Part IV of the 99% Invisible series

In one of my favorite quotes from The Medium is the Message, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “The serious artist is the only person able to encounter technology with impunity, just because he is an expert aware of the changes in sense perception.” In other words, since artists fundamentally deal with bending a technology, whether it’s photography, paint, or the violin, they have to be acutely aware of the narrative that that technology produces.

Design operates on that same principle. Those who have a comprehensive sense of technology, design, and the narrative it creates, understand how easily that narrative is disrupted, the same way as a dropped note or misplaced brushstroke provokes a jarring departure from the vision that the artist is seeking to convey.

Classrooms have a narrative structure that most people don’t see. Technology is part of that narrative, but so are the furniture, whiteboards, and even the color of the walls. What story does this room tell?


The narrative of this room is that the action is all in the front. The projection system and the whiteboard are there for the instructor’s use only, and all learning-focused interactions are within the instructor’s control. Your neighbors are largely irrelevant to the experience. The colors are interesting, but they take a secondary role to the dynamic of the space.

In short, the story here is: Look at me. I’m in front. I’m all that matters. Compare that to this:


This room, one of our pilot learning spaces, is a bit more collaborative than the other room, but it’s not perfect. The focal point is still at the front of the room with the projection system, and some of the desks are oriented in that direction. It straddles the line between a truly collaborative setup and a lecture hall, and the result is confusing from a narrative standpoint. I’ve observed that this room is still used about 80% for lecture and 20% for collaboration. This is because when a new narrative is not obvious, the default position is usually to go back to what you know and that is your traditional teaching style. Lecture method is also safer because, as a teacher, you control the narrative of what is going on in the classroom, and in an unfamiliar environment, this becomes doubly attractive.

The University of Minnesota (UM) has taken narrative disruption a step further and created a truly collaborative classroom where it is hard to fall back on old habits.

We are building five of these classrooms into our new spaces, and I’m excited about the promise that they have in reshaping the narrative of teaching so that it’s expressly focused on collaboration. In comparison to our pilot learning space, the UM’s Active Learning design gives students ample outlets to create their own content and work through topics at a peer-to-peer level. Whether they are hooking up to displays connected to pods, or taking advantage of the whiteboards, they have assumed control of interactions within the classroom, and as such, have assumed ownership of their learning. The teacher is still an important facilitator in this process, but has to give up control in order to let the students create their own paths to learning goals.

Weaving in a principle from one of my previous posts, the appearance of technology in a room dictates the narrative of the learning space. A key design goal here was to minimize the impact of technology in the classroom while maximizing its ability to augment the learning experience of the students. By turning the focus away from the front of the room, and instead, to the space between students, the narrative of the classroom becomes clear: the room has become a place for teaching and learning rather than a place with flashy and sometimes working technologies.

One key component here was moving the computer away from the podium and onto the wall. In this way, the podium reverts to its original role of being a piece of furniture rather than a storage place for technology. This is critical because it creates an opportunity for the instructor to decide how he or she will place and use it; the podium is a key mechanism that determines the power narrative within the classroom. Note that UM’s Active Learning classroom doesn’t have a podium in the traditional sense.

The role of the podium in a classroom deeply affects the narrative of the classroom. It is a symbol of power and authority. Some faculty even go so far as to hide behind it. Others try to minimize its role within the room because it disrupts the active/collaborative narrative that they are trying to establish. Once the podium is freed of technology, it can be used in the way that makes the most sense. Personally, I want to get it out of the way. However, the one thing that I have done in these classrooms that has caused the most resistance amongst the faculty has been to replace the podium with a lightweight lectern. For some faculty, this was a step too far and serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to reshape the larger narrative of the role of the teacher in the classroom.

This also reinforces the central question of design: When a student or a faculty member enters a space, what does that space communicate to him or her about what kind of teaching and learning happens there? The subtlety of this narrative can easily be subverted by any number of bad design decisions. Remember that my goal has been to create an environment where technology augments instruction. I’ve succeeded when the teacher can control the narrative within the class more effectively than before, and we’ve given him or her an expanded set of tools not available in the pre-technology classroom.


I do not think we have ever truly succeeded in this effort. For instance, can you spot the critical flaw in the room pictured? I have succeeded in my technology goals for the most part. The tech is off to the side. However, the alignment of the tables and chairs is rigid since you can’t move them easily. If everyone is facing the front that implies authority, and the lecture method of instruction is the natural consequence of this arrangement.

There are ways to mitigate this. In one department they’ve aligned the tables so that the students face each other rather than the front of the room. However, most do not do this and no one else I know of spontaneously rearranges this furniture. It’s too heavy and inflexible. If we are moving to a learner-centered constructivist narrative in our teaching and learning, this room does not communicate that message.

As you can see, many things can degrade the utility of a classroom if the design, technology, or other factors cloud the intended narrative. If we build learning spaces and technology around the old model of teaching, we should not be surprised if that is the kind of teaching that takes place. We must accept this reality if we stand any chance of reinventing the narrative of higher education going forward. Mindful design is key; a misplaced button, the wrong kind of furniture, or even the color of the walls can completely overshadow the message you are trying to send.

The last room illustrated was designed by a project manager, an architect, a furniture vendor, a technologist (me), an installation vendor, and a facilities manager. As such, it consists of the sum of its parts and nothing more. This is because it lacked a directorial vision centered on mindful design. Many of its elements failed to consider the desired behaviors of its users or the goal of learning because, other than myself, no one on that team had ever taught or had experimented with active learning strategies.

Creating modern learning spaces has to be a seamless collaboration of many entities with clear pedagogical goals in mind. As a member of the design team for two major campuses at Houston Community College, keeping this goal front and center is my full-time challenge and one that many of the other participants in the process do not consider a priority. Whether our next projects will achieve a truly mindful classroom design remains to be seen. I think we have yet to create a classroom that lives up to Steve Jobs’s design standards, but we’re getting closer.


Read the rest of the 99% Invisible series: Part I, Part II, Part III