Snow falls outside a warm classroom as a professor—sleeves rolled up and smiling—dashes around the room, alternating between writing on movable white boards and asking questions of his students. The class, in the midst of a heated discussion about Coca-Cola vending machines that change prices based on the outside temperature, argues points and counter points as the professor asks follow-up questions on the way back to the white boards.
While classroom configurations have changed little in the past 150 years, a group of faculty and staff at the Wisconsin School of Business are challenging how higher education thinks about physical space. In preparation for the fall 2013 semester, the school renovated room 2339 in Grainger Hall to increase collaboration and flexibility in teaching. The idea had been touted by Marketing Professor Jan Heide for years.
“I like having a classroom where students can take ownership of it and also be able to relate to each other. Not just sort of watch me and take notes, but talk to each other, maybe with me as the facilitator, to see what kinds of experiences they’ve had,” Heide said. “I think they can learn a lot from each other.”
Room 2339 is primarily used for MBA classes, and the changes were made with that audience in mind. Renovations, which were made possible by the Wisconsin School of Business Innovation Fund, included removing fixed seating and installing moveable tables and chairs. At Heide’s request, the school doubled the white-board space, making it easy to move them up and down on the fly. With the changes, the white boards are now visible from all seats and angles.
“I believe a lot of classrooms are designed for one-way communication. And that works well for certain types of topics and certain types of audiences,” he said. “But I feel with my topic, with marketing management and a class of students who have quite a bit of marketing experience, if I just stand there talking at them, I think they’re missing out on learning from each other.”
Heide uses the white boards to help record the discussion points, adding them to the overall lesson and building upon them throughout the semester.
“I really like to let the topic evolve, and I use the board to record student comments. So the board becomes a really important focal point. But it goes beyond just being a recording device, it really helps frame the discussion.” Heide said. “If I can use the board correctly, then the students will start assuming ownership of the learning, because they will see what they are contributing being used.”
Bonnie Putnam, a second year MBA student who has seen room 2339 in pre- and post-renovated states, said the new set up makes group discussions more natural.
“[The renovation] makes it easier to see other people who are across the room, so you don’t have to turn around to have a conversation with one half of the class,” Putnam said. “It also makes it easier for [Heide] to walk up and down the aisles of the classroom.”