Open Menu Close Menu

Online Learning

Offering Online Students a Front Row Learning Experience

At some point in our academic careers, most of us have found ourselves stuck in the back of an overcrowded lecture hall. Too far from the presenter to see or hear much of anything, it wasn't long before we lost interest, started on other work, or took a nap. Anyone sitting in those first few rows may have been enlightened and inspired, but for the rest of us, the class was less than productive. Higher education has set out to change that.

In recent years, distance education has gotten a bad rap. Students may feel invisible, instructors face content-delivery challenges, and technology is difficult to navigate — for everyone. In their rush to jump into the next generation of every new learning platform, some institutions have forced instructors, learners, and curriculum delivery into arbitrary frameworks defying intuitive use. For Texas State University's Division of Information Technology, taking the default route was, quite simply, unacceptable. Envisioning a higher level of quality and engagement for learners and instructors, the division forged its own path, designing an online education experience alongside — and for — the humans who use it.

Virtual learning has existed, in one form or another, since the 1960s. The advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s accelerated distance learning's evolution, and the pandemic ushered in a chaos of online learning methods. Unfortunately, some of those panic models stuck. Students suffered through lectures delivered from beneath a professor's chin and heard about content on slides they couldn't see. Instructors were underprepared to use the technology provided to them, much less convey content with it. The faculty became stressed, students grew frustrated, and the learning backslide began.

Inspiring Instructors

By 2018, Texas State's Ken Pierce had enough. As the university's chief information officer and vice president for information technology, Pierce decided to map a solution by starting with the indisputable key to successful online learning: the instructor. Pierce's goal was to create a user-friendly online learning environment instructors would be eager to use. Working with Dr. Carlos Balam-Kuk Solís in the Technology Innovation Office, as well as the Learning Spaces Design team of Brian Shanks and Atkins Fleming, Pierce laid out a plan for what he dubbed "The Teaching Space of Tomorrow."

Texas State University's Teaching Space of Tomorrow

Texas State University's Teaching Space of Tomorrow

The Teaching Space of Tomorrow is a combined streaming studio and faculty office. To gather direct and real-time feedback from faculty, the space needed an instructor-in-residence. Enter Dr. Seth Frei, a lecturing instructor for Texas State's McCoy College of Business Department of Management. With Frei as their muse, the team set out to create the most user-friendly online teaching environment possible. Since most solutions prioritize the learner's needs, this might sound like putting the cart before the horse. But Pierce knew innovation would require disruption, so he instructed the team to focus on the instructor. Solís explained the strategy this way: "An engaged instructor leads to an engaged learner." Frei's input, and feedback gathered from students, proved invaluable. Student Urvi Dalal described her experience with instruction from the Teaching Space of Tomorrow as "having an extra layer of quality." Dalal went on to explain, "The overall presentation quality helped retain my attention, which I believe helped me succeed in the class."

Engaging Students

To ensure students remain engaged by studio-quality presentations, instructors in the Teaching Space of Tomorrow have customized technology at their fingertips. From the room's generously sized podium, the lecturer controls multiple displays using a laptop and an interactive tablet. Across the room, a pair of large TV screens show the faces of up to 98 students per class. Two more monitors allow the instructor to follow students' chat and questions, and a fifth screen displays the instructor's presentation. Using production lighting, sound, and microphone systems, the Teaching Space of Tomorrow places every student in the front row. In the virtual space, asking questions and collaborating with other students is even easier than in a large traditional classroom. Instead of being stuck in the back of a dark lecture hall, the Teaching Space of Tomorrow brings each student face to face with their instructor and classmates. As Dalal observed: "Even though it's a class full of a hundred, two hundred people, I could directly have a conversation with the professor."

After Frei's inaugural residency ended, Dr. Lea Velez stepped in. Velez, a licensed master social worker and clinical lecturer in Texas State's School of Social Work, continued the Teaching Space of Tomorrow's evolution by using it for community outreach. As a lifelong social worker, Velez is a deep believer in community responsibility. Working with the local San Marcos organization Hands of Hope, Velez taught an online computer skills course for women struggling to emerge from hardship. The course was an enormous success. Now, Velez has set her sights set on another marginalized population, offering computer skills classes to older adult residents of a nearby assisted living facility. In addition to pioneering community outreach, Velez teaches her Texas State courses from the space, as well.

Changing Perceptions

Pierce will tell you, "Online learning is here to stay. It isn't going anywhere." He plans to make sure the Teaching Space of Tomorrow continues to transform online education wherever Texas State University's star is found. When Velez passes the baton to the next set of instructors, they will inherit a space of nearly limitless possibility. Subsequent instructors will continue customizing the space to achieve their unique visions, and its usage will undergo more change. Therein lies the value of the Teaching Space of Tomorrow — the excitement it generates. When instructors are inspired by a teaching environment, rather than overwhelmed by it, their energy translates directly into the student learning experience. Instead of shouting to be heard in the back of a cavernous classroom while learners nod off, instructors can interact with their students face to face. The Teaching Space of Tomorrow is a game changer for online learning. No one sleeps through these lectures. Now everyone has the best seat in the house.

About the Author

Dr. Kimberly Conner is a publications writer for Texas State University’s Division of Information Technology. Conner reports on how the IT Division’s initiatives both support the success of university stakeholders and advance innovation in higher education.

comments powered by Disqus