Students and professors everywhere know the dangers of large lecture halls. Back of the room boredom. Half-glimpsed equations seen across a crowded room. Attention spans designed to last between one commercial break and the next. The natives get restless. Move in their seats, beam notes to each other by PDA, doodle in the margins of their textbooks or clack busily on laptop computers, pretending to be taking notes.
MIT physics professors have been wrestling with this problem for several years. They designed a vision of the perfect, boredom-free lecture hall and put it into an animated movie. Then they went a step further - they actually built it.
Microsoft Research helped them build the vision by providing funding from iCampus, their University Relations program that helps MIT professors and students reach their goals. The project is called TEAL, for Technology Enhanced Active Learning.
John Belcher is one of the professors who helped design the new space. "The classroom is very different. We have eight projectors around the perimeter of the room where we can project both PowerPoint presentations and applets. We also have 13 video cameras that project onto13 different white boards, one for each of the tables."
The 3,000-square-foot TEAL classroom also contains an instructor's workstation in the center of the room, surrounded by 13 round, seven-foot tables seating nine students apiece. Students work in a computer rich environment; they have one networked laptop per three students, with data acquisition links between laptop and experiments.
"The way we are doing this is to lecture a little bit, do problem solving, and do experiments. It's all continuous, it's all in context. And that's a much better way to teach concepts-some theory, then integrated experiments. A big part of this is putting the hands on stuff back in," says Belcher.
"The students go to the whiteboard just to work on problems, especially to explain to each other, or the instructors. We have three people in the room who walk around to help out when we're doing an experiment or problem solving. So there's a person who is both a lecturer plus two other people and they just wander around and help whoever needs help. If we see something interesting on one of the whiteboards we'll project that and have somebody explain it," adds Belcher.
Belcher is pleased with the results so far. "I've lectured the spring course in electromagnetism that has about 700 students for three years in the early 90s. I was not very happy with the results, mainly because I just don't think the lecture/recitation format works very well. By the end of the term you get 50% attendance even with someone who is a stellar lecturer."
One of the fears the physics department had when they developed this program was having it accepted by MIT faculty. "People say that getting faculty to accept change is like herding cats," says Hal Abelson, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT. "It's not like herding cats. Herding cats is easy. It's really like carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow. But if you demonstrate success, you can make institutional change." And the TEAL classroom has demonstrated success, even in its first incarnation.
"First of all," states Belcher, "I'm keeping students in the classroom. I have 85% attendance. Part of that is they submit things electronically during the class, 20% of their overall score comes from things they do in class. The other thing is that students are enjoying it. Last year I had 140 students, this year 190.
Another part of the TEAL classroom is the simulations that the professors developed to teach physics concepts. "TEAL was designed around the principal that the physics labs couldn't really get their students to understand the principals of physics. They could talk as much as they wanted to up on the blackboard, but they just didn't get it. They didn't see it; they couldn't experiment with it. So they started building a whole bunch of simulations to show Faraday's law or any of the Newtonian principles and they can actually see what the forces where that were imposed on the experiments they have sitting on their table," explains Randy Hinrichs, the manager of the iCampus project at Microsoft Research.
The students are very inspired to figure out how the simulations are written, and they end up creating more simulations for other students in the class. "If they're writing and creating simulations, they get it. They say quite often that the best way to learn is to teach," comments Hinrichs.
"We sat around and designed this classroom and it's still hard to believe it when you walk into it, even having gone through the design. It's really a fantastic classroom," concludes Belcher.