chaos!

For many years the OECD has run programs that have explored various topics in 'architecture for education' and has supported a related Centre for Effective Learning Environments [pdf]. It maintains a useful Database of Best Practices in Educational Facilities Investment and every few years publishes a sort of showcase document highlighting new and best practices in school design around the world.  The latest volume, Designing for Education: Compendium of Exemplary Educational Facilities 2011, is well worth browsing, as a related slide presentation from Professor Christian Kühn of Technical University of Vienna and a short essay from 2010 by Peter Lippman which asks, Can the physical environment have an impact on the learning environment?

Whatever decisions are eventually reached, considerations of ICTs use in schools as well as planning related to school architecture should flow out of larger, more fundamental considerations of the educational strategies and learning philosophies at the heart of a schooling system, and of the role of education in helping communities and societies realize their larger developmental objectives.

(In some countries, I have remarked to myself the similarity in the architecture of schools and prisons ... but I am sure this is just a coincidence ....)
 

Note: The first four images used in this blog post come from the World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr. The image of a young boy entering a school in rural San Jose, Colombia ("in Colombia, entering a school of the past ... or the future?") is © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank; the picture of students in a computer course at a school in Cambodia ("looking down ... or forward?") is © Masaru Goto / World Bank (it is not, I should note, the school that I visited which I reference in the body of this blog post); the image of two girls entering a courtyard of a school in rural Antioquia, Colombia ("framed by their environment") is © Charlotte Kesl / World Bank; the picture of delapidated classrooms in the Jakob Basson Combined School in Namibia ("will their environment shape their learning, or vice versa?") is © John Hogg/World Bank. All are used according to the terms of their respective Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licenses.  The final picture of a village school in the Netherlands ("... and people say that introducing technology into schools will lead to chaos!") is from a famous painting by Dutch artist Jan Steen that hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland; it comes via the Icelandic Wikipedia and is in the public domain. Its placement at the end of this blog post was inspired by its inclusion in the presentation by Professor Kühn mentioned above.