Transforming the classroom into a learning environment.

The purpose of school

The purpose of school hasn’t changed since classical antiquity: grouping students in a centralised location so they could learn from the same teacher. They are able to develop and acquire new skills on different levels: intellectual, economical, political and social  (The purpose of school). A school can have one or many classrooms. A classroom is the space, the environment in which class are held.

Classroom Factory

However, this purpose has always been a double edge sword: opening the mind of each student on one hand and teaching the same knowledge and the same skills to the group on the other hand. The roman empire in need for efficiency started to educate clever but like minded citizen to govern over their vast territory. More or less, two thousands years later, the British Empire was in need for just more of the same. With the demand for mass education started at the end of the 18th century and his industrial revolution, the classroom model was pushed to the extreme. This has barely changed since then. Actually, there is not a field depending on information and communication that hasn’t dramatically changed with the booming of new technologies apart from education.

Why is this model not valid any more?

The main issue I would like to discuss about is related to the way students are still taught in the classroom: one teacher instructing un large group of students using rote learning as the main method to retain information. If you are not going to use the information you have rote learned on a regular basis, it will not last in memory for long. Hence, why do we have to remember it? To pass exams. Why do we pass exams? Because it is the best way they came up to standardise everyone’s level in a factory based education. That way, wherever they were send in the empire, they would be able to fill in the same files, the same way. Hundred fifty years later, our civilisation has evolved. On one hand, the empire doesn’t exist anymore, there is no more centralised administration; on the other hand, we don’t need to rote learn because information is accessible in real time at the tip of the finger from anywhere.

What twenty first century world needs is people that can think differently, that can associate things that has never been associated before, people that can come with completely new ways of thinking. To understand how to shift our perspective, first, let’s go through the different models of the classroom?

Four classroom models

There are four main  models of classroom: the “classical-model” with a master and an apprentice, the “analogue factory-model” with one teacher lecturing a group of students, the “flipped-model” which is more student-centred using digital technology but still based on “classroom model”, and the “immersive model” which would immerse the student in an environment customised to his own level of learning and experience which is actually much more like the “classical-model” but scalable to today’s population.

Plato's Academy

The classical-model was a very human way of sharing knowledge. Going back as far as Plato’s school of philosophy that took place in Akademia, the model was based on dialectic. The main difference was made between seniors and juniors. They were learning by trying to resolve different problems and through dialogues with their pairs.

The Factory Model

With the industrial revolution and the exponential population growth, we had to rationalise the classroom. Following Horace Mann approach from the mid-19th century, the classroom was shaped around a group of 28 students in a 800 square foot room: the analogue-factory model. This is the model that still represents the vast majority of classroom on earth. (The following post gives a deeper view into the problem: How to Break Free of Our 19th-Century Factory-Model Education System.)


The last couple of decades have seen all sort of experiences using online technologies to propose “new ways” to learn. The “flipped classroom” is when students learn most of what they need outside the classroom, usually online, and use the classroom to do their “homework”. The teacher can then assist them if they request any help.  Student can learn at their own pace although online video-lecture are actually still based on the analogue-factory model where one teacher is lecturing many students. This usually happens through a screen using a mixture or graphic interface and videos that can bring a lot of other distractions as well. We can find some thorough practical comparisons between 2D and 3D  learning environment in K. Kapp’s book: “Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration”. This brings us to the last classroom model: the “immersion model”.Flipped Classroom

Immersion has always been the best way to learn anything. Language is a great example. The best way to learn a language is to leave with a native speaking family in their country and city. The association between words, people, places and overall cultural context will drive the speed with which the language will be learn. Of course they are many reasons stopping us to apply the immersion method to acquire more knowledge or to learn new skills. We can’t afford sending each kid all over the world in families to learn new languages. That being said, can we use technologies to simulate this kind of immersive environment?

Immersive environment.

Let’s take another example. How can we apply the “immersion model” to learn mathematics. Depending on the specific area to be covered, the participant would immerse himself inside a mathematical universe, guided by mathematicians. They would explain different concepts with all their heart, walk the participant through, then propose to practice with some practical situations. For instance, a child that is learning division would be presented with cubes that could be cut into smaller cubes and put back together as many time as needed. The child can manipulate the cubes, throw them around, put them back together, watch them from every angles, compare with bricks or planets, only his imagination would be a limit. Watch this demo from Goldsmiths Computing Department  to get a hint on the potential of VR.

Mixed Reality Car

This is where Virtual Reality (VR) comes into play. VR has the potential to immerse a participant in such a way that his experience would be as powerful as experimenting in real life or even more powerful as it can be specifically design. Moreover, participants are able to experience it from anywhere, any time without the physical world constraints. Future posts will expand my research in this exciting field crossing over technology, art, science and imagination.

Questions for future posts:

  • How does humans acquire a sense of space in the physical world? How does it compare to virtual environment?
  • What is Virtual Reality, how does it have the potential to expand our real life experience?
  • What is the role of architecture in designing Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)