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Engaging Students on Their Own Terms: Intuitive Interaction

One barrier to high-quality online education is effective engagement. Intuitive design, purposeful technology and a continued focus on the learner are necessary to creating a meaningful digital learning experience.

As one of the twelve degree granting schools at Harvard University, our goal at Harvard Extension School is to provide adult part-time learners with educational experiences that offer flexibility and a strong community that engage them deeply in their learning. By being a part of the University’s Division of Continuing Education (DCE) we have the ability to extend Harvard’s rigor and learning opportunities to a broad set of learners across the lifelong learning spectrum. We have been offering flexible attendance options to our students since 1997, when we began our lecture capture classes and offered students the choice of attending in person or watching the recordings later, following post-production. By 2006, our online students could livestream our on-campus classes and with a chat function for discussion. Although these modes gave students much-needed flexibility, connection was hard to come by for online students. Live attendance dwindled both in person and online. We needed a new approach to build the interactive course community we hoped to foster.

Our overarching goal was to create an experience with which everyone can engage in a manner that feels both natural and easy, one in which teaching and learning pedagogy are at the forefront while technology exists in the background to support and promote different active learning opportunities. This led to our version of HyFlex learning in 2015, which we named HELIX (Harvard Extension Live Interactive eXperience) Classroom. HELIX Classroom gives students the choice on a class-to-class basis of attending class locally on campus, remotely via Zoom, or asynchronously. Local and remote students can see and hear each other in real time. Asynchronous students watch class on demand and participate on their own time.  

When we began, we realized we had built the airplane but few of us knew how to fly it. Fast-forward five years into the future and what we’ve learned is that HyFlex not only requires intentional design for intuitive interaction but also strong faculty and student support. 

Design for intuitive interaction

When we outfit a HELIX Classroom, we consider how its design will impact the perspective of each person in the classroom. What do instructors need to easily navigate the space? Can our students in the physical classroom see their remote counterparts, view content, and conduct group work?  What do our remote students need to feel connected, and how can we provide it? Classroom design choices, such as camera and monitor placement, audio pickup processes, and content sharing must support two primary goals:

  1. Faculty and students, meaning those in the physical classroom and those online, need to be able to see, hear and converse with each other in a way that feels natural. 
  1. Faculty need to be able to focus on teaching rather than navigating technology.

Use the technology with a purpose

Our classroom design decisions are centered around our goal to make all students feel like they are part of the classroom experience. We want our remote students to see what the classroom looks like and how they fit into the space. To accomplish this, we:

  • Use multiple cameras and monitors that are strategically placed to provide intuitive sight lines. When the instructor or local students address the remote student monitor, they are also looking into a camera placed strategically above it. Remote students feel as if they’re being looked in the eye. 
  • Ensure high-quality local student audio for student-to-student interaction. We prefer to outfit spaces with ceiling arrays for layout flexibility. 
  • Provide an additional monitor, so instructors can easily read student names on Zoom and see raised hands.
  • Place the monitor with the remote students in a location that allows instructors, when looking at their local students, to view their remote students at the same time.

This type of design may vary depending on a variety of factors, such as specific desired outcomes, budgets, staffing resources, etc. For example, we’ve built HELIX Classrooms atop learning spaces already equipped with multiple cameras as well as smaller classrooms that require a videographer to connect a camera. Particular hardware is less important than flexibility and intention in design choices focused on thoughtful ways to bridge the spatial and temporal gap for online students using the resources you have. 

Focus on the people

While thoughtful AV design sets the stage for effective blended learning, its success largely depends on the actors all understanding and adapting to the role each plays in creating an interactive culture. Without faculty training and deliberate community building, the HyFlex model falls flat. The good news is that small actions and support provided at the start of the semester build on each other and contribute to the success of our HELIX Classroom community.

To ensure instructors focus on what matters the most—teaching—we created a staffing role that:

  • Handles the HELIX Classroom technical responsibilities, such as setting up the Zoom meeting, testing AV functionality, and sharing slides
  • Consults instructors on class activities to ensure they run smoothly during class
  • Monitors the class remotely, so issues are quickly fixed

Our instructor training centers on preparing faculty to get their course community rolling on day one by making a conscious effort to communicate with remote and asynchronous students, such as:

  • Planning how they’ll welcome each group of students to class
  • Calling on remote students on Zoom and talking to on-demand students through the camera. Local students will notice this and follow suit
  • Letting instructors practice in the classroom they’ll be teaching in so that they can adjust ahead of time.

In addition, we train our instructors to lay a clear path for participation from all groups of students, such as:

  • Inviting remote students to raise their hands in the same way the in-person students do, or warm-calling on a student. Once they’re in the habit of participating, the conversation will flow more naturally. 
  • Referring to asynchronous student work during class, such as discussion board posts, to jump-start a live discussion.
  • Leveraging digital tools (particularly in our learning management system, Canvas) for activities that allow all groups of students to share the same brainstorming space, especially asynchronous learners.

Where we are today

Through our shift to HyFlex, we’ve seen significant changes in our teaching experiences that go far beyond bringing remote students into the classroom.

  • Instructors do more active learning and intentionally build community.  These are shifts in teaching practices that benefit all students. 
  • Unsurprisingly, many more remote students attend class live. In-class attendance has gone up as well. 
  • End-of-semester course evaluations have improved, and we’ve seen a 4% increase in student persistence rates.
  • We’ve seen an increase in demand for this format with approximately 50 courses per term being offered as HELIX Classroom.

Faculty share these benefits with each other, and the overall migration to this format was the easiest we’d ever done. In fact, we’ve had to turn courses away due to space constraints. 

But we still have a long way to go. While we’re confident in our intuitive design for live remote learners, we still want to make it easier to bring asynchronous students fully into the community. Discussion forums and peer review have taken us far, but we are continually exploring ways we can bring the quick and organic moments that happen in class asynchronously, particularly by bringing together the live and asynchronous student dialogue more meaningfully. We look forward to this next phase of development. 

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