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A Face-to-Face Approach to the Online Learning Space

Case Study

min read

A blended video studio and faculty office space elevates the online teaching and learning experience for instructors and students at Texas State University.

A Face-to-Face Approach to the Online Learning Space
Credit: Toltemara / Shutterstock.com © 2022

What We Faced

Digitalization in higher education has placed online learning on an evolutionary fast track. Untethered from classrooms and textbooks, institutions increasingly rely on digital resources to support effective instruction. The development of online learning models, which proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced continued growth as a greater number of learners, instructors, and resources continued to take advantage of digitalization.

Despite the progress achieved with current models, however, most colleges and universities still struggle to offer consistently interactive and high-quality online courses. Often educators, students, and technology teams grapple separately with online learning challenges rather than working together to resolve them. Texas State University's Division of Information Technology is testing a different approach—a collaborative, human-first strategy poised to yield significant instructional and educational gains.

Texas State University's IT community began reimagining the university's distance learning landscape long before the world went virtual with the start of the pandemic in March 2020. With the prevalence of remote learning on the rise as early as 2010, Ken Pierce, the university's vice president for Information Technology and CIO, recalled wondering, "Wouldn't it be amazing if you actually had a wall with all your students on it, and as the instructor you could get the same fidelity as you would if you were in a classroom? And what if the wall were in your office? That could be a game changer, shifting faculty preference to online instruction."Footnote1 For Pierce, delivery of quality online instruction is paramount to institutional success. While A/V teams and instructional designers historically focused on next-generation hybrid classrooms and learning management tools, Pierce focused on the instructor's ability to create an optimal online environment. Furthermore, he added, the solution "has to be affordable and scalable."

Over the next decade, as computing, video, and conferencing tools evolved, what once seemed a futuristic concept began to take shape. In 2018, the project impetus and platform capabilities aligned, allowing Pierce to begin working with the IT Division's Technology Innovation Office (TIO) and Learning Spaces Design team, and the potential future of Texas State's online teaching strategy officially launched. A charter was drawn up and approved, triggering formal planning meetings and the procurement of funding. The design and development of the pilot studio were slowed by the pandemic but progressed over the next several semesters.

What We Did

The Teaching Space of Tomorrow (TSOT) is a multifunctional space, incorporating an online delivery "studio" and a typical faculty office with a desk, shelves, and a computer. In other words, faculty "office" and teach from the same space. In conceptualizing the TSOT, the IT team used as its springboard the instructor's user experience. Carlos Solís, Associate VP for Technology Innovation and Director of TIO, put it simply: "An engaged instructor leads to an engaged learner." Pierce and Solís worked with Brian Shanks and Atkins Fleming of the Learning Spaces Design team and Gwen Morel of the Office of Distance and Extended Learning to set up a prototype teaching space. Next, TIO issued a university-wide call for teaching proposals, and the search for the space's first Instructor-in-Residence began. Designers knew the prototype staging area would afford the first Instructor-in-Residence an immediate opportunity to give authentic feedback. The success of the TSOT, its designers understood, depended on listening closely to the instructors who would engage with the platform.

The Teaching Space of Tomorrow
Credit: Texas State University

Instructor-Centered Approach

The call for teaching proposals led to Seth Frei. Frei, a lecturing instructor for Texas State University's McCoy College of Business Department of Management, was eager to assume the role of Instructor-in-Residence. The recipient of Texas State's Office of Distance Learning's 2018 Award for Excellence in Online Teaching, Frei had consistently experienced success engaging online learners, having conducted hybrid and online courses since 2013. As Frei explained, "I've been in the Management Department for about five years now, and prior to that I was in Communication Studies. I've always taught either remote, hybrid, or fully online courses [at Texas State]. I've always really tried to push the envelope further and try new things through the classes I teach."

Continuous Feedback Loop

Frei's involvement brought valuable new insights to the initiative. In June 2021, Frei began exploring Shanks and Fleming's staged teaching space setup to think through an actual class. Displays, computers, lights, and working surfaces were mobile. Everything could be adjusted. Feedback from Frei's earlier experiences with online learning served as the starting point. As Solís explained, "The first design centered on Dr. Frei's teaching style. The focus was on the way he teaches, how he could be more engaged, and his pain points around the current use of Zoom."

A user-driven design and iterative approach guided the development. Shanks and Fleming addressed Frei's struggles with prior remote instruction, and their flexible solutions created a solid foundation for the teaching space. Fleming explained, "We prefer to start with requirements straight from whoever the end user will be." Shanks added, "Our requirements [were to] provide a technical solution to facilitate online synchronous classes in a way that makes the faculty experience as close to face-to-face as possible. Additionally, [we were asked to] fit this solution in a space like a faculty office so that it becomes scalable."

Beta Launch

In August 2021, the beta version of Texas State's TSOT launched. Streamlining the instructor's experience, the TSOT served as Frei's teaching studio and his office. Designing the TSOT to incorporate the lecturer's office simplified access to instructional materials and encouraged exploration of new teaching methods and techniques. Personalizing the audio and video setup enhanced the TSOT's instructor-centric design.

For the initiative to be deemed a success, Frei observed, "tech can't be a distraction." Shanks and Fleming had selected electronic components based on quality, longevity, adaptability, and ease of use. Technology used in the Teaching Space of Tomorrow is consumer-grade and user-friendly, making the space available, affordable, and scalable.Footnote2 Shanks echoed Frei when discussing the space's technology: "We want it to feel as seamless and transparent as possible."

Engaging Students Face-to-Face

The student experience factors in, too. While noise from the air conditioner registered no viewer complaints, light reflections on Frei's reading glasses had to be resolved. As the design team focused on Frei's feedback, they kept in mind his goal of providing an intimate, engaging learning experience for students. Student eye contact and real-time responses have always been instructional priorities for Frei, and the configuration of the TSOT allowed him to reach those goals.

As Frei explained, "Where we position that camera [makes] it really easy to have good eye contact with the people you're talking with as they are sharing. I think that's important, as well, in a space—being able to feel like there's a direct connection between you and the person on the other end." Frei is pleased with the detailed student chat visible on his six screens and resulting interactions (see figure 1). "I can see quite a few of the comments that have been made, so I can start to … put things together. If you're on a small screen, you've only got maybe the last three or four comments that you can really see. I'm able to string ideas together and then reply to the class. I can put those ideas together to then better respond to how students are interacting with the class."

Figure 1. Seth Frei Lectures from the Teaching Space of Tomorrow
Instructor standing at a lectern facing 2 large monitors. Each monitor is showing a grid of boxes with a student in each.
Credit: Texas State University

Student feedback validated the TSOT's prototype design. Participants' commentary from the fall 2021 semester was overwhelmingly positive. Students were extremely pleased with the sound and video quality, which they felt elevated their overall online experience, and student performance data trends indicated productive learner engagement. Senior public relations student Urvi Dalal, who took one of Frei's online courses in fall 2022, found significant benefit in the TSOT. Dalal said, "I've had online classes in the past that have worked well, but I think that the Teaching Space of Tomorrow adds just an extra layer of quality. Even though it's a class full of a hundred, two hundred people, I could directly have a conversation with the professor. It was a better experience than some of the other online classes that I've taken because the overall presentation quality helped retain my attention, which I believe helped me succeed in the class." As another student expressed, "This was the best online course I've ever taken. I felt like my instructor was in the room with me."

Throughout fall 2021, experimentation and revision continued. At the close of the fall semester, the full team, including Frei, took a deeper dive into the lessons learned during those first three months of beta testing. Their review session resulted in a design worthy of deployment in January 2022, launching the first-generation version of the TSOT. The spring semester saw very few changes to the space, and the design team is ready for the second Instructor-in-Residence to move in and pave the way for a next-generation design.

What We Learned

While human communication continues its whirlwind transformation, the fundamental need for personal interaction endures. Computer displays serve as both portals and barriers. Optimizing the former requires disrupting the latter.

  • The TSOT dislodges boundaries digital screens impose by immersing, expanding, and joining the once classroom-bound learning community. Students and instructors can participate from nontraditional sites and far-reaching locations. Diverse learning cooperatives can thrive.
  • By connecting virtually but also personally, lecturers and learners engage, share, and extend their learning in ways yet unimagined. As online learning revolutionizes higher education and transforms collaboration models for instructors and students, the TSOT is designed to capitalize on this evolution and further its progress.
  • Enhancing an instructor's ability to produce this sense of exceptional quality, the TSOT blends the teaching studio and the faculty office. Colocation maximizes efficiency and efficacy. With no competing schedules to juggle, instructors are free to try new strategies when inspiration strikes. Personalized settings translate into time bonuses during and outside class periods. The merged space allows instructors to produce a high-quality online learning experience and achieve enhanced student outcomes.
  • Besides optimizing time and results, the TSOT is simultaneously futuristic and economical. The current space pushes existing conferencing technology to its limits, yet it is flexible enough to adapt to evolving technologies. Strategic integration of hardware components and software design created a solution now costing less than $15,000 to replicate, making the space affordable and scalable.

When asked what advice he would give to the next Instructor-in-Residence, Frei first emphasized utilizing the Division of Information Technology's support network. "There's a team here working on this project that really wants to see this succeed," he said. Pierce, too, is already looking ahead. Having solved the feasibility and affordability puzzles, he is ready to move on to the next phase: scalability. His goal is to get the next instructor's perspective so "we have another set of things we can lock down and adjust." Pierce wants students to have a clear sense of exceptional quality when engaging in online learning, "so it's important for the professor to be able to produce that."

Just as the TSOT began with a desire to enhance the experience of the instructor, Pierce's plans for its future also begin with this key user. He hopes the next TSOT faculty members enjoy teaching from the space just as much as Frei did. The second Instructor-in-Residence brings yet another opportunity to gain valuable, actionable feedback. Beyond the next residency, Pierce's vision is clear: "Once we've perfected it here, how do we scale the Teaching Space of Tomorrow to online instructors across the university?" Pierce hopes the scalability of the TSOT will continue to engage instructors and students, regardless of geographic location, with its high-quality instructional delivery.

Notes

  1. All quotations in this article are from personal communications with the author. Jump back to footnote 1 in the text.
  2. Brian Shanks, "Teaching Space of Tomorrow, Technical Specifications," Texas State University, n.d., accessed August 1, 2022. Jump back to footnote 2 in the text.

Kimberly A. Conner is a Communications Specialist in the Office of the Vice President for Information Technology at Texas State University.

© 2022 Kimberly A. Conner. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.