Room of Requirement
Text:/ Graeme Hague
It’d be great if universities could make up their minds. One day it’s all about “remote” education and only doing stuff over the internet — you can be a bona fide, qualified NASA astronaut after completing a website-based, three-year course including a DIY Shuttle kit delivered by courier — and the next day the universities are expecting the students to be actually on the campus. Say what? That’s odd in many ways, not the least because it’s rare to see any large gathering of university students unless they’re in front of Parliament House, holding poorly written signs and chanting schoolyard slogans (obviously the Graphic Design students never take part in protests, if the hand-scrawled signs are any indication).
Now Monash University has created a state-of-the-art, lecture theatre that’s based on an in-the-round design where the lecturer is surrounded on all sides by the students and apparently connecting with the class in a personal way. Similarly, the students are encouraged to share information — note the lack of a capital ’S’ there — and interact with each other. No, none of this is a Facebook thing or Instagram… nobody has to Like the teacher and send them an apple emoticon. Everybody is (take a deep breath for this one) in the same room.
Scary stuff. Next thing you know we’ll be back to the days of giving recalcitrants a thorough thrashing, smoking in the toilets, and having to carry heavy books everywhere. Ridiculous, I mean, who the hell can afford books these days?
BACK TO SCHOOL
Given the circular configuration of the auditorium, and using my Year 10 education at Derby Junior High School (senior students were expected to wear shoes, but it wasn’t compulsory) I can calculate that means the lecturer will have their back turned to roughly 70 percent of the students at any time — and what self-respecting teacher with a survival instinct is going to do that? Plus it’ll result in that same 70 percent of students goofing off and chucking spitballs at each other, flying paper planes, and not learning anything that doesn’t involve aerodynamics or origami.
Meanwhile, the IT department of the university is sitting in its bunker with everyone tapping their fingers in annoyance, and asking one other, “Why did we run a zillion kilometres of Cat-6 cable throughout the entire campus and hang bloody 98-inch, 4K monitors on every damned wall, and put in a wi-fi network strong enough to fry chicken, when everybody’s going to be in the same freakin’ room?”
Good question, and I believe the answer lies in modern pop culture.
IN A THEATRE FAR FAR AWAY
Today’s university lecture hall architects are trying for a delicate balance between two popular models of assembling a large number of people together and hoping they’ll pay attention. One is the Republic Senate in Star Wars, The Phantom Menace and the other is — no surprises — the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. While not exactly universities, there are plenty of parallels to consider and incorporate into 21st Century architecture.
The Star Wars lecture theatre design would be pretty cool. You’re definitely going to need some serious IT since there’s several thousand members all sitting about a mile apart in a slight fog, and wi-fi will be a must. Mind you, if the NBN breaks down (again) you’ve got the option of using the rocket thruster thingies to fly closer to the teacher and not miss a single word — that probably explains the smog. Remember, it is an in-the-round configuration, still catering for that touchy-feely, sharing environment and occupying each other’s personal space — I knew I’d get a ‘space’ pun in somewhere.
The Hogwarts education model isn’t in-the-round. It’s more about everybody dressing up in Driza-Bone coats and large hats, pointing sticks at each other and hissing curses, and flying around the room on broomsticks — a bit like the National Party when you think about it. Not a lot of it is really high-tech and that IT Department won’t have a lot to do, but you gotta admit the students are mostly well-behaved and learn a lot. So something’s plainly working well.
The obvious compromise between the two schools of thought (two puns, I’m on a roll) would be an in-the-round lecture theatre where all the students are allowed to take their own stick to point at things and curse, and the lecturer in the centre will be a 4K hologram projected from a safe room somewhere on the campus. That way the kids can flick rubber bands and chuck paper planes to their hearts’ content and the teacher, at least, won’t be losing an eye. The IT infrastructure is used for something worthwhile, and you still get that personal touch of the lecturer being in the room even if you can’t, well, touch them.
A combination of remote, university education and personal interaction. Simple.