Imagine an academic learning environment in which small pods of students are plugged in – technologically tethered, if you will – to their instructor, to their tablemates and to other classmates spread across a large, thoroughly wired, state-of-the-art space.
And connected even beyond, across cyberspace, to classmates sitting many miles away.
Imagine an intricately designed environment outfitted with large video screens, table mounted monitors, smart cameras and ambient microphones – and equipped with the requisite networking and accompanying software – to project the face and voice of the professor delivering instruction, or a student presenting or posing a question.
Imagine a classroom in which content can be pushed digitally to students via their laptops or tablets, in a nanosecond. Where facial recognition and tracking technology built into classroom cameras allows instructors wide freedom of movement, while staying in full view on students’ screens.
It all evokes a sense of futurism. Science fiction, even.
But it’s a future that very nearly has arrived at Creighton – with the September opening of the new School of Dentistry building and, concurrently, the christening of what has been dubbed the “active-learning classroom,” one of the cutting-edge marvels that will greet dentistry students this fall.
This two-story, technologically loaded learning space in the facility now undergoing its final preparations on the south side of Omaha’s Cuming Street, on the northern edge of Creighton’s campus, is undoubtedly a lecture hall for the 21st century.
The active-learning classroom “blends architecture, technology and pedagogy,” says Matthew LeFeber of the Sextant Group, the lead technology consultant on the project and a specialist in higher education technology design.
The aim? To transform the traditional lecture environment to an interactive – and extraordinarily engaging – learning space that stimulates collaboration, LeFeber explains.
Brian Halsey of RDG Planning & Design’s Omaha office serves as the lead architect for the new school, overseeing all architectural, engineering and audio/visual aspects of the facility.
Halsey characterizes the active-learning classroom, simply, as a way of teaching and learning more effectively.
“It’s an entirely new way of communicating with students,” Halsey says, “rather than sitting in a lecture hall, listening and taking notes.”
Instructors – once they get accustomed to the gadgetry – “tend to really like it,” he says.
Creighton’s Laura Barritt, PhD, says the design of the room will help facilitate small-group discussions and collaboration among students. Barritt teaches a histology course, and she is hoping the active-learning space will enable her to make the laboratory portion of the course digital and use virtual microscopy, rather than light microscopes and glass slides.
And how are students expected to like the new classroom?
“You don’t have the option not to be involved in a class in this space,” LeFeber says. “We’re taking what feels natural to them – a connection to their mobile devices – and making that a part of the classroom experience. By doing that, you’re really ensuring students stay engaged.”
The classroom is designed to accommodate up to 120 students onsite. And the technology can widen that number considerably, providing the ability to seamlessly connect distance learners, essentially anywhere in the world, to the active-learning experience.
Halsey says the new classroom also expands Creighton’s tele-dental capabilities, enabling easy, consultative reach to dentists practicing, for example, in rural Nebraska.
Similarly, the virtual reach of the classroom gives students the option to dial in remotely to class “and still have a very engaging experience,” LeFeber says.
The new dental school building includes one active-learning classroom to start. Two additional classrooms will be equipped with the framework to convert to the technology as needed.
“This is going to help bring Creighton University dental education to a very highly competitive, national level,” Halsey says. “We’re really just giving the building and structure a way to catch up to the high level of innovative instruction already happening at the school, and it will help with recruiting both faculty and students.”
“The active-learning classroom is a key part of what represents the leading edge of dental instruction in our new facility,” says School of Dentistry Dean Mark Latta, DMD. “It’s the direction teaching is going, and it helps ensure Creighton is keeping up with – or staying ahead of – our peer institutions, ensuring our students are best prepared for the future.”