The classroom is dead long live the (online) classroom

As School children across the country return to their classrooms it is a good time to reflect on the delivery of education through this model.

The classroom as a fixed location with a single teacher as the expert and students the recipients of knowledge is the classic model, maybe even with students in rows and a blackboard (or probably an interactive whiteboard or big screen) and teacher at the front. This model developed as the primary mode of engagement for schools and then training providers has been dominant. But is it time for a new model?

Most training providers have had to adapt or put things on hold during the pandemic. Teachers and instructors all getting to grips with new technology and endless Zoom, Teams, or Meet sessions.  This has had a relatively negative billing with the stresses of adapting and the negative factors dominating the narrative, but there are some massive advantages we should be leveraging.

The classroom is a very strange environment set up in a different era, with the odd attempt and changing things it still remains essentially the same. There are always some places where it is harder to see or hear, participants often sat for the aims of the instructor rather than for their own comfort. The online alternative changes this all participants can see and hear (as long as the instructor isn’t on mute). Most software can be used to show the instructor and slides or demonstrations at the same time or allow east switches between the two. The learning experience can be customised to suit the individual rather than make do with the space available.

The classroom is located at a fixed location at best convenient for participants or instructor or possibly mutually inconvenient. Time is wasted getting to the classroom and setting up the space. The online environment can be configured once (and customised for each instructor / student) and used multiple time without shifting everything around and disrupting the plans of the next group. The online classroom is located where we are, no wasted commute sitting in traffic of fighting through overcrowded public transport. We can ensure we are comfortable in our own environments, make sure we have our beverage of choice in our own special mug, rather than the tepid machine coffee in a paper cup. Comfort is essential in enabling learning.

The reduced environmental impact of using our existing space rather than hating new ones that we have travelled to quite possibly all in individual cars is also a benefit of this flexible location of the learning environment.

The classroom is a fixed space with limited functionality. If we are lucky there will be a screen and wifi. The online classroom is only limited by our imagination. We can utilise a wealth of tools to give the best experience to participants with all being able to see the action. Visualisers can be used to show close up detail to everyone without straining around someone else’s head to see the single screen. Shared videos can be used to demonstrate ideas, paused, annotated over and discussed. An instructor can share ideas, either traditional chalk and talk with only their input or on shared tools allowing productive collection of multiple ideas and input. Questions and help requests can be logged and queued instead of randomly judged on whose hand is raised highest or waving most, possibly even dealt with automatedly or by enabling peer input.

Work can be easily shared to all participants discussed and praised or critiqued and corrected. Input from participants can be collected and shared instantly. Feedback can be obtained with spot questioning or polls and results recorded to monitor progress. The entire lesson can be recorded and watched again for revision or review. Project work can be uploaded, shared,  and collaboration in real time from different countries made possible. Participants who miss a session or part of a session can revisit the topics using the recordings and resources. Additional support or tasks can be provided to allow stretch goals or scaffolding. Taks can be created that are self marking and provide instant feedback to participants to aid their learning.

Participants can be set up in several rooms to work on separate tasks with no interruption from other groups, the instructor can move between these or additional facilitators can be added. The number of groups is not limited by the physical space available so the optimum group size is decided by the task rather than tables.

If participants are unable to control their enthusiasm they can be muted to allow others to take a turn. Alternatively they can be utilised to provide peer support or given tasks with additional difficulty to provide challenge and engage them further. All a little easier with the remote classroom where they may not even be aware they are not doing the task in the same way as others.

There are some downsides most are relating to access. Many may not have the tools to access this new world. If we provide the classroom the participant only needs to arrive and everything is provided. They may not have a computer and reliable internet access and then are stopped before they can move further. Those that do have the basic kit may lack a quiet and comfortable workspace free of distractions. They may not have a suitable desk to allow comfortable engagement with online learning. However we should be looking at ways to overcome these issues for those individuals rather than rejecting the entire idea. 

The picture isn’t totally one sided there are of course problems with the remote classroom, however it offers a world of possibility that should be considered as a strong alternative to the traditional classroom. Where access issues or other challenges occur we can consider a blended model with centralised facilities providing the appropriate equipment and access.

If we focus on the disadvantages it is tempting to aim to return to the old normal as soon as possible. However I feel we should be looking to learn from the forced adoption of remote and strive to make use of as many of the advantages as possible in formulating the new normal. If we just return to what we had before we waste the opportunity presented to us, all the hours spent modifying resources and systems for delivery. The future could embrace these tools and provide massive advantages for both participants,  training providers and schools. Instead of the old 18th century model (with a few tech toys, I’m looking at you interactive whiteboard) we should be looking to update the classroom for the 21st century and beyond.

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