September 15, 2016

The Evolving Nature of Distributed Education Classroom Design & Delivery

As learning organizations have sought to meet the needs of geographically distributed learners, various instructional models have evolved to meet changing requirements for delivery. The integration of supporting technologies into traditional classroom environments is at the heart of most distributed education classroom (DEC) models; models that employ the familiar and efficient pedagogy of classroom instruction. Their goals are to facilitate synchronous delivery to and from partner learning organizations across the country and around the world using mobility and desktop technologies.

Imagine walking into a classroom and being given a grocery bag to wear on your head (paper or cloth, please…I don’t want to imagine plastic).  Some may have holes through which you may see and/or hear, but all will in some way impede your ability to interact with those around you. Knowing what I know from my own experiences and the volumes of research available on the topic, the ability to engage and interact is key to the effectiveness of instruction in a traditional classroom setting.

Add an additional virtual classroom or two in a synchronous, distributed education model, and ‘face-to-face’ is combined with ‘face-to-technology.’ With this addition, the challenge of engagement and promoting interactivity assumes a new dimension that requires thoughtful technical accommodation and support. Inattentiveness to the nuances of technology is nearly the equivalent of the grocery bag.

While DEC technologies rest largely on the technologies that are central to standard video conferencing, the functional requirements of a classroom that is designed to both originate and receive instructional events operates at a higher level of complexity.

As learning organizations have sought to meet the needs of geographically distributed learners, various instructional models have evolved to meet changing requirements for delivery. The integration of supporting technologies into traditional classroom environments is at the heart of most distributed education classroom (DEC) models; models that employ the familiar and efficient pedagogy of classroom instruction. Their goals are to facilitate synchronous delivery to and from partner learning organizations across the country and around the world using mobility and desktop technologies.

Imagine walking into a classroom and being given a grocery bag to wear on your head (paper or cloth, please…I don’t want to imagine plastic).  Some may have holes through which you may see and/or hear, but all will in some way impede your ability to interact with those around you. Knowing what I know from my own experiences and the volumes of research available on the topic, the ability to engage and interact is key to the effectiveness of instruction in a traditional classroom setting.

Add an additional virtual classroom or two in a synchronous, distributed education model, and ‘face-to-face’ is combined with ‘face-to-technology.’ With this addition, the challenge of engagement and promoting interactivity assumes a new dimension that requires thoughtful technical accommodation and support. Inattentiveness to the nuances of technology is nearly the equivalent of the grocery bag.

While DEC technologies rest largely on the technologies that are central to standard video conferencing, the functional requirements of a classroom that is designed to both originate and receive instructional events operates at a higher level of complexity.

Challenge #1; Solution #1

The challenge is to ensure that all participants both local and remote can see and hear one another sufficiently to facilitate interaction. Visual and aural cueing is an essential element of classroom interaction and audiovisual systems need to be of sufficient quality to support it. Teaching venues are generally much larger spaces than your average video conferencing room, so greater attention also needs to be given to issues of microphone coverage, acoustics, viewing angle and distance to displays and so on.

There is also an element of inclusion that transcends the mechanics of the event. If an off-site student is recognized and acknowledged, they develop a greater sense of belonging, attachment and loyalty to the home institution. Happy students eventually become happy alumni.

Challenge #2; Solution #2

The next challenge is to make the technology transparent enough so that it does not impede the process of instruction. Even an instructor with a great understanding of technology can be thrown off track when asked to divide attention between the content of instruction and the mechanics of presentation and transmission. It is difficult to be onstage and backstage at the same time.

My approach in the ongoing construction of four DECs, is that of both technical agility and pedagogical fidelity. My goal is to provide supporting technology to allow equivalent interactive opportunities for both on- and off-site students, as well as maintaining an environment where the technology is largely transparent to the instructor, allowing them to focus on content.

More closely approximating the functional capability of a television production facility than that of a typical technology-enhanced learning space, each DEC employs multiple pan/tilt cameras for instructor and student video feeds and multiple high-resolution displays for presentation of participant video and instructional content. Audio capture is via desktop microphones and return audio by way of a full-room, ceiling mounted speaker array. In both classrooms, audio and video feeds are routed by way of a custom designed control system, which allows for configuration to meet a variety of use cases.

A high degree of technical agility comes at the cost of operational complexity, however. Every DEC needs to be staffed with a technician(s) that attends to the technical operation of the facilities, leaving the instructors to instruct. A subset of display controls is available to instructors on a podium mounted touch panel so that they may switch between content sources on the fly, if they so choose.

At the time of this writing, new 200-degree camera technology has been adapted for classroom use. Unlike the view from a grocery bag, the system will allow a panoramic view of the front and rear of the remote classroom. Augmented by traditional camera views of both instructor and individual students, the panoramic perspective will provide a more engaging spatial orientation for students in both classrooms.


As our instructional space becomes more global in nature and our student base more geographically diverse, the goal will continue to be that of maintaining an effective and meaningful connection across distances through the effective use of technology and delivery.

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