15 July 2011

A physical place for virtual education

The coffee shop at Holland (MI) Christian High School
I am not one of those who wish to see the physical school disappear.

I am also a deep believer in the concept that contemporary (and future) technologies allow all the walls of the school to "fall," and that that is a good thing.

Where education really happens at Michigan State's College of Education
I was on Twitter with Eric Sheninger @nmhs_principal the other morning, and we were discussing this, because, as I think I said, as much as I like virtual learning, there is something essential about looking into the eyes of learners, of watching their body language, of touching them when they need that bit of humanity.

A long time ago I went to a "school without walls" - a free, open, project and passion-based high school. There was no required attendance. Most students took no classes in any given semester. I got English credit for working with the late night news guy on WVOX radio. Social Studies credit for watching and interviewing the homeless in Grand Central overnight. Others worked at the local hospital, or the city's parks department greenhouse, or, wherever.

But we had a school. We had a place to go. And almost all of us came there pretty consistently. We came there to hang out. We came there to talk. We came there to use the school's sports facilities. We came there because our girlfriends or boyfriends might be there...

But while we were there our teachers saw us, and talked to us, and sensed how we were doing. They pulled us into conversations. They might even make a suggestion or two. And while we were there we talked, and overheard. We were all doing different things and we talked about those things. I never read a book in high school, but I heard all about Beowulfand Steppenwolf, The Teachings of Don Juanand The French student revolt, American Notes for General Circulationand Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s, and many more. My math was mostly related to betting on football games (not kidding) but I would listen to debates about math theories from friends, and for the first time in my life, began to be interested.

The couch in The White Room, late 1970s
Now, our space was truly awful. It was supposed to be the "regular" school's third cafeteria, but not many kids stuck around for lunch, so it wasn't needed, and they gave us this huge white space - we called it "The White Room" - with the window area blocked off by a series of "classrooms" with walls that stopped a meter short of the ceiling. So we dragged a couch in, and a few chairs. Marked off a hopscotch game on the floor. Put up a 7-up clock. It stayed incredibly ugly, but... we still came.

Because that physical commons was important, and it still is.

Commons Area at New Tech Academy, Kent County, Michigan
So, I still want schools. That physical place is important. But I don't want ugly. I want beautiful and flexible and interactive. Kids should be free to come and go, but I'd like them to want to stay. Kids should have the tools they need there, and access to food and drink and other "comforts." And the faculty needs to be there too - not for supervision - but for interaction as students need and want.

So, start with effective wireless capabilities in your "Physical Space for Virtual Learning," and make sure 4G comes in well. Then build a Tool Crib of devices, ready to grab. Windows and Mac laptops, fully equipped and fully accessible. iOS and Android and WebOS Tablets. TabletPCs. Have lots of ways to hook those and student-owned devices up to big screens or projectors. Then make sure you have powerful desktops with great scanners and printers, production centers for student creativity.

Schiphol Airport Park, Amsterdam, Nederlands
Have lots of different kinds of seating. Tables and floor space for collaboration, and spaces - like music practice rooms - for solitude or quiet. The furniture should all be movable, and probably whimsical in some ways... no need for this to be a cold space.

"10 Forward" at Mozilla
And there needs to be place for play. Put an Xbox 360 in there (with Kinect), have real television availability, don't want to miss big football/soccer matches or great movies.

All the best companies know that a "work environment" works best when there is variety to the space, variety to the time, and variety in staff interaction. The same will be true at school. Staring doesn't usually help us, widening our vision does.

There are some other important ideas: Design so that lighting varies, bright, dim, warm, cool. The idea of uniform room lighting, pulled from turn-of-the-20th-century German factory design, has never been appropriate for human use. Our eyes get to relax and refocus when we move from bright to dim and vise-versa. Design so that noise levels can vary as well. Not everyone needs auditory chaos, but many do. serve everyone. Don't pick "50 year" furniture. Schools are always buying "stuff that lasts," and paying a fortune for it. And in many places we're stuck with these great deals from 1962. But human societies change, and our knowledge changes, and so we want our spaces to change. You'll probably do better going to Ikea and re-furnishing every other year.

And if you can't eat around it, or drink around it, just don't buy it. Education is messy - if your carpet or upholstery can't be easily cleaned, you've bought the wrong stuff.

Finally, think what you can bring to the space. Think of MeetUps linked to any possible subject of mutual interests. Hold Hack Days geared to music or games or teaching or anything. And invite the community in - local developers, local talents, local artists, writers, baristas, chefs, all while bringing yourselves to the community - never be afraid to UStream exciting stuff that is happening.

A tech meet up in a pub, how learning happens in this century
Virtual education should not be "the end of school." Rather, it is one great opportunity to re-imagine school. Please, don't make your alternative to the boring classroom a bunch of kids sitting home alone.

- Ira Socol


Kaj Rietberg said...

As there are different kind of learning styles, some people or perhaps a lot will be better of in a psychical school, so they can hear people and discus things. I myself hate it to type long stories, I prefer talking to real people, so I can react on what I see and what I hear. I believe in schools as psychical places, but I don't believe in the school as he only place to learn.

Anonymous said...

Ira, I agree all around. But this place already exists. It's a community library. (Yes, my local library encourages food and running around and groups congregating; there's a quiet room for those who need it.) Actually, it's a library with a community centre next door (gym, weight room, community kitchen, meeting rooms, daycare... that kind of community centre).

We already have these places. They're desperately under-funded and under-staffed. They accomplish more in a single day that any 10 average classrooms. They're full of innovative programs and kids actually like going there. What if we redirected our money and our people-power into these excellent systems?

Why call it a school?

monika hardy said...

excellent post Ira. thank you. i absolutely love it.

city as school. school as life.
have you read Colin Ward's The Child in the City? the child in the city with web access.. i'm thinking - dang.

irasocol said...


School, to me, is the safe "home base" for processing the learning from everywhere else, which...


Can be libraries. I grew up surrounded by stories of the New York and Brooklyn Public Libraries being the most effective schools there were for the immigrant New York of the 20th Century. And, in 1984, I begged the City of New Rochelle (NY) to merge its public and school libraries, creating learning environments in every neighborhood (they didn't). But we've got a ways to go with libraries too. Not just because Republicans seem to hate them, but because too many are so limiting. My local one now is very pretty, but a highly filtered internet, a no wireless under age 18 policy, and 30 minute limits on using the installed computers, make it worthless for teens (even I stopped going because Social Media is blocked there). Our teens take their computers to the downtown coffee shops - where information is, essentially, free.

So, I think we need to work on both spaces, community by community.


Yes, the city is the school. I grew up that way. I just want a "softer" place where we can routinely see our kids, and help them.

- Ira Socol

Mary Ann Reilly said...

Hi Ira

Loved this post. Resonates for so many reasons. Okay with you if I reference it to the Board of education I work for next week? I am making a presentation about an alt to HS and want to discuss space.

Anonymous said...

Yes I totally agree with you. There are lots of learning style. Basically it an community library. Every library should consider this sort of things.

Online Learning

TracyRosen said...

For many students the physical space of school is their only safe haven. When I taught in an alternative high school program I had students who used to skip more school days than they attended until they got to our program. The place became a touchstone for them and this because the adults in the space respected that they needed this safe haven.

Get rid of the physical space of schools and many students will be lost.

David Deubelbeiss said...


Have you watched the Q and A of Sugata Mitra's lecture at TUDelft. My lecture of the year and at around 1 hour - he really supports your calls - calls for a big rethink of physical designs (and not just meaning space but the things in that space). http://bit.ly/hf9aFk

But let's start with the walls...


Amy said...

I agree with "shiftingphases" in that to a degree such places exist in the form of public libraries. For the most part I like your ideas and would support the implementation of more such "open learning centers" - I would do away with the moniker of school altogether - but only if they were completely voluntary. The compulsory, coercive element needs to go. Also, I strongly disagree with your last sentence. The alternative to being at a school is NOT a bunch of kids sitting at home alone. Any homeschooling or unschooling family will tell you they are almost never at home, and even for kids who are not homeschoolers, being at home rarely means being alone anymore. With Face Time and Skype - just to name two - the opportunities for worldwide interactions with friends and peers is limitless.

dr.jackalope said...

First, I want to say that I totally get where you are coming from. The industrialized world is very school-centric. I bought a book about world peace for my "home"schooled five year old and the uniting theme of all the world’s children was that they all go to school in some way, shape, or form. We encounter it everywhere. Why shouldn't they have a place that is truly theirs; a place with recourses where they can piece together their education based on their interests or scaffold their learning? As another reader pointed out, many libraries make a suitable place for this type of learning and gathering.

However, you and countless others like you in this climate of ed reform show an extreme lack of understanding when it comes to "home "schooling. The idea that "home"schooled children sit at home all day alone is completely preposterous and is an unfortunate myth. It evokes pity for these children when none is warranted. Sure, there is a small percentage of "home"schoolers that "home"school for religious reasons and/or might fit that stereotype, but the VAST majority of "home"school families are just the opposite. I "home"school my five year old son, although he prefers to call it Life Learning. We are rarely at home. We live on the Oregon Coast so in the case of extremely inclement weather, we may stay home and read, watch a documentary, study leaf shapes, use our Montessori materials to cement math concepts, cook, play, write a puppet show, etc. You get the point. Mostly, we are out and about interacting with the world, researching, taking nature walks, poking around in tide pools, gathering with friends and fellow Life Learners, camping, hiking, traveling, etc. People often comment, my mother included (who was initially skeptical about "home"schooling), that my son is remarkably mature and well-adjusted. This is the result of him having had so many experiences in the world and interactions with the people in it, and not solely with people of his own age.

I am sure you have noticed that the "home" in "home"schooling is in quotations throughout my response to your post. In case you haven't guessed, it is because Life Learning does not take place in the home, it takes place in the world. Please educate yourself instead of continuing to perpetuate this silly myth. If education reform is truly to take hold, each of the many facets needs to come together to present a united front against the prevalent culture of factory schooling and high-stakes testing instead of trying to tear each other down in order to present themselves as the best alternative option.