Classroom of the future takes learning to new levels

For the first time in Europe, a 'WOW Room', featuring a 45 square metre video wall, is available for faculty and dozens of university students around the world to interact in a single class.

The WOW – Window on the World – Room, modelled on a similar concept at Harvard University, is a physical space situated at Madrid-based IE University, which is a private non-profit university owned by the Instituto de Empresa SL.

"The WOW Room allows students to connect and collaborate no matter where they are, even if the only way they can join the class is through their mobile phone at the airport," says Jolanta Golanowska, director of learning innovation at IE.

The room comprises 48 screens, each showing a student, and is shaped in the form of a semi-circle. Each screen contains basic information, such as the student's name and country, for example, but can also superimpose other key details depending on the task.

The faculty member (the word 'lecturer' is seen as inappropriate because the student is interacting and collaborating in each session) stands at a lectern in the centre and can see all of the students as well as other data, such as graphics on students’ responses to a classroom poll, for example.

In this instance, when students give their vote through an online poll, faculty can instantly pair up students with opposing views, for example, in order that they debate a particular issue. Or the virtual classroom can be divided into teams to work on a particular task.

Alternatively, faculty can create a multiple-choice exercise and see in real-time the responses of each student next to their faces in order to develop richer learning experiences.

"This technological capacity is not only designed to benefit our students around the world," says Golanowska, "but also here on our campus."

Virtual field trips

A further use of the video wall allows students to go on virtual field trips. Normally it would not be possible for so many students, and certainly not simultaneously from all over the world, to visit the Airbus factory on the outskirts of Madrid, for example.

But if a cameraman streams live from the factory, faculty can easily provide this interactive and immersive experience through the WOW Room as part of a class, with people at the factory interacting with the students through it, as if they were in the same place.

Faculty can choose to operate the video wall technology and guide the class by using a 'wand', their verbal commands (by means of voice-recognition software), or via a Tablet. Cameras allow the recording and editing of sessions in real time with the aid of assistants, although in the future it is forecast that a faculty member will be able to operate the whole system on their own.

This possibility of having one person operate the video wall is one key way in which the system differs from that at Harvard University, because the Harvard system is more like a television production that requires six people to produce a session. Another difference is that, at around €500,000 (US$546,000), the WOW Room has been much cheaper to establish.

Emotion recognition tool

One feature that has generated particular interest is the student emotion recognition tool. The tool employs algorithms to detect students’ faces on the video screen and then analyses the relationship between points on the face to identify, for example, levels of attention, surprise and happiness.

Information on how students are feeling can be displayed to the faculty in aggregate form in real time during the (typically 90 minute) session to gauge levels of student interest. Many faculty will wish to see each session end on a high, for example, by using humour or surprise, and this can now be accurately and objectively measured.

Or the data can be analysed over a whole course to ensure that interest is maintained throughout and that the educational experience is at its most effective.

At individual level, a student who is apparently losing interest can immediately be identified as their screen is framed in a different colour, allowing faculty to intervene (or not). Initial feedback from students has shown that, partly because the camera is an integral part of the online learning experience, students feel comfortable with this use of the system.

Furthermore, the technology can count the number of seconds that a particular student is talking, so that faculty can see on a graph who is not participating, for example. "This information is difficult to collect in an ordinary classroom setting but easy when everyone is using their own camera to connect," says Golanowska.


The WOW Room is a pilot for much greater development. IE staff emphasise that the starting point is to find the best pedagogical approaches, rather than excitement about the technology, and so it is important to test different methods to see which is the most effective. To this end, a second WOW Room is being planned as well as the use of smaller screens that employ the same technology.

Martin Boehm, dean of programs at IE, is also a lecturer in marketing at IE and previously found it limiting to connect with students emotionally through his laptop on online courses.

"I was lecturing more than I wanted to," he says. "I wanted to have more interaction and see how the students reacted to what I said. If I see wrinkles on their foreheads I want to be able to respond in that instant. The WOW Room makes the experience much richer for faculty."

Virtual reality

Boehm highlights the use of artificial intelligence, augmented reality, simulations in real time, interactive robots, big data analysis and holographic faculty members as just a few of the methods currently being explored at IE. However, when asked to choose one technology he particularly feels will have an impact in the future he selects virtual reality, or VR.

"We would like to take the WOW room to a higher immersive level," he says. "If a student in the virtual classroom was wearing a VR headset they could turn to the side and see a student sitting next to them and even have a private conversation with them."

"Alternatively, if the faculty wanted to enact a role-play involving the head of a company firing a member of staff, for example, the student could be placed in one of the roles and face a 'virtual boss', or vice versa. Studies from the United States have shown that in 'no means no' sexual consent training for college students, VR role-play is the most effective way of understanding others' points of view and changing behaviour, and we believe this method could be applied through the video wall to improve learning," says Boehm.

Are there any specific problems that have arisen so far? "While it is an amazing experience for both faculty and students, we feel it could be made even better for students," says Golanowska.

"The best laptop can normally handle up to 15 video feeds, which means that at the moment a student cannot see each of the students in the class individually. Normally they see the faculty, the student who is talking at the time and a view of the whole video wall. We would like to improve on that."

"On the other hand, students will not normally have a problem with a sudden crashing of the screen, like on other platforms. Even if the quality of the connection falls, the system is designed to maintain video contact, followed by voice and then chat, so the student can continue to participate in the class even at low bandwidth," she says.

The WOW Room is the latest part of an investment of €25 million that IE has made in innovative technology over the last decade and a half. The Financial Times Online MBA Rankings have awarded it the status of top school in the world over the last three years.