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The classroom of the future is already here (for some)

The classroom of the future is already here (for some)

80 students from all around the globe are displayed on a curved screen measuring 45 square metres. The lecturer is a hologram moved around the lecture hall by a robot. The students collaborate on documents and take part in simulations in real time. The professor uses artificial intelligence and big data to run simulations that test the students’ abilities. He or she has a rolling live feed of data on students’ participation, including their emotional engagement. There is no back row of seats where students can hide. Everybody sits front and centre on the giant screen. Everybody’s mike is on all the time. Nobody is muted. The audio is crystalline and there is virtually no delay in voice or image.

This type of virtual classroom has been portrayed often enough in science fiction films. Ender’s Game and Prometheus are just two random examples that feature futuristic learning environments. Yet the lecture hall described above exists today.

It costs a lot of money, though. Broadband and Skype won’t cut it. You need advanced servers running Cisco Telepresence technology, holographic projectors, an awfully big screen, uninterruptible power supplies and a team of production staff. It’s more like a TV studio than a traditional lecture hall. So far these rooms only exist at Harvard, Yale, Wharton and a handful of other very well-funded institutions. Perhaps the impact is largely theatrical in that these spaces are designed to impress. But eventually they could become more mainstream, which is when their practical effectiveness will be tested more thoroughly. For the time being, these TED-Talk-meets-Minority-Report techfests are confined to high-end teaching institutions who need to create impact to match their status.

The only such space in Europe to date is at Madrid’s IE Business School, an elite establishment offering prestigious international MBA programs. Their classroom of the future is called WOW (Window On the World). They have released a highly impressive demo of WOW’s capabilities, and it has even been used to conduct a real orchestra with each musician in a different place in the world, with no apparent latency at all and the whole orchestra playing in perfect time and in high fidelity.

Diego del Alcázar Benjumea is Vice President of IE Business School and is understandably enthusiastic about WOW. “This learning space takes us to the next level of our commitment to technology immersion. We have invested 25 million euros in innovative learning projects over the last 15 years, a strategy which has gained us recognition as the best business school in the world for online MBAs. The WOW Room will simulate real situations in which some 100 professors and over 1,000 students from 130 countries will take part over the course of the first year. Students will take decisions under pressure. They will find themselves in the midst of business crises, be required to define production processes in factory environments, negotiate war situations and resolve diplomatic conflicts between countries, to name just a few potential scenarios.”

Initially the technology will be used on IE’s MBAs, fees for which range from €44,700 to €75,000 (£40,000 to £67,000), but IE hopes that it could be adopted more widely, and by other institutions, in future.