4 Reasons Why Online Learning Drives Residential Classroom Innovation

The connection between active learning classrooms and blended, low-residency, and online programs.

May 1, 2016

Want to get support on your campus to invest in creating new active learning classrooms?

Your best strategy might just be to advocate for online education.

The move towards investing in active learning classrooms is not a repudiation of the traditional lecture. Lecturing can still occur in these spaces. Rather, the active learning classroom can support both lecturing - as well as collaborative team work, faculty coaching (through wandering around), and the seamless incorporation of technology (usually BYOD devices) into hands-on learning activities.

The challenge with active learning classrooms is less pedagogical, but financial. Any classroom renovation is expensive, and ripping up floors and buying all new furniture and installing multiple short projectors can get expensive.

What I’m suggesting is that those of us on our campuses interested in championing the building of active learning classrooms should also think about championing new online / low-residency programs.

Here’s why:

1 - The Imperative To Make The Highest Learning Use of Face-to-Face Interactions:

The longer you spend in the world online teaching the more you appreciate the possibilities of face-to-face learning.

What you discover about face-to-face learning is that you can do things when everyone is together in physical space that you can’t do online. (And vice-versa). There can be an intensity, immediacy, and level of human connection that is difficult to achieve online.

Coaching, collaboration, and rapid prototyping work best when faculty can work in a hands-on way with students. Teaching, even the teaching of abstract concepts, is a physical act.

We often find ourselves, however, with physical classrooms that are misaligned with our pedagogical goals.

We are figuring out where face-to-face learning can add value over online learning, but we are trying to do so in classroom designed for an older information transfer framework for teaching and learning.

2 - Increased Demand for Environments That Support Active Learning:

We should ban the words “smart classroom." Instead, we should be talking about “active learning classrooms”.

Whenever anyone says “smart classrooms”, I automatically think of active white boards that nobody uses, and complicated A/V systems that never work.

In a well-designed active learning classroom the technology disappears. These are not technology-enabled classrooms. Rather, they are classrooms that align with a pedagogical approach of active, experiential, immersive, and collaborative learning.

The fastest way to increase demand for active learning classrooms is to increase the supply of active learning. Quality low-residency and online programs are all about active learning.

Any new online program that is not learner-centered and built on student / faculty relationships will soon fail. The reason is that price point for online courses built on information transfer has moved to zero.  MOOCs push the quality of traditional online learning up - and both (traditional online learning and MOOCs) place upward pressure on the quality of residential education.

Online learning grows demand for environments that support active learning, and this demand can help prioritize investments in classroom renovation.  

3 - Face-To-Face Teaching and the Research on Learning:

The faculty experience of developing courses and teaching in a quality low-residency / online program is different from the experience of developing and teaching residential courses.

In a good online program, faculty will almost always collaborate with an instructional designer in the course development and teaching process. These interaction are great opportunities to have discussions about the scholarship of teaching and learning (SOTL).

Instructional designers are consumers (and sometimes producers) of the learning science literature - and they bring this knowledge base into their work with faculty.

Once faculty have the opportunity to learn and apply learning science research for their online courses, they will want to do the same for their residential courses. Physical classroom space that is mis-aligned with the research on how people learn best will feel constraining.

Knowledge of, and excitement around, the learning research will increase faculty demand for active learning classrooms.

4 - Costs and Utilization:

Learning people need to have better economic arguments to support investments in active learning classrooms.

It is not enough to only say that active learning classrooms are better for teaching and for learning. We need to justify the investments necessary to redesign our classrooms.

One way to make this case is push for more low-residency and blended learning programs. By going to a mixed online / residential model - we can educate more students without building more classrooms. By moving some of the instruction online, we can increase the number of students that can be served by existing classroom space.

Blended and low-residency learning accomplish something rare in higher education - increased productivity. Classrooms are incredibly expensive fixed assets - and it is almost impossible to rapidly make more classroom space available with increased demand. Move to low-residency / blended learning, and you reduce the amount of residential classroom time needed for each student in each course.

The catch, of course, is that when you are having the residential portions of blended / low-residency classes - that these classroom times need to be really good. There is no sense bringing an online cohort together to sit in rows and in fixed seats.  Face-to-face time should be collaborative, interactive, experiential, and intense.

Money saved on not needing to build more classrooms can be spent in building better classrooms for learning.

Okay, do you buy this argument on the relationship between online learning and classroom redesign?

Can you argue from either experience or theory about how these the online and physical classroom are not related?

Are there cases where investments in blended, low-residency and online education resulted in a lower institutional priority for classroom redesign?

Are the online learning people and the classroom design people talking on your campus?

At your school, are the people who are advocating for active classroom renovations the same people who are advocating for more online programs?

Do you buy the assertion that online learning enthusiasts, and face-to-face teaching purists, actually share a common set of interests? 



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