• Prof Charl Cilliers
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Wilma den Hartigh
Stellenbosch University (SU) has launched a new high-tech teaching space on its campus. The experimental classroom is encouraging social learning among students and stimulating brain functioning through new ways of teaching and presenting information.
The Den Bosch (Dutch for ‘the forest’) experimental classroom, the first venue of its kind on the campus, is a significant departure from traditional lecture venues that have chairs bolted to the floor, rows of wooden desks and very little natural light.
This room is equipped with the latest audio and visual technology, music, colour, art, modern furniture and even a small kitchen where students can prepare beverages.
There are projection facilities, equipment for hearing-impaired students, a television screen, wireless internet, a touch screen presentation computer, and for a trial period a set of tablet computers which can be handed out to students to participate in active learning exercises.
Prof Charl Cilliers, director of the Centre for Student Counselling and Development at SU, says there is also no static furniture in the room. The chairs, which play an important role in the success of presentations and conversations, each have a desk and space for a computer or satchel on the seat.
“The idea is that students can ‘drive’ around in class – from a more traditional lecture model to forming small chat groups or even a big circle,” he says.
Den Bosch isn’t just a fancy gimmick; the venue is a working classroom that is getting students excited about learning. The room will never replace an enthusiastic lecturer, or a hard working student, but it does enhance the student’s learning experience.
Student-focused, 21st century learning space
Cilliers says the experimental classroom is a way of optimising learning, but it also creates an accessible and relevant education environment.
Teaching has to be in step with a changing world where just about every student has internet access and electronic devices such as a smart cellular phones, laptops, and computers. Students are also increasingly engaging with each other via social media platforms such as Twitter, instant messaging and Facebook.
This is why progressive teaching spaces are important.
Last year Cilliers visited colleges and universities in the US that use similar approaches to deliver information to a generation of tech-savvy students living in an increasingly technological age.
“The classroom stems from a growing realisation that if want to focus on ‘Generation Y’ (the millennial generation), we have to adapt our content and look at new ways of teaching and delivering information,” he says.
“We have to recruit and retain good students and keep their interest, and to do this we have to improve instructional facilities.”
The classroom also has important psychological benefits for students, preparing them for the new demands of the working world.
“The world demands more than graduates with top qualifications and marks,” Cilliers says, adding that employers are looking for graduates with skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and good interpersonal relationships.
Den Bosch was designed in consultation with neurologists to ensure that the room made it possible for students to engage all their senses in the learning process.
“We carefully chose the colour of the room to be green as it is conducive to cognitive functioning,” he says.
One of the walls has a calming picture of a forest scene, there is ample natural lighting and soft tranquil music plays throughout the lecture. All these elements contribute to creating a calm alertness within students.
“This draws the mind into a quiet state,” Cilliers says.
A successful experiment
The university plans to use the Den Bosch model in other lecture halls on campus in the future.
Cilliers believes that more research is needed on the impact of such learning environments on the wellbeing and performance of students, as well as lecturing and other academic staff.
His colleagues recently held a strategy session in the room, and their feedback was overwhelmingly positive. “They said that their creativity levels have never been as high before,” he says.
Dr JP Bosman, senior advisor at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, adds that the classroom can also be used in the training of lecturers.
“By teaching in a room that offers more options in terms of technology and encourages more flexible facilitating, lecturers are encouraged to be creative and expand their presentation techniques,” Bosman says.
Although the room has its limitations, and might not suitable for lecturing in all subjects, there is a move away from the traditional information delivery model. A university should not be a place where only information is provided; it must help people develop well-rounded people with skills they need in the workplace.
“The classroom creates a desire for learning and exploring,” Cilliers says.