After centuries of relative torpor, technology breakthroughs have begun to reshape teaching and learning in ways that have prompted paradigm shifts around pedagogy, assessment, and scholarly research, and have upended assumptions of how and where learning takes place, the student-teacher dynamic, the functions of libraries and museums, and the changing role of scholars as creators and curators of knowledge.

Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, teaches a popular interactive course, "Justice," which is also an online course available across the globe. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, teaches a popular interactive course, “Justice,” which is also an online course available across the globe. Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

“There are massive changes happening right now,” said Robert A. Lue, the Richard L. Menschel Faculty Director of the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning and faculty director of HarvardX. “What has brought it into particularly tight focus now is that the revolution in online education has raised a whole host of very important questions about: What do students do with faculty face-to-face; what is the value of the brick-and-mortar experience; and how does technology in general really support teaching and learning in exciting, new ways? It’s been a major catalyst, if you will, for a reconsideration of how we teach in the classroom.”

While the Web is 25 years old, education has been slower than most fields to embrace the Internet’s transformational power. Traditional ways of thinking about how humans learn and about which teaching strategies are most effective had dominated educational discourse for centuries.

“I think in education there is, perhaps understandably, a conservatism built around the privileging of how knowledge is communicated and the concern that new modes of communicating, of connecting, of sharing, may somehow lose or diminish the rigor of the exchange,” said Lue.

Dynamic, practice-based learning

Classrooms of the future are likely to resemble the laboratory or studio model, as more disciplines abandon the passive lecture and seminar formats for dynamic, practice-based learning, Harvard academicians say.

Students pictured in the classroom listening to Robert Lue lecture in the Northwest Building at Harvard University

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“There’s a move away from using the amphitheater as a learning space … toward a room that looks more like a studio where students sit in groups around tables, and the focus is on them, not on the instructor, and the instructor becomes more the ‘guide outside’ rather than the ‘sage onstage,’ facilitating the learning process rather than simply teaching and hoping people will learn,” said Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

It’s a shift that’s changing teaching in the humanities as well. “It’s a project-based model where students learn by actually being engaged in a collaborative, team-based experience of actually creating original scholarship, developing a small piece of a larger mosaic — getting their hands dirty, working with digital media tools, making arguments in video, doing ethnographic work,” said Jeffrey Schnapp, founder and faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, an arts and humanities research and teaching unit of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Massive open online courses, peer-to-peer learning and mentoring, computer-based testing, and flipped classrooms will make for a newly dynamic and individualized classroom experience.

Estimated HarvardX Registration as of April 27, 2014

The flipped classroom, where students view lectures before attending sessions focused on problem-solving and group activities, will become widely integrated, predicted Sherri Rose, assistant professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School, one of dozens of faculty who gathered in April for a workshop sponsored by the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching to consider and share ideas about teaching statistics and machine-based learning and curricula.

“This type of teaching is already being embraced, but becomes increasingly feasible given the continuing technological leaps that allow faculty to record lectures in their offices and share videos easily via various online platforms,” Rose said in an email. “Interactive classroom frameworks are adaptable to many disciplines, and can be particularly useful in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] courses where students are forced to confront the boundaries of their knowledge and grasp of the material while learning from students in other concentrations.”

How and when learning is measured also are likely to undergo a major shift.

“I do think testing will change and become more focused on testing higher-level cognitive skills — problem-solving, writing, open-ended questions, and the like,” said James E. Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in an email.

Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, focuses his classroom experience on analysis and creativity. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, focuses his classroom experience on analysis and creativity. Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

“I also think that the uses of testing will expand and that we will see more frequent, low-stakes assessments that will help guide instruction and will be one way to make instruction more personalized,” he said. “So instead of once-a-year, high stakes tests, we are likely to see more weekly, or even daily, brief assessments to gauge mastery of a topic, which, once reached, will allow a student to move to the next topic.”

Too often, officials say, exams still test skills like memory and rote problem solving that are no longer necessary, since smartphones and computers have taken up those tasks.

“I think in higher education, particularly at an institution like Harvard, we should focus on higher-order thinking skills, skills that are related to judgment, analysis, creativity, and not the lowest-order thinking skills like memory and procedures,” said Mazur. “I think that will force us to completely reconsider our approaches to assessment, especially in the sciences.”

An expansion of the i-lab

Learning that takes place outside of the classroom will play a more critical role, as projects now underway — such as the renewal of 12 undergraduate Houses to include wired, dedicated spaces and expansion of the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab) — will broaden the collaborative possibilities.

Now three years old, the i-lab has proven a wildly popular beehive, where students and faculty nurture the spark of entrepreneurial ideas through lectures and workshops, work and meeting spaces, and connections with partners. This summer will see the opening of the Harvard Launch Lab, a new space that offers the i-lab experience for alumni, and plans are afoot to bring the i-lab concept to locations beyond Cambridge, and online.

For scholars, the growing importance of statistics and big data are altering the way ideas are studied and communicated both inside and outside the academic community. As tools such as data visualization and text mining penetrate research, scholars will learn by doing and become the curators of physical and digital collections, producing visual artifacts in what will be a newly-critical skill set in scholarship, said the metaLAB’s Schnapp, a Dante scholar.

Harvard Assistant Professor Luke Bornn teaches a statistics class on Big Data in Stone Hall in Quincy House at Harvard University.

Assistant Professor of Statistics Luke Bornn teaches a class on big data that is project-based and emphasizes peer learning. Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“Those artifacts that are created, if they’re well designed and well conceived, not only can convey forms of knowledge that are being argued about, interpreted, and produced, but they are also artifacts that are very accessible and sometimes appealing even to all kinds of audiences that might not be engaged by a standard narrative, argumentative scholarly form of practice.”

The boundaries that separate the library, the museum, and the classroom are likely to dissolve as the first two entities continue to evolve from a knowledge repository model to an activity and services model.

The old notion that libraries generally exist to support research and that learning only happens in the classroom, Schnapp said, “is giving way to a model where the walls are very porous, and where the teaching and research happens all over the place, it’s ubiquitous, and it happens right in the presence of physical collections that may be housed over in the library, or they may be housed in the museum. But the sense is that all of these institutions are engaged in a common endeavor.”