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Apr 14, 2020

Phased reopening and the split classroom model

The two main governors have spoken, and both are talking about phased reopening. In other words, we are not going back to normal normal, we are likely to go back to a new normal. The pat of the new normal will be retaining social distancing, plus a certain number of people will always be on quarantine, because of their contact with infected. For the higher ed, especially for large campuses like ours, this presents a challenge. Our classrooms are normally full, and there is no way to be 6 feet apart without cutting down the numbers of students in EVERY class. Even if this does not happen, a small minority of students will be in isolation and we need to be able to include them into regular f2f classes.

Many of us know that f2f and online worlds are not easily blended. It is easier to teach all in f2f or all in online mode. Try to have half of your class f2f and the other remotely, and you will discover a whole can of worms. However, many pioneers tried to do that for years. There is a model that does not even have an established name in the literature. Let us call it the split classroom model. It is not hybrid or blended, where the same students have both online and f2f experience. No, it is when there is a smaller f2f classroom that generates much of content, and another set of students accessing it remotely. I know people doing it successfully. Our Child Development Cohort programs has run like for many years and is now in 9 remote locations, but they hire separate off-site seminar leaders. Mark Rodriguez tried that for the Ed Technology Masters Program. Anatoly Kasprzhak experimented with a similar format years ago in Moscow, where he had optional f2f sessions for his hybrid program. I am sure there are hundreds of other examples out there. To my knowledge, no one had described the split classroom model yet. If you know of a good research on it, please let me know.

The advantage of the model is that as an instructor, you do not need to generate additional interactive content. Your f2f small group generates it: the interaction, the live lectures, the small group discussion, and all the countless ways in which a good f2f classroom helps digest knowledge. However, there are also serious technical challenges for which we should start preparing now. The problem is, you need to capture all that rich content and beam it to your online group. You also need to allow the online students to interact back, for learning cannot be all vicarious. There are some adjustments to pedagogy, but they are not overwhelming. Zoom can handle the communication between the f2f and online portion of the class.

The technical challenges are these. If you don’t sit in front of a computer, but move around, you need a wearable microphone or a much better stationary one. Your laptop or tablet mics are useless. You also need a tracking camera or multiple cameras capturing the entire room. We have only a handful of teaching studio rooms in the AIRC, and perhaps in some other buildings. They don’t come cheap, and will run tens of thousands of dollars.

The next best thing is a Zoom-ready room with a wide-angle camera and a good microphone. We probably have another dozen or so throughout the campus, including three in Eureka that Binod set up in the last year. Most of them actually are conference rooms, not classrooms. Binod found several solutions on the market: there are wall-mounted or stationary consoles that are able to pick up audio, and have digitally tracking and/or wide-angle cameras. These will stay within a few hundred dollars. However, with hundreds of classrooms on campus, and uncertain budget, I don’t know if we can invest much.

However, to hedge our bets, we should probably identify a portable solution that can be carted from classroom to classroom, test it, and be ready to scale up for a possible split classroom expansion. If we don’t need to expand, great. It is not a bad capacity to have anyway. The split classrooms may be useful for all kinds of accommodations for sick or quarantined students. The split classroom may even mainstream, especially for smaller programs struggling with enrollment. Why not have a few online students in addition to the normal f2f class? In the future, the split classroom model may also go international for a cheaper alternative to going abroad. We just don’t have years to work on it.

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