Series To Explore How Best to Design U.Va.’s Online Learning Environments

February 07, 2013

What does an online student want and need to find, and what does their experience look and feel like? Are discussion boards helpful or hurtful? Can Twitter be a useful interaction tool to facilitate discussions? How can universities best engage students in online learning environments, enhance cross-disciplinary instruction and platforms, and encourage engagement and problem-solving?

These are the pressing questions currently being discussed and debated at the Open Grounds Studio. Maintained by the University of Virginia’s Office of the Vice President for Research, the studio, in partnership with U.Va.’s Curry School of Education, recently hosted the first in a series of four sessions on “Designing Online Learning Environments.”

“Whenever there is a change in the way we think about institutions, technology or the way that we interact in different dimensions of life, there is a corresponding change in the kind of space we create for that to happen,” said Bill Sherman, associate vice president for research, associate professor of architecture and founding director of OpenGrounds.

Sherman and Mable Kinzie, associate professor and principal investigator for MyTeachingPartner-Mathematics/Science, led the conversation about the need for intentional planning of online space and the process needed to conceptualize what that will be at the series’ first session, “Education and Space,” held Jan. 31.

Kinzie, who specializes in user-centered instructional design, said that at Curry, “We have been focusing on tool evolution. Rather than imagining that we are going to take what we do at U.Va., get it online and retain a knowledge transmission model, we must move more toward a knowledge construction model. We want to make the online experience really rich, and work toward tools that are a cohesive whole and bring all the information together seamlessly.”

Participant Mary Abouzeid, professor and director of TEMPO Reading Outreach at the Curry School, shared from her experience that one of the hardest things for her online students is the realization that they are in charge of creating knowledge together, and it requires them to do the work.

“Online learning removes the former hierarchy of the teacher talking to students and allows them to interact in new ways.” Sherman agreed.

But the human experience is radically changing as we live in two realms. Online learning “opens up a new chapter in the way that we organize knowledge. Problem-solving draws upon a wide range of information across boundaries and disciplines,” Sherman said. “The 20th century was marked by a compartmentalization of knowledge that is reflected in our campuses by every discipline in every school having a different building. That division doesn’t have to happen in the virtual world.  

“It’s a radical expansion of the human mind that happens when you are simultaneously living in two worlds  – online and in the physical. Your brain is processing two different realities” – two different spaces, he said.

The conversation on creating thoughtful and multi-disciplinary online space is just beginning, and Kinzie noted that universities don’t quite have the capability to provide the multi-dimensional attributes of the real world. “We cannot replicate the kinesthetic experience at this moment,” she said.

However, there is hope for the future of higher education. “It’s going to make universities different, not obsolete,” Sherman said. “That is a different concern than ‘can we deliver substantive course content online and get a deep understanding of the field that we are trying to communicate?’ ”

Open Grounds plans to host session two, “The Art and Aesthetics of Online Learning” on Feb. 26 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The dates and times for the last two sessions, “Developing Communities Online, from Social Networks to MOOCs,” and “Designing Labs and Experiments in an Online Environment” will be announced on the Open Grounds website.

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