Changes in funding for higher education have left many institutions scrambling to find more cost effective ways to graduate increasing numbers of enrolled students. Many innovative concepts are at play, ranging from reducing the “average” student tenure from four to three years to providing more class materials on line and thus reducing contact hours of teaching. One of the most controversial trends is the rising interest in “mega classrooms” – auditoriums that hold sometimes more than 1,000 students.
Can such huge classrooms succeed?
The reality is that the onus will fall on the performance of the instructor as well as the room. An effective outcome requires an instructor who is both informative and entertaining, supported by a strong lesson plan, careful management of the students, and a stellar room and audiovisual system design. Compare these goals to those of mega churches or to “motivational speaker” conferences; the parallels are easy to draw. The educational experience is carefully choreographed and is supported with muscular AV systems. The physical spaces are as accessible as possible, while maximizing sight-lines throughout the room. Close attention is paid to the acoustics from both the speaker and audience perspective, and crowd control principles help organize the space.
The goal? To inspire the listener.
The use of live interaction systems such as clickers can help engage students by soliciting real-time feedback, while content-capture allows web-posting and subsequent review of the class on-demand. The greatest challenge may be the distribution and proctoring of in-room tests using the traditional paper and pencil approach; careful design should provide instructors and their teaching assistants with easy travel pathways throughout the space to achieve these and other pedagogical goals.
So the mega-classroom approach can work, if the spaces are carefully considered and well supported with appropriate technology. But in the end the success of such spaces will rest on the shoulders of the faculty who are willing and able to perform to, and entertain, a crowd.