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Your Online Courses Are Working — Is Now a Good Time to Consider How You Are Using Physical Classroom Spaces?

A Q&A with Kyle Bowen

Looking at colleges and universities right now, we can surely find an abundance of online and virtual classes. This is a unique point in time when institutions have responded to the increased need for remote instruction by honing their strategies for online learning. But are there opportunities to examine how physical classroom spaces can be incorporated into these strategies in new ways? Kyle Bowen, executive director of the Learning Experience Group at Arizona State University's University Technology Office provides some insights from ASU Sync.

ASU Sync

"Now, we are making the virtual experience a native element of the physical classroom." —Kyle Bowen

Mary Grush: Even with all the recent emphasis on remote instruction, is now a good time to consider strategies for using physical classroom spaces?

Kyle Bowen: Absolutely! If we look at the Fall semester here at Arizona State University, for example, we find ASU Sync, a new hybrid modality where students are able to engage with their courses, instructors, and peers from both inside and outside of the classroom. For us, ASU Sync is crucial right now, largely because of social distancing needs, and also, to a degree, to reach some of our international students who aren't able to attend courses on campus.

Still, if we look forward into a post-pandemic world, we can see that this type of engagement also offers a unique set of opportunities for teaching and learning to become more inclusive of the many kinds of students that we can bring into our live, synchronous classroom experience.

That pushes us to think a little bit differently about how we design classrooms to enable our work. Importantly, the synchronous classroom experience leads us to challenge long-held traditions about the classroom.

The synchronous classroom experience leads us to challenge long-held traditions about the classroom.

For example, when we talk about active learning, that is no longer just an arrangement of a physical space, but rather, it is all that leads up to and everything that happens after the moment of learning inside the classroom.

It's not unusual that the active learning experience in the classroom takes place not only with students who are physically present in the classroom, but simultaneously with those who are connected via a virtual classroom. The physical and virtual spaces co-exist, and may be co-facilitated: Both on-campus and virtual students may work together in project spaces where they share a hybrid mode.

This type of interaction requires a new strategy, different from what we've always considered for our classrooms. Now, we are making the virtual experience a native element of the classroom. The physical space has a natural digital extension.

The physical space has a natural digital extension.

Grush: Besides the notion of including different types of students, what are some of the benefits of looking at the classroom in this way?

Bowen: Let me draw a comparison in another market. Tesla offers drivers a car in the traditional sense, but it's also a connected vehicle. When there's a new feature for your Tesla, it's usually available to you through a software update that does not require a visit to your mechanic. New features are delivered any time you want them, via the Internet.

Let's apply this idea of digital updates in real time to the classroom. It's a normal practice to update classrooms during the summer break or in other timeframes when they are unoccupied. A drawback to this practice is that it doesn't support changes in real time, while classes are happening. The intersection of technology and classrooms tends to be thought of as an additive process — as though we're necessarily adding new technology whenever we innovate in the classroom; that we add complexity; and that we add new things that the faculty member either has to learn to interact with or figure out how to sidestep.

But modeling a process similar to Tesla's, we have an opportunity to make classroom updates a subtractive process. We do this by having classrooms that don't just provide wireless capabilities but in fact exist as part of the connected network. This means that we can introduce new capabilities into the classroom over the network. And the support of those technologies can be done remotely and in real time, rather than by scheduling an in-person visit from the technical support staff.

We can introduce new capabilities into the classroom over the network.

With this strategy, the technology melts into the physical space — and with automation and cloud-enabled processes, we can simplify the classroom experience substantially.

There are also new possibilities for collecting valuable data — it's almost like the classroom is a "wearable device" that provides insight both to the faculty member and the student.

Grush: How can you ensure that you are bringing students along through all of this? What are the opportunities to address inclusivity in that sense?

Bowen: One of the hallmarks of a traditional, immersive, face-to-face experience is amplifying connections, especially between the faculty and the students, as well as between students and their peers. Using a cloud strategy in the classroom, faculty can alter their material and practices on the fly based on how students are performing and their feedback in the space.

The vision for our classroom strategy is flexible; we can rapidly reconfigure the space to bring in and include others — a diverse range of students, faculty, and guests — while we ensure the best learning experience possible for our students. And we can bring in work experiences and other forms of experiential learning, even before, during, and after the classroom engagement. We want to enable change while classes are happening!

Lastly, I'll mention that with this strategy we ultimately personalize the learning experience now and over time.

With this strategy we ultimately personalize the learning experience now and over time.

Again, we are developing and amplifying an immersive, personalized experience — one that doesn't have to be location bound. Students who are connecting to the classroom via ASU Sync and learning from wherever they are located, can take advantage of everything I just mentioned. And we are able to design classrooms to facilitate all this, which is why now is a great time to be looking at how we use our physical classroom spaces along with our online strategies.

Circling back to your question about inclusivity, which is central to our charter at ASU, we can consider the diversity of students — from international students coming from distant countries, to local students coming from a job on the other side of town, to those who may be joining from a Native American community, and more… All of them can now join immersive experiences, with the flexibility to be in-person, face-to-face, or virtual. And it's important to remember that all of this is not done as a kind of bolt-on capacity; rather, it is rolled out as a classroom experience that works continuously. We can provide that interactive flexible experience to students from a broad range of locations, cultures, and experience levels.

This is not done as a kind of bolt-on capacity; rather, it is rolled out as a classroom experience that works continuously.

Grush: How broadly have you rolled out ASU Sync so far? I know you are talking about some pretty big numbers. And how will you keep everyone involved, moving forward?

Bowen: In about a hundred days over the course of the summer, we implemented this strategy across nearly a thousand learning spaces in order to provide the ASU Sync experience to students and faculty. But this is really only version one. The first steps were to provide the infrastructure and put the technology in place. Next we will work to connect classrooms to the network, automate common tasks, and learn from all that we did to provide flexibility and to collect feedback.

There are two strategies that have really paid off for keeping everyone involved. The first is that we implemented within IT at the University Technology Office an agile approach to developing and supporting these services. This moves us away from a smaller project group or committee to a real multi-faceted approach to development that is truly responsive to our whole community.

Secondly, we've had a lot of success in the use of Slack as a tool for enabling the creation of community and a beginning point in exploring any particular challenge. We are not just a single group, but rather a collection of communities, large and small that come together as we need.

Going forward, we'll learn how teaching happens in the ASU environment and plan the next iteration of synchronous learning with the goal of improving over time and pushing the boundaries of our synchronous classrooms. It's not about arriving at a destination; rather, we are continuing to evolve.

[Editor's note: Image courtesy Arizona State University. See also last month's coverage of ASU Sync and the Digital Backpack.]

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