Students’ enrollment in distance-learning classes and programs has been rising significantly over the past several years, bolstered by the growth of online education. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2018, 34.7 percent of all postsecondary students were enrolled in at least one distance-education class, and
16.3 percent were enrolled exclusively in distance education classes.1 At the K–12 level, most states now offer public online virtual academies, while there are also significant for-profit players in the space offering fully online class experiences. At the same time, however, many teachers, students, and employers remain skeptical of online education.2
We do not bring these studies up to highlight the growth of online education, which you likely already know about; nor do we bring them up to let you know that online education has skeptics, which you likely also already know. We bring this up to point out that research on online education frequently assumes a clear dichotomy between online and face-to-face. If your perception is based on the research, the national conversation, and the legal statutes, then it appears that face-to-face and online education exist largely separately. Asking the questions, “How is online education perceived?” and “How have online programs grown?” places online education into a separate, largely distinct category.
This distinction has far-ranging implications. For example, the US Department of Education’s guidelines contain dedicated definitions for interaction in online classes, mandating that they be “regular and substantive,” a term not applied to in-person classes and poorly defined as it pertains to new technologies.3 Financial aid programs often distinguish online classes and degrees from face-to-face programs; for example, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency State Grant (PHEAASG) is not available to students taking more than half of their classes online.4 Students may not be eligible to apply for visas to enroll in classes proven to be deliverable online, a point of concern during the rapid shift to remote education in the wake of COVID-19.5 Critically, these rules all rely on the existence of a clear distinction between online and face-to-face classes.
That clear distinction exists at different levels. At the highest level, we can juxtapose entirely online universities or school systems—like Ashford University and Florida Virtual School—with traditional universities and school systems. We can also segment that down, finding online degree programs within traditional universities; these may have a corresponding campus program, like our online MSCS program at Georgia Tech, which grants the same degree as the face-to-face program, or they may be exclusively online, like the University of Illinois iMBA program, which led to the discontinuation of its residential MBA program.6 We can often scale down even further, finding specific online classes available to students otherwise enrolled in person, as noted by the PHEAASG regulations; many universities offer online classes to high school dual-enrollment students as well, such as David’s own online CS1301 class, Introduction to Computing, at Georgia Tech. But regardless of the level, the distinction exists.
Why the distinction? Implicit in this dichotomy is the need for comparison. How do students’ outcomes differ in online and traditional educational environments? How do the costs differ? How does access differ? How can online education be used to reach communities that lack high-quality traditional education? What are the risks of online education to hidden social functions played by traditional education? These questions are asked over and over, reinforcing the either-or dichotomy between the two areas. More problematic, the implication of the different treatment of online classes by the law, financial aid, and public opinion is that online classrooms are in some way inferior. Rarely do we see incentives for more online classes, but we frequently see regulations limiting the number of online classes that students may take. Universities often attach the word online to degrees given via online delivery mechanisms, insinuating that the degree itself must be differentiated from in-person alternatives.7
These broad comparisons are unfair. Neither online nor traditional education is a monolithic entity consistent across all locales, schools, and subjects. To illustrate the range of possible differences, we take the example of an online undergraduate class we launched in January 2017 at Georgia Tech. In developing this class, we paid close attention to the research showing that learning outcomes often tend to lag in online classes compared to traditional classes. We wanted to ensure that the online class—CS1301: Introduction to Computing—could promise comparable learning gains to the traditional version of the same curriculum before rolling it out to a larger audience. The class we produced ended up turning out students who learned as much as or more than students in a traditional version of the class.8 Other experiments at MIT and Carnegie Mellon have found similar results.9 The class has been offered every semester (fifteen terms total) since, totaling over three thousand course completers for credit, and has also been launched as a MOOC; over ten thousand students have completed a MOOC version of the course. This scale was possible only because of the favorable learning gains we observed in our experiments over the first couple of years of delivering the course: without evidence of the learning outcomes, we would have been reluctant to expand the course so heavily.
These results run counter to an influential thread of research about online education, where the finding has been that outcomes suffer in online environments compared to traditional environments. In response to this result, some have argued that students in selective and prestigious research institutions like MIT, Georgia Tech, and Carnegie Mellon are themselves better prepared to succeed in online classes; they possess the discipline and self-regulation skills necessary to monitor their own progress with limited external structures ensuring their continued engagement.10 Much of the research finding poorer outcomes in online classes comes from community colleges and MOOC providers, and so some argue that the achievement difference is due to differences in the students. Online classes, then, could contribute to a widening of the achievement gap as they allow already well-educated students to move forward even faster based on their ability to succeed in more flexibly-available online courses.
Others—ourselves included—pose a different explanation. These large research institutions have and are devoting significant resources to developing online initiatives. When David developed our online Introduction to Computing class, we spent a full year writing the textbook, filming the lectures, and developing the initial assessments. We had a team of nearly a dozen people supporting David, including video producers, textbook copyeditors, project managers, technologists, and teaching assistants; in many ways, we had far more support than even traditional face-to-face classes have, before we even consider David’s own prior experience teaching online. Our online master’s-level courses are similarly developed by teams of professors, teaching assistants, instructional technologists, and project managers using world-class facilities. It is perhaps unsurprising that such a large investment of resources creates an educational experience leading to superior learning outcomes.
Although our offerings are all asynchronous, this increased investment can be seen in synchronous environments as well. In 2014, Harvard University launched HBX, a virtual synchronous classroom that had many features—such as virtual hand-raising and a lecture hall–like visualization— that have become major parts of the use of tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams in the post-COVID-19 shift to remote learning.11 Minerva Schools at KGI, a joint project between Keck Graduate Institute and the Minerva Project, uses a custom virtual classroom interface called Forum with features for efficient breakout groups, live class polls and discussions, and dynamic collaboration.12 The same investment we made in high-quality recorded course material and artificially intelligent autograders can instead be made into platforms that support efficient synchronous interactions. Most schools, however, do not typically invest so heavily into individual courses; it is not uncommon for teachers at community colleges to learn only weeks before a semester starts that their class will be online. How can the learning outcomes of these wildly different types of course offerings be lumped together under the catchall category of “online”?
So, comparing online and traditional education is already an erroneous endeavor: there are so many different ways to conduct both experiences. We are not concerned here with which is considered better or worse; our concern is with the extent to which we consider them mutually exclusive opposites in the first place. Our concern is that the question posed to teachers is often first, “Do you want to teach online or in person?” rather than deeper questions about who, what, and how to teach.
Adopting the dichotomy between online and traditional education introduces numerous problems, but here we are most interested in the extent to which adopting that paradigm limits the design decisions that we make. In electing to teach in person, we take for granted several of the constraints that the decision carries: our class size will be limited, our presentations will be live, and the physical classroom serves as the “home” of all classroom instruction and administration. In deciding to teach online, we may instead assume compromises that need not necessarily be made, such as that instruction will be more one-directional and asynchronous, that interaction among students will be more limited, and that assessments must be more summative and rote. Most important, in teaching online, we risk losing many of the functional and pedagogical roles played by the physical classroom, such as fostering peripheral community, supporting interaction among peers, and facilitating rapid feedback between students and teachers. In effect, we risk teaching without a classroom.
We propose in this book that instead we ought to dispense with the dichotomy between online and traditional instruction. Universities, programs, and classes need not be labeled as specifically “online” or “traditional.” The alternative is that we no longer need to view classes as located in specific times and locations at all.
This is the notion of the distributed classroom, the premise of this book. In this context, distributed means that the class is not restricted in time or space, but rather can be distributed across multiple locations and multiple times. It breaks the assumption that a traditional class must meet together in a room—as well as the assumption that an online class should exist entirely without a classroom.
By that definition of distributed alone, distributed education options are already abundant: MOOCs, HyFlex courses, asynchronous online degree programs, informal learning communities, and more already represent distributed learning. However, the second part of the term—distributed classroom—is not merely a throwaway noun to give the adjective something to modify. In the distributed classroom, “classroom” is as important as “distributed.” Classroom is not merely a stand-in term for any learning environment; rather, it refers to the specific roles that a classroom plays in traditional education, especially those that rely on live, and ideally in-person, communication, potentially making use of affordances of the shared physical classroom. While some underlying functions of the physical classroom may be offloaded to other interfaces—a course forum for questions and discussion, tools like Peer Feedback13 and Peerceptiv14 for peer review—there remain others that do not translate evenly into an asynchronous remote environment, like group work on a shared physical artifact, creation of a three-dimensional space conducive to learning that course’s content, or the sense of connectedness that comes from simple peripheral awareness of classmates’ presence and participation in the course material.15 Even among those functions that may be offloaded onto interfaces to facilitate remote asynchronous interaction (such as course discussion forums), a degree of connectedness and empathy may be lost when communication is anchored to static two-dimensional images rather than a live video display; Albert Mehrabian famously claimed that 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal, which may be lost in text-only asynchronous online media.16
Taken this way, we hope it begins to become apparent how a distributed classroom expands on other innovative learning experiences. A distributed classroom is a class designed such that students can participate in as much of the full learning experience as possible within their individual constraints, especially constraints based on place and time. If they can attend in-person in the live classroom, they may do so; if they can commit to live attendance with a cohort of classmates in another location, they may do that instead; and if they can commit only to remote, asynchronous learning, they may participate that way. No matter their individual constraints, they give up only those parts of the learning experience that are fundamentally tied to that constraint: inability to attend in-person on-campus need not force students into the same remote asynchronous experience as students with additional constraints. Where other initiatives, such as MOOCs, focus on expanding access to a particular core component of the learning experience (typically the content and some assessments), the distributed classroom instead preserves as much of the classroom experience as possible within a given student’s or audience’s requirements. The important point is that the distributed classroom is interested in the full range of interactions and experiences that the physical classroom serves, not merely the ones that draw our deliberate focus, like delivering one- to-many lectures or the mechanics of exchanging reviews in a peer assessment exercise. How do we distribute this full range of interactions? That is the topic of part II of this book; part I describes how other recent trends and developments have set the perfect stage for implementing a distributed classroom, and part III explores the potential this paradigm has for radically changing education for the better.
The goal of the distributed classroom paradigm is thus to move us beyond the constraints of traditional teaching and the compromises of online teaching and instead usher in a view where the classroom is not confined to one mechanism or the other. By adopting a paradigm that diminishes the sanctity of the in-person experience without sacrificing what made it so hallowed in the first place, we can bring to bear the long-promised benefits of online education. Along the way, we also safeguard ourselves from the chaos of the outside world, preparing ourselves for rapid transitions among delivery mechanisms not by developing contingency plans but rather by designing an experience that was durable against outside changes in the first place.
We may be preaching to the choir a bit with our readers of this book. That perceived dichotomy between face-to- face and online education has been under attack in various places, from the use of MOOCs to support more traditional classes to the post-COVID-19 shift to more hybrid classes, combining online and face-to-face elements into new hybrid experience. Our critique is not new.
On the surface, hybrid classes themselves tend to be a shift away from this dichotomy. The hybrid model was already emerging before COVID-19, but the pandemic’s role in shrinking in-person class sizes has driven a more rapid shift toward hybrid models. Hybrid models proliferated as the answer to many of the challenges presented by the pandemic, allowing schools and universities to implement social distancing while keeping class sizes at their typical levels.17
Hybrid classes come in many forms. Prior to COVID-19, flipped classrooms, a type of hybrid classroom, were growing in popularity. Under a flipped classroom model, students might watch lectures in advance, then use synchronous class time for more high-value discussion. Adjustments made for COVID-19 saw a different sort of hybrid classroom emerge: forced to treat classrooms as one-third as capacious, a hybrid model might see students attend a live lecture once a week and a remote lecture twice a week, cycling which students are allowed to attend the lecture in-person. This model closely follows the HyFlex model pioneered by Brian Beatty at San Francisco State University, which calls for students to be able to individually select whether to participate in person, synchronously online, or asynchronously online.18 In our mental categorization, hybrid models subsume the increasingly popular blended style of instruction, which places greater emphasis on leveraging online materials to improve in-person classes and using synchronous co-located class time for purposes besides lecture, but it offers other instructional models as well.
To be clear, we are big supporters of hybrid and blended classrooms; our colleagues at Georgia Tech even produced a book detailing several successful experiments in blended learning on campus over the past several years, including the aforementioned CS1301: Introduction to Computing class, as well as the use of one of our online MSCS classes to improve the residential experience.19 These classrooms are an excellent example of investigating our assumptions about how instruction works. Exploring a hybrid model forces deep questions about why we teach certain topics the way that we do and whether better options are available. A hybrid classroom asks questions like: Is listening to the teacher lecture for thirty minutes really a good use of students’ time in a shared classroom when it is also the only time they can easily interact with one another? Should all students be forced to answer a practice question within the same general frame of time regardless of their ability, or can instruction wait until they finish to continue? Do I really need to be the thirty-thousandth teacher to teach integration by parts from scratch, or can I provide my students high-quality preexisting resources to learn from and shift my role to more of an individual supporting one?
We are not alone in this optimism: the blended learning incarnation of hybrid classrooms was on the rise for years prior to the COVID-19 era, but accommodations made for the pandemic have accelerated this shift. Anant Agarwal of edX sees COVID-19 as a catalyst in this shift toward blended learning, which he argues will be an improvement on how education has been delivered in the past.20 Advocates see HyFlex as a perfect mechanism for addressing capacity and attendance issues in the age of social distancing and hybrid modes of delivery.21 David authored a piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that advocated treating COVID-19 as an opportunity to improve remote learning options, which ended up being the first step toward the creation of this book.22
So, hybrid classrooms bring many benefits. However, in terms of the dichotomy between online and traditional classrooms, we argue that they merely shift the level of distinction down one more step. Instead of distinguishing between online and traditional education at the school, program, or class level, it exists at the component level: the hybrid classroom has online components and traditional components. However, the dichotomy between them remains, such as in deliberately shifting components between online and face-to-face in a flipped model or in distinctly categorizing students as in-person, synchronous online, or asynchronous online in a HyFlex model.
Perhaps at that level, the dichotomy is no longer meaningful; if it exists between components within a classroom or if students can regularly shift between different categories, then the dangers of the dichotomy we outlined above are largely resolved anyway. It is difficult to regulate how individual components of an individual class ought to be taught the way that entire degrees and universities can be monitored; moreover, a teacher who is already thinking in terms of using both online and traditional components is likely already weighing the benefits of each individually rather than adopting the constraints of one model entirely.
But the greater difference we observe between the hybrid and the distributed classroom is one of scope and impact. The various incarnations of hybrid classrooms emphasize taking the general framework of a traditional class—the number of students, the associated schedule, the strategies for assessment—and augmenting and improving them through online components. This is undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor. The distributed classroom, in turn, emphasizes how many of those same decisions can be leveraged to achieve large-scale reach and long-range impact. The hybrid classroom asks: How can we use both traditional and online components to improve the classroom experience? The distributed classroom asks: How can we use that design to tear down barriers to access and dramatically expand the number of potential learners in the world?
When we begin talking about access, scale, impact, and cost, a different natural comparison emerges: MOOCs. These are the large-scale initiatives that burst onto the scene in the early 2010s. Their growth and impact is well documented in Rich DeMillo’s A Revolution in Higher Education, which traces the story of MOOCs through to the launch of the program we now run, Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program.
In the decade since MOOCs began to emerge, they have followed the typical hype cycle: initially trumpeted as the solution to all of higher education’s ills, then maligned for their failure to deliver on that promise, they have settled into a role as a tool for access and outreach. They became popular but did not pose the existential threat to typical higher education that was prophesied at the start of the decade. COVID-19 led to a resurgence in popularity, though; economic hardship and social distancing spell a perfect set of incentives to engage in low-cost, at-home, online education.23 It is too soon to know if this development will spark a second life for MOOCs or if they will settle back into their previous roles. They have taken on an additional role in the process, however, as many MOOC providers have created programs to let universities borrow high-quality existing content to support courses rapidly shifting to remote instruction.
From the perspective of the distributed classroom, MOOCs represent an extreme end of the spectrum: they are beautifully distributed in time and space, but they lack many of the elements of a traditional classroom. Indeed, for all their successes, many critics note that MOOCs fail to capture critical portions of the learning experience.24 These criticisms manifest in the student experience as well. MOOCs represent a great compromise: we willingly give up components that are difficult to scale like live interaction with teachers, rigorous open-ended assessment, and personalized feedback for the sake of expanded access, automated evaluation, and reduced cost. For most MOOC learners, the choice is likely not between a MOOC and a traditional class, but rather between a MOOC and nothing at all; there is little evidence that their growth is cutting into traditional offerings, but they are growing nonetheless, suggesting they are tapping into an otherwise unreached audience.25
The distributed classroom represents an examination of that compromise but not a referendum. MOOCs absolutely have a significant role to play, and we would argue that a MOOC can and should be part of a distributed classroom— but only part of it. The distributed classroom is about filling in that spectrum from a traditional classroom to a MOOC, making only the compromises necessary at each level to introduce incrementally improved scale and access.
To illustrate this shift from a dichotomy (traditional versus online in general, traditional versus MOOCs specifically), let us look at the example of the program that commands much of our time: Georgia Tech’s OMSCS program. Much has been written about the program in general; we have provided several resources if you would like to read more about the program itself.26 For the purposes of understanding its place on a spectrum between traditional classes and MOOCs, however, there are a few pertinent details to describe here. Launched in 2014, the program was developed according to a MOOC-like model: all course content is prerecorded, and there are no mandatory synchronous sessions. Beyond replacing live classes with prerecorded content, though, the online program is mostly the same as the on-campus program: assignments and projects are largely open-ended and graded by human teaching assistants at the direction of university professors; questions and discussions take place on a course discussion forum; and standard mechanisms for ensuring academic integrity, such as proctoring tools and plagiarism checkers, are in use. Courses follow the university semester schedule, with term start and end dates, instantiating the cohort model seen in some MOOCs (rather than purely self-paced). As a result, the program holds the same accreditation as the on-campus program: the word online does not appear on the degree granted by the online program; rather, it grants the same Master of Science in Computer Science one might earn in Atlanta or at one of Georgia Tech’s other campuses around the world. Students can enroll from anywhere and are not required to attend class during working hours. The program has been a runaway success, growing to over 11,000 active students as of spring 2021 (along with over 3,500 alumni). With that enrollment and the reduced demands for in-person infrastructure, tuition is low: the total degree cost is between $6,900 and $8,400 depending on how many classes the student takes at a time, a small fraction of the cost of our and other universities’ comparable residential programs. Since launch, the program has inspired two other partner degrees at Georgia Tech, an online MS in analytics and an online MS in cybersecurity; together, the three programs comprised 16,594 students in spring 2021, making up 42 percent of Georgia Tech’s total enrollment for the term. Georgia Tech has nearly doubled in total enrollment since 2013 (from 21,472 students to 39,712 students), with 91 percent of that growth coming from these three online programs. Other universities have followed suit, with nearly fifty similar programs now offered, mostly in partnership with MOOC providers like edX, Coursera, and FutureLearn.
Our OMSCS program is billed as the first “MOOC-based” master’s degree, but it includes many features that are absent in most MOOCs, such as human evaluation, open-ended assignments, and assertions of academic integrity. The features we borrow from MOOCs include our reliance on high-quality prerecorded course content, our asynchronous but cohort-based (not self-paced) delivery model, our commitment to free public access to content for nonstudents, our dedication to affordability, and our emphasis on scalability. In fact, since fall 2020, we have run the OMSCS program without a formal MOOC partner (such as edX, Coursera, or Udacity), but the hallmarks of MOOCs are still present.
Thus, our OMSCS program adds another gradation to the spectrum from traditional classes to MOOCs: it preserves those components necessary to award a degree—such as human evaluation and integrity verification—and compromises on those features necessary to achieve scale, like synchronous co-located attendance. Through this model, it demonstrates the interplay of scale, access, and cost: increased access yields increased enrollment, leading to economies of scale and reduced costs, leading to further increased enrollment. But critically, the credit-bearing program abandons some of the tenets of MOOCs: it is neither massive (as more teaching assistants must be hired to support more enrollment) nor open (students must be admitted to the program, although the program does subsidize free open access to the course content itself). This is true of the emerging landscape of affordable degrees at scale (or as we call them, Limeades: large internet-mediated asynchronous degrees): MOOC-based master’s degrees typically exist by sacrificing some features of MOOCs.
What is critical here is that the sacrifice is contained to that portion of the program that requires that sacrifice; many of those components we must reintroduce to attach degree credit to a course are not necessary for open access to the content alone. Courses in the program exist in both forms: a for-credit variant with human evaluation, integrity verification, and interaction with instructors and open-access variants with public content, automated evaluations, and no enrollment cost. Some programs separate out this gradation further: edX’s MicroMasters programs, for instance, introduce a variant between MOOCs and our for-credit classes, where most elements of the course experience— human-graded assignments, proctored exams, and a cohort-based delivery schedule—are preserved but students are not required to apply and be accepted to the program; anyone can enroll. In exchange, students in the MicroMaster’s program do not earn full course credit: they earn a credential, and that credential can be applied for advanced standing toward a degree if they choose to move on to the full program. Here, the compromise is trading automatic course credit for expanded and more accommodating enrollment.
The distributed classroom is the culmination of these efforts, an elucidation of a fully developed spectrum from a traditional classroom to an open MOOC with numerous possible combinations of trade-offs in between. This effort is not about identifying the perfect level of compromise, but rather about distributing offerings across the entire spectrum of possible compromises. For those students and classes able to operate in a traditional model, that model ought to remain; for those who can attend with only small compromises, such as needing a different time slot or needing to attend at a distance, only those compromises ought to be necessary; and for those who need the drastic compromises like free access or open admissions, MOOC-like variants ought to remain. A distributed classroom takes the classroom experience and distributes it across these various different delivery modes, allowing each student to obtain as much of the original (or improved, based on new technology and new incentives) course experience as possible.
While theoretically that may seem feasible, is it practical? Who is going to do the work of designing each of these offerings and subofferings? When this challenge is framed as designing multiple distinct offerings, the work it poses is daunting. We argue that this can be resolved by adopting the mindset of a distributed classroom from the outset. By thinking outside the restrictions of a physical classroom or a particular MOOC platform in the first place, it is possible to create educational experiences that can be distributed among these different variants quickly. This is going to require rediscovering many of the components we sacrificed in the shift to online learning in the first place, but that also means this approach is as accessible to novices in online learning as it is to seasoned experts. That is one of the aspirations for a distributed classroom in practice: it ought not require significant additional dedicated staff or complex additional training; rather, it should be accessible to instructors largely within their existing skill sets or with minimal added instruction.
Most important, this vision will provide an antidote to the dystopian future feared by many watching with trepidation as online education expands. This vision does not foretell a future where only a few universities remain as some have predicted,27 even as individual universities dramatically expand their footprint; instead, it foretells a future where expanded access turns everyone into a potential learner. The distributed classroom does not just break down barriers to academic content as the “democratize education” movement has emphasized; it breaks down barriers to the entire classroom learning experience, including live interactions with classmates and trustworthy assessments of ability. Every school can triple in size without shutting any doors if we triple the number of learners in the world at the same time.
This book presents a vision for the distributed classroom, including the what, the how, and the why. Part I lays the foundation for these developments. Here, in chapter 1, we have described the current state of the relationship between online and residential education, and we have explored where we want to go: a classroom distributed in time and space. Chapter 2 defines the two spectra, place and time, and how we break them down into different gradations, emphasizing where and when students sit relative to both the original instruction and to a cohort of classmates. Chapter 3 looks at how existing efforts have already moved the needle toward a distributed classroom, from trends like distance learning and affordable degrees at scale to technologies like learning management systems and classroom discussion forums. Chapter 3 shows that even what we consider to be traditional education is already relatively distributed.
Part II then provides a blueprint for what a distributed classroom looks like in practice. Chapter 4 articulates what a distributed classroom is, examining all combinations of place and time from the spectra in chapter 2. To do so, it creates the distributed classroom matrix. Chapter 5 defines the ultimate form of a distributed classroom setting: symmetry. The greatest outcome (in terms of instruction) that the distributed classroom can achieve is a symmetry of experiences such that both students and teachers can move around the matrix at will, delivering or joining from different locations and at different times, without dictating a dramatic change to any particular class or cohort. Chapter 6 delves deeper into the implementation details of making the distributed classroom happen. It unpacks the roles that teaching assistants, technology, and teachers must play to make the experience a reality.
Part III then looks at the broader impacts that a widespread push towards a distributed classroom may have, both positive and negative. Chapter 7 explores the effects of this vision and its impact on different audiences of learners, how it intersects with finances and economies of scale, and how it preserves academic freedom and diversity. Chapter 8 connects this effort to moves to unbundle higher education, looking more deeply into the differential needs of different learners and how a distributed classroom can provide greater access by separating itself from other elements of the educational enterprise. Chapter 9 examines the fears and risks of this approach and how the distributed classroom can be a force for good and positive change rather than a force for further centralization. Chapter 10 provides the long-term dream of the distributed classroom: a world where lifelong learning is the norm rather than the goal, and where it fits into students’ lives rather than demanding tremendous sacrifices.
This book is written for teachers, administrators, instructional designers, and learners. Not surprisingly, these are four roles we have held over the course of our careers. David has taught over fifty online classes and twenty thousand online students; Charles has taught twenty-nine online classes and over twelve thousand students, as well as dozens of in-person classes over the preceding two decades. We both currently hold roles as administrators in the college, Charles as dean of the College of Computing and David as the executive director of online education. Prior to this role, David worked as an instructional designer and course developer, helping other faculty members bring their courses to life in an online environment. And of course, we are both lifelong learners.
If you are a teacher, this book provides a vision for how you can function and educate in an increasingly complex world, burdened by an ever-changing landscape of requirements and constraints. This vision tries to liberate you at least from some of these, allowing you to face conversations about class size, teaching modalities, and individual accommodations with excitement—or, perhaps better yet, ambivalence—rather than fear. Most important, this vision strives to provide a way that you can continue to use all the skills and best practices you have developed over your career rather than having to relearn how to teach online. For a book about education, we actually talk relatively little about pedagogy because this model is designed to let your existing pedagogical knowledge continue to shine in this new medium; our goal is to allow whatever works in the physical classroom to continue to work in a distributed classroom and to open up new environments and opportunities for exploring new pedagogical approaches, whatever they may be.
If you are an administrator, the book pushes for viewing the increase in digital options as a trend to leverage for students’ gain in addition to existing goals around reducing costs and raising enrollment. Moreover, it encourages you to adopt an optimistic rather than a survivalist view of the need to more heavily leverage digital options. The distributed classroom holds as one of its tenets the need to increase the number of learners in the world, meaning that scale does not necessitate drawing students away from other schools. Instead, it encourages us all to think first of how we can expand educational opportunities to those who currently have none, or at least none that are compatible with other constraints in their lives.
If you are an instructional designer, this book gives you a new, yet likely familiar, way to look at the design process of new courses. Many of the practical ideas in this book are related to designs you may have already used, like HyFlex and flipped classrooms, but with a new emphasis on the broader impact that these designs can have. Specifically, this book encourages you to consider small, early, low-stakes decisions that can have enormous implications later in allowing your class’s content to be shared, reused, improved, and updated without reteaching or redeveloping the content from scratch. Small decisions in these areas can have a massive impact. This book also recommends clearly delineating the functional roles of different elements of course design and their potential to be distributed across time and space; for example, understanding that exams must be accessible to asynchronous and remote audiences in addition to synchronous and co-located cohorts dictates elements of assessment design that can be simple when addressed early but difficult to redesign for distributed audiences later.
If you are a learner (which we hope you are, even if you are also a teacher, administrator, or instructional designer), you have likely been inundated with the growing need to make learning a lifelong endeavor. The world is changing so fast that a four-year degree can no longer supply you with the skills for a forty-year career. The question has never been the need but rather the feasibility: in a world where tuition can cost tens of thousands of dollars and most quality higher education options require attending during working hours and living near the institution, how do you balance being a lifelong learner with having a job, raising a family, and still getting some sleep? Do you compromise on the quality by selecting only what is convenient, or do you make sacrifices in other areas of life? For you, this book is a road map to the minimum amount of compromise necessary, a blueprint for the kinds of educational opportunities to seek to become a lifelong learner without devoting your life to learning.
As we were brainstorming and writing this book, a number of topics came to mind for inclusion. Ultimately we observed that to include them all, we would be writing a thousand-page tome of which the distributed classroom would be a small part; we decided instead to focus more narrowly on this core idea. As a result, there are a number of topics you might expect to see in this book that are not here.
First, for a book about education, we discuss actual pedagogy relatively infrequently. The reason is simple: one of the goals of the distributed classroom is to create an infrastructure for distributing the class experience across time and space without requiring that teachers dramatically change what they do in the classroom. Many well-intentioned initiatives in teaching have struggled because they required millions of teachers to completely reinvent their teaching practice in order to be successful. Our goal is to create mechanisms that leverage and channel what teachers are already doing. That means that whatever pedagogical approaches teachers are already employing in their classrooms, we want to make sure to preserve them online. Rather than painstakingly detailing numerous specific approaches, we instead focus on building an experience that preserves as many of the fundamental features of the classroom as possible, ensuring that those specific approaches can remain in use. Within that framework, there are countless excellent resources on teaching in general and teaching online specifically that remain relevant to complement this book’s goals.28
This should not be taken to suggest that the traditional in-person classroom experience is the perfect, unimpeachable gold standard. While we argue that there are functions— both obvious and hidden—that a live, face-to-face classroom plays that are difficult to transition online, many have noted fundamental strengths that more asynchronous models provide as well. Competency-based education, for instance, is a movement in learning that advocates for allowing students to move forward once they have demonstrated competency in an area, regardless of how much time that takes. The movement is theoretically richly compatible with the self-paced nature of MOOCs, but it can be leveraged in more traditional environments as well; critically, it thrives when delivered via asynchronous online mechanisms because it removes synchronous co-located class time as a constraint on the amount of instructional time a student receives. It is perfectly compatible with a distributed classroom as well, and in fact the distributed classroom provides a framework to design what portions of a learning experience should be synchronous and asynchronous. Our goal with the distributed classroom is to set up a framework that allows whatever happens in person to be distributed across space and time, and for new initiatives to be incorporated into the distributed experience; teachers may decide separately what they actually want to include in that experience. Our goal is to accommodate as much of what they select as possible.
Finally, this book is not a history and overview of our online MSCS program at Georgia Tech. We draw many lessons from it, and we advocate emulating many of the mechanisms that we have put into play in scaling our program. However, this book is about far more than just what we have done within our program: it is about all the other things we know we can do because we have seen the end points of the spectrum. We have seen the value of synchronous, face-to-face classes throughout the history of education, and we have seen the success of asynchronous, remote classes in the much briefer history of our OMSCS program. This book is about putting those two experiences down as extreme end points of a spectrum and exploring all we can do in the middle.