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Published onJun 25, 2021

Over the last year, we have seen an unprecedented rapid shift to remote, online, and hybrid learning driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and universities around the world have had to quickly figure out how to teach online.

Much has already been made of this emergency change. Skeptics of remote learning have urged the community to treat this as a temporary shift, noting the numerous perceived weaknesses of online education.1 Advocates have looked at this as an opportunity to speed up the shift to more remote options, noting its benefits to cost, access, and scale.2 Students have spoken up as well: many have regarded the online experience as so inferior as to be worth lawsuits seeking the return of tuition dollars.3 While some students have reflected positively on the transition,4 the overall impression from students, parents, and teachers has been largely negative; the push to remain remote, partially or completely, throughout fall 2020 and into spring 2021 came largely from health concerns, not faith in online learning.

During the early part of the pandemic (at least in the United States), this emergency shift was been toward exclusively remote education: all students were online, all classes were online, and there was no in-person experience. One complete experience was replaced with another. In some ways, this simplifies the transition: classes are replaced one- to-one with remote analogues. While the world of online education is new to many faculty and students, it is not entirely new on its own: distance learning has existed for over a century, and modern technology has moved it more into the mainstream than ever before, with most colleges offering some online classes and programs in a typical distance-learning model. Under this model, the assumption from the outset is that all students are remote. This is how we in Georgia Tech’s College of Computing run our online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program. Launched in 2014 under the leadership of then Dean Zvi Galil,5 we have grown to over eleven thousand students from all around the world, and none of them are required to come to campus. In addition to serving as the college’s current Dean (Charles) and the program’s executive director (David), we teach six classes between us, totaling over three thousand students each semester.

So for all the complexity involved in navigating new and unfamiliar platforms and technologies, there was also some simplicity in this transition: entirely in-person courses were transitioned to entirely remote courses. The two structures could be considered alternatives. There are design decisions to be made within each, of course, such as whether an online course should be synchronous or asynchronous, but the distinction between in-person and remote is clear.

As the pandemic dragged on, however, the situation became more complex. As colleges were planning for fall 2020 and beyond, they began facing decisions about remaining all online or pursuing a hybrid model. Under a hybrid model, there would once again be an in-person experience, but with heavy restrictions. Class sizes would be limited. Large classes might progress in small mini-sections, with each student spending a fraction as much time in the classroom. Some students and instructors might be unable to return to campus due to visa issues or medical conditions, requiring their own remote access. The threat of another sudden emergency shift would loom over course designs. Some classes would be offered online. Some students would attend online classes. Some students might exclusively attend online classes, while still others participate on campus. The number of combinations and permutations of the multitude of variables was mind-boggling, and it was difficult to give any individual teacher good advice on how to handle their unique class situation.

At the core of this difficulty, though, was the desire to bring back the in-person experience as much as possible. If the online experience was believed to be universally equivalent to the in-person experience, then students, teachers, and administrators would likely not hesitate to remain online for the foreseeable future. But there is a belief that the classroom experience is superior, and we would argue that belief hangs on that word choice: classroom. There are dynamics and experiences and interactions that occur in person that do not automatically translate to online learning because of the lack of a “classroom.” This criticism is not specific to remote learning either; the same objection is lodged at large lecture halls, again for lacking interactions we would more commonly attach to classrooms: conversation among peers, communication with teachers, personalized input on one’s work, and peripheral participation with a social learning community. There is an old adage that “distance education starts in the third row” which reflects this tension: students who are not sitting up front and actively engaged may as well be distance learners.

For years, this issue has plagued large core classes and upper-level classes for in-demand fields, but in the wake of COVID-19, it began to affect everyone: How do you build a classroom experience when you cannot gather all your students together at the same place and time? How do you create meaningful interactions—both direct and peripheral— between students and faculty and among students themselves without synchronous co-location? Why do so many of these remote learning experiments—and distance learning classes before them—lack the feel of a classroom?

This book presents a vision of a “distributed” classroom: a learning experience that retains that classroom environment but distributed across time and space. Rather than defining a classroom as a physical location used by a co-located group of students and teachers at a shared time, a distributed classroom looks at how characteristics of that environment may be shared with remote and asynchronous learners. It describes a view on learning that is not dependent on the typical same-time, same-place assumption of traditional education, but also one that does not swing all the way to the other extreme of full asynchronous remote learning. It seeks to fill in the entire spectrum of synchronicity and co-location from one extreme to the other, asking students only to make the minimum necessary trade-off needed to achieve a particular level of access to the learning experience. It is not merely a way of teaching remotely, but a way of proactively organizing the classroom experience to exist independent of other constraints. It strives to allow learners to participate regardless of location and time, but without the heavy compromises in interaction and assessment made toward that end by efforts like MOOCs.

More than anything else, the distributed classroom strives to present an optimistic, learner-centric view of remote learning and the future of education, one where every person on earth is turned into a potential learner as barriers of cost, geography, and synchronicity disappear. In the process, it reorients the discussion of online education from a separate mechanism for transmitting content to a new medium for extending an experience.

We developed these ideas in the context of continuity planning for COVID-19, but nothing about this vision is specific to the pandemic; we strongly believe it was coming in the next several decades. This vision provides a plan for designing educational experiences that allow us to survive the present, but also to prepare for the future. In addition, it provides guidelines for how this paradigm can be used to students’ benefit rather than the benefit of other competing demands.

Several parallel trends over the past decade have already laid the groundwork for these developments, from the proliferation of learning management systems to the emergence of new course formats like HyFlex and flipped classrooms.6 This vision brings them together into a cohesive, prescriptive blueprint for leveraging these trends to solve both old and new problems. For years, there has been a need for lower-cost, more accessible, and more distributed educational options at all levels, from kindergarten through adult learners. The student loan crisis in the United States, the vast discrepancies in learning opportunities based on socioeconomic status, and the concentration of institutions in a small number of countries all need to be addressed. These problems, however, are vague and distant, and there is enormous inertia behind the status quo. The problems presented by the pandemic, however, were clear and immediate, providing the sort of critical mass to realize major change in a short period of time. Just as mRNA-based vaccines like those developed for COVID-19 are now being created to address older viruses like influenza and HIV, so also progress made to make remote learning more widely available during the pandemic can now be pointed at older problems like inequitable access.7

The vision of the distributed classroom presents a way to address immediate concerns, but it is not merely a stopgap for the remainder of the pandemic; it is a vision of how education can and should work in the coming decades. COVID- 19 has been a challenge, but also an opportunity to address these issues in durable ways that will retain their advantages after the crisis is over. The distributed classroom encourages us to look excitedly to the future rather than longingly at the past—and not to ask ourselves when things will return to normal but rather how we were ever satisfied with “normal” in the first place.

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