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The Digital Classroom: A Historical Consideration on the Redesigning of the Contexts of Learning

Part of the Educational Governance Research book series (EGTU,volume 9)


In the digital age, it is increasingly common that classrooms show a significant presence of technological devices that redesign their layout and daily interactions. However, this redesigning is less the result of the direct intervention of designers and architects than the effect of local and usually more silent arrangements that find ways to accommodate the demands of these devices in the existing physical and pedagogical environments. In the chapter, I present some of the current debates on transforming schools into ‘smart and sentient’ environments for learning and the new role of digital devices in them. Based on research done in Argentinean and Mexican classrooms, I then argue that there is a visible trend in their interactions and material layout that shows a shift from several artifacts and pedagogical devices (window, blackboard, fieldtrips, and playgrounds) that used to invite different trajectories for learning to an overwhelming presence of a single artifact that appears to synthetize all these possibilities: the screen. In the final section, I reflect on the direction of this shift and on the orientations that new design and pedagogies could take. I claim that studying the redesigning of classrooms in digitalized schools gives us access to ‘a history of our contemporary infrastructures of sense and knowledge’, in Orit Halpern’s terms, a history that is perhaps unsettling but that, precisely for that reason, needs to be interrogated.


  • Digital classrooms
  • Design
  • Screen
  • Window
  • Blackboard

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  1. 1.

    According to Michael Hanke, Flusser’s essay was first published in the journal DR in 1991 (Hanke 2014, p. 9).

  2. 2.

    Walter Benjamin’s reading of the Angel, through Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, is slightly different, as it talks about the past/the dead and the future (a storm called progress). See his (Benjamin 1968).

  3. 3.

    In particular I refer to his reflections on glass, steel, buildings, and exhibitions (Benjamin 1999).

  4. 4.

    Catherine Burke, author of a seminal study on Mary Crowley, researched about Eveline Lowe Nursery and Primary School in Southwark (London): “Spaces were designed to offer and suggest a variety of possible uses … With this in mind, a long corridor area was clad in timber and divided into bays which might be used for study and group learning during parts of the day and could be adapted for dining in family groups at lunch times (…). On the other hand, a negative unpredicted outcome of this layout in practice was that children in the bases nearer the hall were regularly disturbed by children from more distant bases passing through on their way to PE or music, as there were no separate corridors” (Burke 2013b, p. 127).

  5. 5.

    The idea of the “factory of learning” was presented by Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons in the Seminar “What’s the Matter with the (Art) School” that took place at BUDA, Kortrijk, in April 25th and 26th, 2017. It comes from Vilem Flusser: “A ‘school’ is a place of contemplation, of leisure (otium, schole)), and a ‘factory’ is a place that has given up contemplation (negotium, ascholia)” (Flusser 1999b, p. 49); as will be shown below, in the factory of learning, these differences no longer apply. On the school as suspension of time and space, see Jan Masschelein and Maarten Simons (2013).

  6. 6.

    The corpus on which these observations and field notes are based is broad, and I can only mention here some of the field notes, as a sort of paintbrush strokes that describe scenes and situations. Four research projects were developed in Argentina and Mexico between 2011 and 2016, which included classroom observations in public secondary schools, in-depth interviews with teachers and students, and analysis of school homework that involve digital media (videos, documents, visual presentations). In Argentina the research was carried with a group of colleagues: Patricia Ferrante, Julieta Montero, Delia González, Ariel Benasayag, and Jaime Piracón, at FLACSO (Latin American School for the Social Sciences) and the Universidad Pedagógica. Overall, more than 40 classes were observed in the different projects, including different disciplinary subjects; 82 students and 64 teachers were interviewed in depth, on occasions twice or three times; the research corpus includes over 60 audiovisual texts made by students that were subjected to a socio-semiotic and genealogical analysis.

  7. 7.

    On the language and practices of technological corporations, see José van Dijck (2013).

  8. 8.

    On windows, see the work done by Manfredo Di Robilant, Niklas Maak, Rem Koolhaas, and Irma Boom (2015).

  9. 9.

    Alvar Aalto, the famous Finnish architect, designed Baker House Dormitory at MIT in 1946-1949, taking into consideration “the eyes of a seated, of a lying, of a standing [student] body - the three positions that define the daily cycle of the student’s life” (Di Robilant et al. 2015, p. 73).

  10. 10.

    The heating and light would become a problem in glass walls, leading to new technologies for thermal shielding, sound isolation, and radiation blockage (Di Robilant et al. 2015, pp. 112–113).

  11. 11.

    “Whores at the window, and ruffians in the market”, meaning honest women ought not spend their time at the window, just as honest men should not be idling in public places’, taken from A New Spanish and English Dictionary, John Stevens 1706 (Di Robilant et al. 2015, p. 8).

  12. 12.

    For an excellent study on the display windows that hosted ‘the daily (and especially nightly) acts of seduction that occurred on the city street, marked by the entanglement of desires related to consumerism and sexuality in modern urban life’, see Lungstrum (1999, p. 122).

  13. 13.

    This regulation included not only windows but other objects as well: “An arrangement of the windows, so as to secure one blank wall, and at the same time, the cheerfulness and warmth of the sunlight, at all times of the day, with arrangements to modify the same by blinds, shutters, or curtains” (Barnard 1854, p. 47).

  14. 14.

    This prospect sounds unsettling and highly problematic from an ethical, political, and epistemic point of view. Yet, it is reasonable to say that “in our culture of simulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was for the Victorians - threat and obsession, taboo, and fascination.” It might be worth asking whether authenticity and life (not artificial) still have an intrinsic value in the current state of affairs (Turkle 2011, p. 4).

  15. 15.

    The study done by Manfredo di Robilant and others underscores the increasing safety and quality requirements to produce windows, at least in the European Union, that makes it virtually impossible to be manufactured by small business and that have produced a monopoly by big corporations that are the only ones that can afford scale and costs and that then can impose styles, sizes, and qualities. Design and production have more to do with the current state of affairs than it is often assumed (Di Robilant 2015).

  16. 16.

    See, for example, the prevalence of texting over calling or visiting in Sherry Turkle (2011, Chap. 1).

  17. 17.

    See, last accessed on May 20th, 2017.

  18. 18.

    The child who is sitting in front of the teacher and the blackboard is drooling and is seated on a platform that reads “Ritalin 10 mg.”

  19. 19.

    Apparently deriving from a Celtic word, ard = stone (da Barra 2016, p. 30).

  20. 20.

    The French delegate was Ferdinand Buisson, later school inspector and author of a renowned Dictionnaire de Pédagogie in 1889 and 1911 (da Barra 2016, pp. 298ff).

  21. 21.

    It can be said that, as with other large-scale urban programs, “[t]hese megaprojects were treated as one-off expenses rather than long-term investments” (McGuirk 2014, p. 45).

  22. 22.

    For example, in one of the schools that was observed, as there was only one whiteboard, the school authorities decided to place it in a common area, with too much light and noise; this made it very difficult to use with class groups. In another school, the whiteboard was monopolized by the IT teacher, and this generated complaints from her colleagues.

  23. 23.

    Among others, see Ian Hunter (1988) on James Kay Shuttleworth’s proposals for school playgrounds.

  24. 24.

    See, for example, the essays included in Chateau and Mouré (2016).


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Dussel, I. (2018). The Digital Classroom: A Historical Consideration on the Redesigning of the Contexts of Learning. In: Grosvenor, I., Rosén Rasmussen, L. (eds) Making Education: Material School Design and Educational Governance. Educational Governance Research, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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