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The World’s Largest Classroom. Part One: The University

Posted on Sep 27, 2016
The World’s Largest Classroom. Part One: The University

Just to be clear, I’m not sure if or how this qualifies as the world’s largest classroom. But it surely has a claim. It’s definitely big. Huge in fact. And it’s most certainly well worth a look. So here’s the story.


The University of Manchester is committed to an interdisciplinary pursuit of sustainability solutions. ‘Global Challenges, Manchester Solutions’ has been a rallying cry in recent months, embodied in the institution’s research beacons seeking groundbreaking innovation in industrial biotechnology, energy, cancer, advanced materials and global inequality. It doesn’t stop with research though. The University wants its students to get involved too. This is understandable because the world is demanding a bigger, joined up effort. Because industry wants it; because employers now insist on it; and because students are asking for it too. Students want a more responsible future. After all, it is their future. And it’s a fact that many of the solutions will embrace a mix of subject expertise – engineering meets design, biochemistry collides with forestry, health needs electronics. Science plus art – we’ve heard it many times haven’t we?

But most universities have committed to sustainability and interdisciplinarity in some way. And many want their students involved too. So what makes the University of Manchester stand out from the crowd? This is where the rather large classroom kicks in.

The University has numerous initiatives and on 20 September it publicly shared ‘Stellify’ to package it all together, showcasing opportunities in extra-curricular activity, in learning, volunteering, campus challenges and mentoring, whilst calling for students to seize their chance to be a star of the future: to shine in their own individual way. On 20 September the University also began to really walk the talk.

The World’s Largest Classroom?

On this one day thousands of new undergraduate students – on only their second day in fact – responded to their ‘Stellify’ invitation to come together to tackle a sustainability challenge. I’m not sure exactly how many turned up. Some international students were still mid-air. For a few others the early Freshers hangover may have been too much. But from a total of 8,200 new students (the largest cohort of its kind in the UK), I would estimate that the vast majority took part. Possibly the largest project team in history. We really are talking thousands!

I know this because I saw it with my own eyes. I was lucky enough to be welcomed as an observer and I duly watched seats filling up all over the south of the city centre. Over 100 classrooms, spread over 9 locations, were used in 2.5 hour sessions repeated throughout the day. Over 150 facilitators – a mix of research academics (including PhD students), teaching, professional and support staff – all got stuck in. For someone like me, who spends a lot of time on various campuses, it was eye-opening stuff.

The Challenge

The project itself was part of a number of the ‘Grand Ethical Challenges’ that the University is investing in. Ending in 25 massive lecture-room hosted plenaries, the main work took place in small groups in each of the classrooms. All students were mixed up by discipline. All got to break the ice and shape their teams (with names ranging from ‘Team Turnips’ to ‘421 GigaWatts’) and then they rolled their sleeves up and tackled the brief. The single instruction was delivered simultaneously via the facilitators, working to strict timescales and supported by synchronised broadcasts on screens including an introduction from the real President Dame Nancy Rothwell and then her fictional equivalent.

Yes, the task was fictional. Everyone was working for the University of Millchester and the goal was to recommend the most sustainable and socially responsible approach to building a new campus. Students approached their mission by sticking their recommendations to the wall, and then adapting them when various interventions were introduced. Now these interventions were really good. The fictional President gave updates, news reports were broadcast, and a social feed, including tweets from the Manchester community, were played out on the big screen. I was reminded of many of the gaming techniques these students would be largely familiar with – from Pokemon to YouTubers, and from Animal Crossing to FIFA 16 and Fantasy Football. Modules, prices, budgets, substitutions – everything from their flipped learning worlds. If you want to dig into it all further, read the University’s own words and immerse yourself in the numerous real-time social media coverage from the students themselves. It’s all at this link.

The Results

As for the results? I was impressed as each team stood up and presented their recommendations for the new campus – all on the clock of course. Just in the one room I ended up in I heard proposals for an edible campus (cheaper and greener food for all), for electric bikes (no new expensive and disruptive lanes required) and for permeable pavements (to overcome flooding risks). And lots more. I heard how £150m might be spent, but how 700 carbon units could be offset. I learned how a £238m investment could be subsidised by £50m of corporate sponsorship and would create 202 local jobs. And each team responded to some tough questioning from their peers. I enjoyed one particular debate that put solar panels up against the reality of many a sun-free Manchester day (apparently the sun gets through the clouds). The University talks about instilling a questioning philosophy. And again, it was really walking the talk. Meanwhile, I had to remind myself that for many of the students English was not their native language. Their quick witted articulation was particularly impressive.

The Benefit

The benefits were significant and diverse. The University of Manchester had made a statement of intent – ‘this is what we’re about’ and ‘we want you to make an impact’. All on day two of the new students’ journey as well. No messing around here. For many it was an early sample of modern teaching and learning delivery – practical focused, group working, encouraging questioning and solution based. For some, especially those from a classic teacher-lecture style culture, it would have been a revelation. And for many it was the chance to mix with others, to make new friends, some possibly for life. It was a chance to build their Snapchat and Instagram following with people they really wanted to connect with. And the chance to create common conversation ground for their halls of residence. Certainly it would have proved an alternative social mixing to the usual fabric on offer during Welcome Week. And then there’s the helpful reminder that budgeting is a skill that these students are going to have to master in their everyday lives.

The Importance

And so why take pen to paper (well fingers to keyboard) on this? For me it’s about the big picture importance. The signposting to new forms of education, most relevant to the challenges we all face. It wasn’t an ordinary classroom. It was one for 2016 and beyond. All entrenched in modern communication. I witnessed gaming bonding with learning, and Google and YouTube mashed up with Twitter. It was a mix of cultures, skills and subjects; it was about developing softer and more rounded skills. And it was about global perspectives too – so whilst the battleground was land in a northern English city, the implications stretched out to the planet’s melting ice caps. This takes me back to the start – a fusion of competencies, knowledge, experience and attitude that the world is demanding. I don’t know if this is the way to approach some of the biggest challenges. Who am I to say? But surely it’s a step in the right direction. A way to apply thousands of minds and voices to a global agenda.

And yes it was a fictional challenge. But to me it felt semi-fictional. So much of it was real. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research supplied much of the very real material to work with. The challenges remain very real too. Today Millchester. Tomorrow Manchester. And later the world. I’m not sure if this was the world’s largest classroom but it was definitely one of the most important.

Do have a look at how the University of Manchester shared the news. Link here. And have a look at how Manchester now has a new meaning for ‘Stellify. And not just the Ian Brown song. Yeah, you know the one.

Posted by Jim Tudor. You can contact him on

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