Tomorrow is here: re-assessing the classroom of the future

Students participate in 100 level chemistry labs in the Natural Sciences Complex in October 2020. Students demonstrate proper use of face coverings and other PPE while working in a research lab, in keeping with current guidelines.

Photo by Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Published November 16, 2020

In 2017, we were imagining the classroom of the future. Three years later, we’re seeing that vision become a reality. But we never could have predicted the path we would take to get there, or the challenges we’d face along the way.

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“Something we need to realize about that the classroom of the future: it’s everywhere.” That’s what we said in 2017, when only 16% of our faculty were teaching classes online; the rest were teaching from, and to, classrooms filled with students. 

Fast forward: this semester, 95% of UB students surveyed said they’re taking some, if not all, of their classes online.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis, our IT organization rapidly deployed teaching technology to bridge the hybrid learning experience. Some of these tools, like Zoom, were completely new to campus. Others, like on-demand lecture capture with Panopto, were an expansion of existing services we deployed in anticipation of a shift—albeit a much slower one—of this kind. 

In any case, it’s clear that the classroom of the future has arrived. 

In 2017, we were thinking about the tension between providing a singular, reliable experience for faculty and students, while also providing more opportunities for teaching and learning that extended beyond the physical classroom. In 2020, we feel the effects of that tension much more acutely.

Historically, each seat in the classroom offered students the same experience. In that reality, we could more or less ensure there would be little difference whether you were learning in, or teaching to, a class of 20 or a class of 200.

But consider the difference between a Zoom meeting of 20—where everyone can fit on a single screen—and a meeting with 200 participants. The latter requires significantly more effort to organize and administer. Plus, in the context of education, each seat in this new, virtual classroom is in a different space, whether a dorm room, a Starbucks, or a kitchen table at a parent’s house. 

Now, as before, we are dedicated to providing an equitable and inclusive learning experience for every student. UB provides accommodations to students on campus who need them—but what about students learning at home with poor internet, or a broken laptop, or a noisy, distracting learning environment? 

These new issues of equitable access facing our students require new thinking on our part about how to best respond to them. 

In IT, we’re finding ways to shift our focus to remote support, by mobilizing our (previously on-campus) Tech Squad support team for students. We’re offering more support for instructors too, with the new Teach Anywhere website and ongoing training for Zoom, Panopto and other remote teaching tools. In our physical classrooms, we’re improving audio and video so every student can participate, whether they’re sitting in the classroom or joining virtually. 

I know that, all over campus, our partners in academic support and decanal units are working hard to tackle these same issues. And there’s work still to be done, for all of us. That may look like advocacy, or it may look like a reimagining of the structures and systems we’ve relied on in the past. 

There may be push back as we pursue these efforts, especially in these times of strained budgets and tightening economies. But now, as ever, it remains our responsibility to imagine the possibilities of the future today.

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