‘Reinventing the Classroom’

Harvard Professor Discusses Experimental Course Design in Clinton School Lecture

Harvard Professor Harry Lewis speaks Jan. 12 at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.
Harvard Professor Harry Lewis speaks Jan. 12 at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock.
“The Internet is changing education. What are universities going to do about it?”
Harry Lewis, the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard University, posed this question in his Jan. 12 lecture, “Reinventing the Classroom, Rethinking Education,” at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

Lewis’s lecture focused on the advent of the Internet and its effect on typical lecture halls at universities across the United States.

Lewis asserted that access to the Internet has lessened the need for teachers, because more frequently people are using the Internet as their primary resource for learning. This practice negates the “hydraulic model” for education, which describes how an instructor takes information from its source and transmits it to his or her students, Lewis said.

More universities are using digital media, such as video lectures and tutorials, to educate students, according to Lewis. He said that while he agrees digital media and the Internet are valuable tools for education, there’s still a need for social interaction among students. Lewis wanted to increase student presence and engagement during lectures. So, instead of doing what a typical professor might do, such as removing the video curriculum or issuing pop quizzes, he took a different approach and altered the way his classroom environment works.

Lewis developed a class called CS 20, “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science.” Unlike other computer science courses at Harvard, where students gather in a lecture hall to listen to their professors, the environment in CS 20 allows students to spend their time in class solving problems together, thus creating a more engaging format learning environment, Lewis said. The digital media provides the lecture, and the students use classroom to discuss and apply the course topics.

Lewis admits that the course is experimental, but the results have been positive. This is true, at least, from the students’ point-of-view. Lewis read a few examples of the anonymous feedback he’s received so far. In general, the students seemed to really enjoy the environment and the problem-solving activities. Lewis said that even the negative responses were somewhat positive; one example he gave was from a student who did not like Lewis’s instruction but enjoyed the classroom environment and the teaching assistants.

Lewis says that lectures aren’t going anywhere, but the positive feedback he’s received is a result of an environment that encourages creativity, skepticism, and teamwork. Coming from a person whose high-profile students include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, it could be an experiment worth trying.

To watch Lewis’s Clinton School lecture, visit clintonschoolspeakers.com/.