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Class Time

[This is a transcript of a talk I gave at nu Technology Day on March 21st, 2012. The panel was entitled, “Teaching in the Collaborative Learning Space,” and I was joined by Brad Severa, Todd Jensen, and Heath Tuttle of unl’s Information Services division. The Collaborative Learning Space is where I teach my course on programming and software engineering for humanists.]

Who invented the classroom?

The question sounds a bit odd, because we who work in an ancient institution like the academy are inclined to think that such bedrock notions as “the classroom” are likewise ancient. But in fact, the classroom was invented by a particular group of people at a particular moment in history, and in the scheme things, that particular moment is relatively recent.

The main person behind this invention was the German Pietist educational reformer August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), who established charity schools in the German state of Prussia around the turn of the eighteenth century. Francke’s innovations included the idea of a “roster” with which one could “take attendance,” and the idea of “recess,” which originally meant not an hour of unstructured playtime in the afternoon, but a set period in which students could work the fields. Other Pietist reformers invented the concept of raising your hand to ask a question, and, most important for our purposes, the idea of desks arranged in rows.

The purpose of these innovations was to stem the chaos that, from the standpoint of the Pietists, had governed the project of education for the previous fiteen-hundred years (Francke’s first act was to shut down the thirty-seven taverns that had been serving the local population of two hundred — a beer-to-student ratio that makes Lincoln, with its many taverns, seem like a temperance society). But the underlying idea had to do with time. For most of history, the education that happened at a school happened in an entirely free-form manner. Professors gave lectures more-or-less when (and where) the felt like it, and students likewise attended those lectures when they felt like it. Students might erupt with rude questions in the middle of an oration, or stomp out in protest. Even the temporal boundaries of “being at university” were unclear; you went to school, usually as a young man, and left when you felt educated (or never left — a situation that admittedly persists to this day). Even the word “school” itself descends ultimately from an ancient Greek word, which, in addition to denoting learned discussion and disputation, was also the word for “leisure.”

The Pietist intervention put forth the radical idea that there was a time for listening and a time for speaking — a time for being educated, and a time when that process would end. Having a roster and taking attendance was a way to ensure that time had been honored — time at your desk listening to the teacher. If you raised your hand and had the floor, you could speak. Otherwise, it was someone else’s turn to speak. Even recess was a commentary on time. Class was “in recess” in the sense that a court is in recess: you might be allowed to do something else, but “the class” was still, in some metaphysical sense, in session. This allowed you to be “in a class” or “taking a class” even when you weren’t, physically and temporally, there. Luther hadn’t included Ecclesiastes in the table of contents for his 1534 translation of the Bible, but clearly, he and his followers had read it very carefully indeed.

These ideas about education and time are so firmly ingrained in the modern academy as to seem entirely immutable. Deans and provosts are glad to entertain various sorts of innovations in the classroom, but the idea of the classroom itself as something with concrete temporal boundaries is almost never in question (even in the apparently radical notion of “distance ed.”). And if you doubt that, I suggest you try reducing the number of “contact hours” (an amazing term which unites the temporal with the physical) in your class. From the standpoint of a department chair, that is not innovation, but professional malfeasance.

We’re here today to talk about a room — a rather magnificent one, in my opinion. In fact, I would say that it does nearly everything right in terms of instantiating the idea of a “digital classroom.” Everything is on wheels, there are projectors pointing at every wall, there is a computer for every student, it has an audio system worthy of a high-end coffeehouse, and the professor can stand at a podium that recalls the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It is wired, reconfigurable, comfortable, quiet, and intimate.

And yet that space still occupies time. It still exists within a temporal framework that has seldom been tampered with in the last two-hundred years. And what’s odd about that, is that it attempts to connect itself to a world in which time is being reconfigured in extremely radical ways. Think for a moment about “email time” or “Twitter time” or “Facebook time.” The interactions here are not in “real time” (another astonishing phrase), and yet they aren’t entirely asynchronous either. You have a certain moving window in which to “keep up with email,” and a certain window before which you have to apologize for taking so long to reply. Wait too long to respond to a tweet or a Facebook update, and the moment will have passed. None of these temporal windows is very precise, but the time in which you can respond is never “now or never.” YouTube videos? Whenever you feel like it. Though eventually, the fact that you haven’t seen Chocolate Rain, Star Wars Kid, or Numa Numa will catch up with you.

Contrast this with the temporal boundaries of the modern classroom. Class is on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30. Do not be late. If you fail to show up, it might affect your grade (another innovation that dates to about the same period as Francke’s classroom). The homework is due on Friday. The class begins on January 9th and ends on April 28th. You have until January 17th to decide whether you are going to continue to waste your time. After that, you’re wasting mine. And that might be a bad idea, because this all about credit hours.

These aren’t terrible ideas. Most educational reforms are lucky to last ten years; this one has endured for over two centuries, and it has done so because, up until now, it has made a lot of sense. But does it make sense, if you’ll be pardon me, now? Does it make sense in a world in which we have the ability to create spaces like the Collaborative Learning Space? Does it make sense to take the Collaborative Learning Space and embed it in a temporal framework wholly unlike the one in which it bids participation?

Call me old fashioned, but I am hesitant to jettison the circle — that most ancient of all pedagogical formations in which people converse with one another in real time. But beyond that, everything about the “new media classroom” seems to me completely up for grabs. Must the lecture happen in real time? Must “homework” happen outside of class time? Does everyone have to show up at the same time? Does everyone have to be “present?” Should the class end? Should it start?

What do I think of the Collaborative Learning Space? I think it’s the best classroom I have ever taught in. I also suspect that we are not coming remotely close to exploiting its true power, and I think it might be time to do that.

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