Feb 112015

Using telepresence to engage both whole-class and small-group interactions

CEP901bSS2015_pan_whole class discussion_Greenhow

Hybrid courses are starting to come in all shapes and sizes in the College of Education and if Dr. Chris Greenhow’s CEP 901b course is any indication, that means innovating the ways in which online and on-campus participants interact.

Spotlight_CEP901bSS2015_whole class Zoom closeup_GreenhowThis semester Chris is teaching a course with 12 students online and 1 student face-to-face. Her interaction strategy for each class mixes large group seminar discussions with small group sessions based on student research teams. The question is, how do Chris and her students move between these two styles of in-class interaction without losing focus on the content of the course (or each other)?

The answer lies in their use of the Zoom videoconferencing platform in the newly created “virtual flex classroom” in Erickson Hall, Room 132. Chris hosts the large seminar discussions on Zoom using the room’s four 80” monitors, allowing her and the face-to-face student see the online participants clearly throughout the room. When it comes time for the students’ research teams to interact in small groups, they leave the main Zoom session to join a series of separate Zoom sessions designated for each group. These smaller Zoom sessions are hosted at student workstation computers located around the classroom. Links on a custom-designed WordPress course website provide quick, easy access to both the main session and the student research team sessions.

Spotlight_CEP901bSS2015_small group and instructor_GreenhowHosting the large and small group Zoom sessions in the virtual flex classroom has significant advantages. Even with most of her students online, Chris can take part in the various student teams by simply walking between stations. This allows her to cognitively sample the quality and direction of student discussions individually or as a whole without having to manage multiple links or disrupt the teams in the middle of discussion and presentation.

Chris is quick to stress that both she and the students are still getting used to the affordances and constraints of teaching a mostly online course in a physical space. “The facilities [in Room 132] help support a lot of the interactions we want to achieve during a single class session but it can still be a challenge to manage all the moving parts. It takes some getting used to but I think the payoffs in terms of students’ learning and professional socialization are really well worth it.”