As educator and author Doug Johnson highlighted in 2006, were a 19th-century physician thrown into a modern operating room, he would not recognize it.
A 19th-century banker would be out of place in today's bank.
Yet, up until the pandemic-induced mass migration to remote classrooms, a 19th-century teacher could have walked into a modern classroom and, after balking at the unkempt uniforms of the pupils, proceeded with some Latin exercises.
Not much has changed in the practices and technology of education.
Perhaps institutional education hit the nail on the head two centuries ago with the factory sage-on-the-stage model of students pushed pell-mell through rows of wooden desks and universal curriculums.
Alex More, head of the Future Classroom Project, as well as hundreds of his students at Shaftesbury School certainly disagree.
The Future Classroom Project
In the heart of Shaftesbury School, you'll find a classroom with no desks, but full of buzz as students play with and explore 3D models of muscles with the help of an interactive projector, go on educational virtual reality journeys, throw around wireless microphones for Q&A sessions, bring objects into the room with augmented reality, film themselves in front of a green screen, and do so much more.
Alex and Shaftesbury School have partnered with leading technology companies to deliver a fresh, innovative, and inspiring approach to learning. One where technology isn't a gimmicky student entertainment tool, but rather a central element that fosters deeper learning, higher engagement, and broad student collaboration.
Teachers can schedule lessons in the classroom and, despite its opening only a couple of months ago, it's already in use throughout most of the day. You can read here a walkthrough of a 60-minute example lesson in the Future Classroom.
The goal is not to replace the traditional teaching model, but rather to supplement it with the opportunities brought about by technology, which is so severely underused in today's classroom. Not just underused - it's often actively divorced from the classroom with the banning of phones and general avoidance of digital teaching and learning tools.
Yet, technology permeates every other aspect of our lives. Tech-literacy is not only a crucial and necessary competence most schools fail at addressing, but also something relevant and genuinely interesting to most students.
By bringing bespoke tech into the classroom and adapting the lesson plan to fully utilize the tools available, Shaftesbury School teachers have succeeded in creating a learning environment that demonstrates the role and potential benefits of technology in the 21st-century classroom.
From the aforementioned interactive projector and throwable microphone to a plant wall and a CO2 meter, as well as multiple whiteboards and wide-open space - the Future Classroom certainly stands out from the rest.
In addition to this, inside you'll find a SMIT visual board, tablets, VR headsets, a high-quality sound system, a green screen, multiple cameras (speaker/document, 360°, and regular), along with tripods and microphones.
And it's still a work in progress. With a batch of smartglasses on the way and the students actively participating in the shaping of the room through a bin design competition, the Future Classroom plans to continue evolving and incorporate tech that helps the educational process.
That said, here are the main pieces of kit in use now.
Epson Interactive Projector
Standing at the front of the classroom, the projector serves a similar purpose to the ones commonly available in other learning spaces. However, unlike in standard classrooms, in the Future Classroom, you're more likely to see students standing at it, rather than the teacher.
Multiple students can work with it at the same time and you'll see them annotating and capturing ideas, as well as interacting directly with various 3D scenes, as they, for example, zoom in to a 3D model of the human body or interactively explore how an engine works.
A throwable wireless microphone that's a favorite among students and teachers alike. Catchbox gives a platform to the quiet voices in the room - as they speak into the microphone, everything is clearly and loudly broadcasted over the classroom speakers in a truly empowering way. But everyone's favorite part is undoubtedly throwing it at whoever's to speak next.
Teachers use it frequently for end-of-class Q&A sessions, as well as playing simple turn-based games. The physical activity and informality of throwing the Catchbox loosens the students up and improves participation.
Virtual Reality headsets
Shaftesbury have been experimenting with RedBox Virtual Reality headsets to transport students into virtual journeys navigated by the teacher as a tour guide. Google Expeditions is a free, open-source App that allows teachers to guide students through virtual reality scenes to explore historical events, geographical features, and scientific phenomena. It’s a powerful and immersive way to learn that's highly engaging and has potential to transport the content to another dimension.
Coming soon: A student-designed throwable bin!
While this may not yet be in use, it deserves a mention: Alex More held a competition where students had to submit designs for a futuristic bin that would be suitable for the Future Classroom Project. The response and creativity were phenomenal with over 60 submissions ranging from basic to brilliant. The winner came out to be a Catchbox-inspired throwable bin, which the students were already printing in the school's 3D lab as we were talking to Alex.
It'll be an easily-lockable container encased in foam that students can throw to each other. It's quite small, but since there isn't much rubbish in the room, mostly sanitizing wipes, it's a perfect fit.
Initial reception by students and staff
Students love the Future Classroom. The pairing of an open space and immersive learning environment makes for a dynamic experience that the students are embracing with open arms and can't get enough of, especially the younger ones. There's appreciation for every piece of kit, although, as mentioned, the Catchbox is a hot favorite.
That said, a very small minority, namely two Year 13 students, have expressed dislike with Shaftesbury's Future Classroom, seeing it as disruptive and giving preference to the traditional classroom setting. Unsurprisingly, older students on the final leg of their secondary education are less enthusiastic, as they've gotten used to the system in place and might find less excitement in throwing microphones across the classroom. Nevertheless, these are rare cases and even most final year students appreciate the new dimension and way of learning made possible by the Future Classroom.
Teachers are also generally positively disposed to the project. Around 20 teachers already make use of the classroom regularly and a further 20 have completed training. The classroom certainly brings added value to lessons, however, it does require proactivity from the educators, which is a big ask. Educators are busy and habitual people.
Naturally, there's a learning curve for using the Future Classroom to its fullest potential both in terms of the technology, as well as managing students. Tech issues do occur, although very rarely. When they do, however, it can be very disruptive and become a real roadblock for inexperienced teachers.
Yet, with that in mind, there's widespread support for the project and, despite some minor teething problems, staff and students feel that the classroom already makes for a richer educational experience, which will only improve with time.
Future Classroom Project in the wake of COVID-19
As a space where students are expected to move around, collaborate in groups, take turns with technologies, the Future Classroom Project has certainly been impacted by the pandemic, but not much. With adequate social distancing rules in place and regular sanitization of the in-class technologies, lessons are smooth and incident-free.
It took students some time to get used to the rules, but now everyone is mindful of sanitization and does so without any poking and prodding.
Naturally, following the rules does impair the collaboration side of it and limits the kind of new technologies that can be onboarded - the Future Classroom Project would be a bit more accelerated, had Covid-19 not come along.
On the flip side, the tools inside the classroom can be used for conducting engaging remote classes, with the interactive projector allowing for interesting presentations and the Catchbox ensuring crystal-clear audio.
The Future Classroom Project breaks down the barrier between learning and technology in a way that's neither gimmicky nor disruptive to the educational process. The initial response has been phenomenal for everyone involved.
That said, the experiment is still in its early stages and there's lots of feedback and results to be collected to understand the broader impact of the project. Is there measurable academic improvement among students? What are the main barriers for teachers that stop them from further integrating the classroom into their daily lessons? What are the chief reasons for stopping some teachers from using it at all?
Time will tell. It will be interesting to see how the Future Classroom Project evolves and just how big of an impact can the proper use of technology in the classroom have.