Education by Engagement and Construction:
Experiences in the AT&T Teaching Theater

Ben Shneiderman

Department of Computer Science
Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory
Institute for Systems Research
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

Keynote for ED-MEDIA 93, June, 1993, Orlando, FL


Novel technologies can stimulate innovative solutions to traditional problems. During the past two years I have been challenged to revise my notions of learning because I have been teaching in the AT&T Teaching Theater at the University of Maryland. This unique classroom was designed to enable instructors and students to explore new strategies, by supporting extensive use of media, computing, and network supported collaboration.

I have learned many lessons about technology and education in the AT&T Teaching Theater, but my most compelling experience is the acceleration of my transformation as a teacher. While I appreciated the wisdom of and was influenced by many great educators such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget, and Papert, and the reports of national committees [NIE84, AAH87], I have made my own synthesis [Shn92a, b, c]. I see more clearly than before that the path to motivating students is the joy of creation, expl oration, and discovery. I see also that these processes are social in nature and that shared experiences in class and through teamwork projects are vital.

I have tried to describe this philosophy of education with the two-level phrase 'engagement and construction.' At the classroom level, students are engaged with each other in an active way to construct something meaningful and substantial. They work in teams to write a report, produce software, make a presentation, prepare a videotape, etc. At the community level, students are engaged in the real world, relating to "clients" (professionals, parents, children, patients, etc.) to construct something of value and importance to them. The team projects might be to computerize a list of hospital volunteers, propose a new ethics policy for the university computer center, develop a hypermedia guide to computer virus protection, write a handbook on software aids for deaf children, etc.

I claim that computing and communication technologies have opened up new possibilities in the educational environment by empowering students in remarkable ways. Students can now apply their skills to socially valuable projects, benefiting their clients while gaining meaningful knowledge plus having satisfying experiences.

This approach is quite different from many views of computing and education that still depend on the archaic fantasies of teaching machines, computer assisted instruction, intelligent computer assisted instruction, and intelligent tutoring systems. These terms emphasize the machine and the delivery of instruction as if knowledge could be sent by modem at 9600 baud. These systems often make the student the victim of the machine. Empirical studies show limited or moderate benefits to these approaches and my experience is that the main beneficiaries of an educational experience are those who create the systems. The newer view focuses on interactive learning environments, discovery learning, and constructivism. Students seem likely to learn more by having to create an instructional module or a hypermedia presentation than to use one. Similarly viewing a videotape can be instructive, but creating one compels a student to dig deeper, become more engaged, and gain a far greater sense of accomplishment. In many educational circles, evaluation is shifting from mind-numbing and fragmenting multiple choice questions to holistic processes and project oriented methods.

Instructors and students may be cautious about departing from familiar patterns, but with careful first steps I believe that most courses can be gracefully and evolutionarily restructured. The basic tools of creation are wordprocessors, paint programs, spreadsheets, database managers, communications packages, and programming languages. Of course, some of the ideas I propose could be done with low or no technology, but these novel powerful tools empower students in remarkable ways. I hope that my experiences can help foster confidence, inspire some teachers, and stimulate others to improve on my methods.

Technology to support learning

The concept paper for the AT&T Teaching Theater was written in 1988 by the Steering Committee at the University of Maryland. We followed the advice from colleagues at other universities (especially the University of Arizona) who had built electronic meeting rooms for business-related group decision support systems, but our goal was to create a learning environment for undergraduate and graduate education. Our plan was to support instructors in every discipline, not just computing, business, or engineering, and to limit use by outside companies or government agencies. Although we have been strongly tempted to seek income from rental to outsiders, we have largely stuck to our principles. Our vision was to create a new environment that makes ambitious use of media, provides computers for students and instructors, and supports collaboration by networking.

The media components include VHS and UMatic tape players, audio tape, CD players, laser disc, 35mm slide projection, and overhead projector. Two large screen high resolution projectors (768 x 1024) can display the media or the student and instructor computers. There is a touchscreen control panel for media and lighting, but its complexity is unsettling even to long-term users such as myself. There is a white board between the two projectors.

The computer components are 20 student and 1 instructor AT&T 386PCs with Super VGA monitors, a mouse and a keyboard. The computers are housed in an adjoining room for security, to reduce noise, to minimize heat, and to reduce the clutter in the classroom. We installed the monitors down in custom built desks to preserve sight lines and eye contact. These strategies have worked out well and the classroom is an appealing environment for teaching, even when the computers are not in use. Reduced desk space and limited leg room are modest disadvantages. A tiered floor elevates the rear rows, but wheelchair access is provided to the first row of five computers. The twenty computers were intended to be shared and therefore there are forty chairs. Careful installation of lighting, airconditioning, carpeting, and wall treatments, plus comfortable chairs have made the room attractive for students and visitors. After much debate we chose to use Microsoft Windows 3.1, and many instructor requested packages (e.g. Quattro Pro, Paradox, MS Write, Visual Basic) are mounted as needed.

The networking is provided by a Novell Local Area Network, which is connected to the campus network. Within the classroom shared access is quite good, but there are limitations when outside the classroom. On campus users who go to computer labs equipped with the Novell LAN and Windows 3.1 can access the machines in the Teaching Theater, but other access is limited to file transfers. Students and instructors were pleased when it recently became possible to access files from UNIX workstations and by dial-up from off-campus. The desire for connectivity is strong.

A further support for collaboration is an electronic switch box that enables instructors to select any student machine and view it, display it on either large screen projector, or show it on all 21 computer monitors. This is a very rapid and easy to use tool that I depend on heavily.

There is an effective support staff that maintains the hardware, installs software packages, develops novel software, and assists instructors and students. The room is monitored with a team of part-time undergraduate and graduate students, so that instructors can call on help with the computers, media, lighting, etc. during every class.

Scenes from the AT&T Teaching Theater

The technology is only the stage on which to produce educational experiences, and the creative work of numerous instructors is daily yielding novel scenarios. I will report on my favorite moments and appealing ideas from other instructors. Some days are less exciting and I may not use much of the technology, but I have become less apologetic about these quieter days. It takes preparation to make great and innovative things happen, but over time I have become more familiar with the room and more spontaneous. The novelty and preparation are significant barriers for many instructors who have well-developed course plans and lecture notes. Even for technology-oriented instructors, it is a challenge to restructure their courses and adapt their teaching styles to take advantage of the AT&T Teaching Theater.

Classroom engagement and construction

Instructor's blackboard: The simplest and most common scenario is for me to use the wordprocessor on the instructor's workstation as my blackboard. In some courses, I begin each class by putting up the course outline (in a large font) to see our progress, note when assignments our due, and remind students about readings. Then I will switch to a text file with notes from the previous class and we can review our discussion, refresh our memory, and give a quick overview for absent students. If appropriate, I will extend the notes file with today's discussion items and at the end of the class will copy the file to the shared directory so that all students can review the notes. I like asking students a question and then typing in their answers, refining the answers, organizing them and winding up with a coherent set of notes. I might be able to prepare slides with my answers in advance and hand them out, but the process of creating the notes communally seems to engage students in a lively discussion. As in most classes, some students are more vocal, so I try to ask for contributions from as many students as possible.

I have also used the Paintbrush program to make sketches in class. My early drawings were clumsy but I have gotten smoother and know better what works quickly in front of a classroom. Even 5-15 seconds of my fumbling through the menus to find what I want is irritating to the students and embarrassing to me. Similarly, when I'm using a new database package or other tool, I find it important to rehearse me lectures and make sure I know the commands I need.

Student presentations: I keep reminding myself to give my students a chance to use the room and to see what they come up with. One strategy in my senior database class was to have a pair of students volunteer to go over the solution to each week's homework problems. They came to the front and used the instructor's workstation to show their solutions on the large screens. This worked well in that the presenting students worked especially carefully on their solution set and got a chance to show their best. Often students in the class would offer other solutions and we could switch to their machines to see what they had come up with. I also arranged for student presentation of term projects, sometimes including videotapes produced with the camcorder I lent them.

Class exercises: In my user interface design course, I ask students to work in pairs to design pieces of a user interfaces such as a menu hierarchy, a form fill-in, or a set of icons. They have gotten quite lively in their discussions and more confident about presenting what they create. I will give them 15-30 minutes and then use the switch box to show all the versions quickly. I linger on the designs I consider excellent, thereby reinforcing high expectations and allowing students to see how well their colleagues can do. In the icon design exercise one of the students made a playful but disbelieving remark about what one of the teams accomplished. I think everyone was impressed and got some fresh ideas about what was possible. The public embarrassment for the weaker students is of concern to me.

Homework projects: Teamwork design projects accomplished over a three week period were also part of my user interface course. Students had to design a mockup of a video-on-demand system that would enable home viewers to select one out of 10,000 videos. One of the students downloaded a database of movie reviews and made it available to the others so that realistic titles, reviews, and other information could be shown. Students worked in Visual Basic and then showed their mockups to the class for a critiquing session that lasted almost an hour.

Group programming: One of my great thrills was teaching modular design in Pascal to first semester students. I composed a 20 line main program that invoked three procedures. I asked students to generate versions of the procedures and then examined what they did using the switch box. I chose the one I liked best, made a few slight changes, and then copied it from their machine to mine. I pasted together the components and was thrilled when it compiled and ran on the first try. While I was enthusiastic, my students seemed to think that this was the natural way to do things.

Course reviews: We use a groupware system, Visionquest, to enable students to comment on the course in topics such as the homework, projects, tests, lectures, textbook. and the classroom. Students select a topic and type brief comments which are shown on the large screen anonymously. In 15 minutes I have gotten 168 one or two line comments. I find it fascinating so see my student's comments, although it is somewhat painful to see my weaknesses clearly identified. I review the printout and give my feedback on their comments at the next class session. This year students vigorously complained that my first take home test was too long, although others defended its fairness and utility as a learning experience. The next test will be shorter.

Brainstorming: My colleague in the College of Business, Prof. Maryam Alavi makes heavy use of Visionquest in her case-oriented Management Information Systems course. She might ask her students to comment on ways for a stereotypic company to increase sales or control costs. The suggestions can be viewed, organized, ranked, rated, and refined. She teaches in the evening and reports that, while in other courses students are often tired and eager to leave, her students often stay late in the Teaching Theater to add detailed comments for her case studies.

Hypercourseware: Another colleague, Prof. Kent Norman of the Department of Psychology, has invested a substantial effort to develop extensive notes for his course on Experimental Statistics [Nor90, Nor93]. He uses Plus (from Spinnaker Software) to build slides with step-by-step demonstrations of statistical tests and sample data for students to manipulate. These are integrated into a full course support system that manages the student roster, presents the course outline, offers background readings and references, etc. all linked together. Hypercourseware has been used as the platform for three courses: Statistics for the Behavioral Sciences, Cognitive Psychology: Thinking and Problem Solving, and the Cognitive Seminar. The point of Hypercourseware is to build from an integrated set of stacks that represent traditional objects of classroom education: the syllabus linked to lectures and exams, the class roll linked to biographical sketches and pictures, and the class seating chart. In statistics the fun is group data collection, dissemination, and analysis. In thinking and problem solving the fun is collaborative sharing of notes and ideas, brainstorming, and simulated cognitive experiments.

Community engagement and construction

My orientation towards engagement and construction in the classroom seems to lead quite naturally to engagement and construction in the wider community. While some students struggle with this new vision of education and resist my encouragement to go off campus, I do have enough successes to keep me exploring refinements to these strategies. Dealing with a dozen 3-person teams is demanding for an instructor, but I become engaged in the process and am eager to know more about what has been happening in each team.

Sharing computing skills: My favorite story from a Computers and Society course is how a team of students interested in computers for the elderly worked with the director of a nearby senior citizens center. After reading the background literature the team planned a set of instructional experiences for the seniors, exploring word processing paint programs, games, etc. The students validated their theory about what would work and what wouldn't and produced a report for the director of the center about what they might take on as next steps. Another team of students worked with a local junior high school (one the team member's mother was the principal) to reorganize their computer lab and develop a plan to better support the schools educational mission.

On campus database projects: In my database course students took on more software development projects, such as helping the journalism department keep a list of more than 800 internships available to students nationally. Another group built a complete accounting package for the veterinary sciences department, while a third kept track of software site licenses for the computer center. These and other projects produced software that continues to be used. A less successful but more ambitious project was to attempt to arrange carpools on campus. They used the address information in the faculty-staff directory and struggled to find an effective geographic matching mechanism. The goal was to send email messages to potential car pool partners and encourage them to make connections. The team built some interesting neighborhood finding algorithms based on zip codes, but it was not adequate for the task. The Office of Commuter Affairs was interested in the project and maybe a future team project can build on this initial effort. The team still got an A for a thorough and thoughtful report on their analyses. Students could demonstrate their projects to their classmates easily in the AT&T Teaching Theater.

Off campus database projects: My students were reluctant to make contact with potential off campus clients but several successful projects emerged. One team built a database to store information on 23,000 donors for a major charitable organization, while another team kept track of thousands of attendees for Montgomery County community center courses. Both continue to be used. Many students have off campus connections through their family or part-time jobs, and where possible I steer students to clients that I have identified through my contacts. I will be even more devoted to off campus projects that provide community service to soup kitchens, health hotlines, clinics, and legal services organizations. I believe undergraduates can provide meaningful assistance to these volunteer organizations.

Graduate Seminars: A typical approach to a graduate seminar is to read a research journal paper each week and have one or two students start the discussion by critiquing the paper. In my experience, students will often make harsh and sometimes unfair criticisms of the paper so as to demonstrate their cleverness or insight. Using the principles of engagement and construction as a guide, I now require my graduate students to compose a letter to the authors and send it to them by electronic mail. This requirement has made discussions much more thoughtful and evoked many more positive statements about each paper. My students' comments have been well received and yielded appreciative comments. In one case, a student was acknowledged in a subsequent paper by the author.

Empirical studies research projects: One of my great pleasures is to have undergraduates work on empirical studies research projects and then publish papers with them as co-authors. I would say that one in ten such project yields publishable results and then there is often much additional work to make a professionally polished paper. I believe that this expectation is realistic in many areas if the instructor is willing to work with students and closely monitor their efforts. In my course on Human Factors in Computer and Information Systems I have seven milestones with deliverables before the complete project is submitted: proposal, initial materials, bibliography, pilot test results, initial statistical analyses, raw data reports, and first draft of the introduction. The students take great pride in their accomplishments and learn a lot by hearing about other projects and being pilot test subjects for their colleagues. End of semester presentations are also an important experience for both the presenters and the listeners.


These examples are an informal report about my initial experiences with a new teaching philosophy and a new technology. Maybe the lessons are separable but there seemed to be a synergy between my emerging principles and the technology. There are still many problems for which I seek better solutions such as how to grade students in teams, how to bring these principles to larger courses, and how to ensure fulfillment of traditional course requirements.

Next semester I will teach a new graduate seminar on Virtual Reality, Telepresence and Beyond, but this will be by satellite television and it will be outside the AT&T Teaching Theater. However, the lessons I have learned are guiding me to using electronic mail, team projects, and high expectations for my students to contribute in a meaningful way to the current research.

Not all teachers have facilities such as the AT&T Teaching Theater or satellite television, but access to computing and networking is quite broad and improving. Administrators should be encouraged to support development of these facilities. Education by engagement and construction applies not just to computer science courses but to every discipline and at every age, from elementary school to continuing education (Figure 1). The Final Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education, National Institute of Education wrote that 'Active modes of teaching require that students be inquirers - creators, as well as receivers of knowledge.' That report also stressed projects, internships, discussion groups, collaborations, simulations, and presentations (Figure 2). Similarly, the Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education presented by the American Association for Higher Education (Figure 3) pushed for cooperation among students and active learning projects.

Students want to engage with people to:

Students will be engaged by constructing products:

Teachers should promote:

Multimedia technologies can empower students:

Project orientation enhances engagement:

Figure 1: Strategies for increasing Engagement and Construction

1) Student Involvement

2) High Expectations

3) Assessment and Feedback

Figure 2: Conditions for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education, Final Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education [NIE84].

Figure 3: Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education [AAH87].

Acknowledgements: AT&T's generous funding made this educational exploration possible. All of us who participated in the process greatly appreciate their support. Ron Weissman and Glen Ricart played key roles in the development of the AT&T Teaching Theater plans. Walt Gilbert masterminded the development and construction efforts and Ellen Yu has done an excellent job in supporting teachers and students on a day-to-day basis. Constructive comments on early drafts

were provided by Gary Marchionini, Kent Norman, and Ellen Yu.


[AAH87] American Association for Higher Education, 1987. Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education.

[NIE84] National Institute of Education, 1984. Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education, Final Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education.

[Nor90] Norman, Kent L., 1990. The Electronic Teaching Theater: Interactive hypermedia and mental models in the classroom. Current Psychology: Research and Reviews, 9(2) , 141-161.

[Nor93] Norman, Kent L. & Lindwarm, Diane, 1993. Human/computer interaction in the electronic classroom. Proceedings of the Mid-Atlantic Human Factors Conference, Virginia Beach, February, 217-223.

[Shn92a] Shneiderman, Ben, 1992. Education by Engagement and Construction: A Strategic Education Initiative for a Multimedia Renewal of American Education, In, Barrett, Ed (Editor), Sociomedia: Hypermedia, Multimedia and the Social Creation of Knowledge, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 13-26.

[Shn92b] Shneiderman, Ben, 1992. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, Second Edition, Addison-Wesley Publ. Co., Reading, MA.

[Shn92c] Ben Shneiderman, 1992. Engagement and Construction: Educational strategies for the post-TV era, In Tomek, Ivan (Editor), Computers and Learning, Proceedings of the International Conference onComputers and Learning, Springer-Verlag, New York, 39-45. Reprinted in the Journal of Computing in Higher Education, Vol. 2, No. 4, Spring1993, 106-116.