Teachers spend hours designing and setting up their classrooms. They arrange cozy reading nooks and construct colorful bulletin boards. They know that when it comes to learning and productivity, space matters. One of EdSurge’s most popular articles described how a teacher used flexible seating to create a classroom that resembled Starbucks, spawning a movement to “Starbucks your classroom.” An entire graduate course at Stanford University explores the principles for designing spaces that support learning.
Yet most of our energy has been focused on designing physical learning spaces, even as more teaching and learning shifts online. Unfortunately, most massive open online course (MOOC) platforms still feel like drafty lecture halls instead of intimate seminar rooms. The majority of online learning environments are no more than video-hosting platforms with quizzes and a discussion forum. These default features force online instructors to use a style of teaching that feels more like shouting to the masses than engaging in meaningful conversations.
This presents a challenge and an opportunity: How can we design online learning environments that achieve scale and intimacy? How do we make digital platforms feel as inviting as well-designed physical classrooms?
The answer may be that we need to balance massiveness with miniaturization. If the first wave of MOOCs was about granting unprecedented numbers of students access to high-quality teaching and learning materials, Wave 2 needs to focus on creating a sense of intimacy within that massiveness.
We need to be building platforms that look less like a cavernous stadium and more like a honeycomb. This means giving people small chambers of engagement where they can interact with a smaller, more manageable and yet still diverse groups. We can’t meaningfully listen to the deafening roar of the internet. But we can learn from a collection of people with perspectives different than ours.
Counterintuitively, to build meaningful global learning communities, we need to build walls. In the 1960s and 1970s, we learned that “open design” schools often produced chaotic learning environments. The research on these experimental schools frequently confirmed that students did better when schools had walls, and the model largely fell out of favor.
In 2004, the education historian Larry Cuban predicted that “while the open classroom has clearly currently disappeared from the vocabulary of educators, another variation of open education is likely to reappear in the years ahead.” I think we’ve seen this reemergence—unintentionally—in the form of MOOCs. In creating online learning platforms, we scaled the equivalent of open schools without first learning how to build classrooms.
These design choices have noticeable implications. I typically build MOOCs, but this spring, I designed an online program for a cohort of 16 nonprofit leaders. Participants gathered online each week for seminar-style conversations, case study discussions and peer critiques. We used a combination of video chat, Slack and curriculum materials hosted on a learning management system. In the noisy hubbub of the MOOCs, these people probably never would have found each other. But in this smaller space, nonprofit leaders from as far away as Arkansas, Oakland and Uganda meaningfully connected and workshopped common challenges.
This type of structure is not revolutionary. Many online instructors are similarly shifting to smaller cohort models that allow students to receive more coaching and interaction via video chat. Minerva has been refining a seminar-style platform to enable just this for several years now. Flipgrid lets students record their voices and collects them on an inviting platform that starts to make learning feel more like a community. Professors are using video conferencing tools like appear.in, Bluejeans and Zoom to host office hour sessions online. The MIT Media Lab built a fun Unhangout tool that breaks people into small chat rooms for discussion.
Yet, I still have not been able to find an out-of-the-box online learning platform that offers this palette of instructional features that can serve course designers and students at scale. It is strikingly hard to pivot between large-group instruction and small-group work on online platforms. Yet, as any skilled classroom teacher will tell you, those types of pedagogical moves are the key to keeping students engaged.
What will it take to get MOOC platforms to begin to offer learning spaces that feel more inviting and intimate? Perhaps there’s a new role that needs to emerge in the online learning ecosystem: a “learning architect” who sits between the engineers and the instructional designers. While instructional designers focus on content design and curriculum production and engineers build robust backends, learning architects will understand the critical link between spaces and learning and help translate that vision into software.
If we can make parts of online learning environments feel more like cozy libraries and coffee shops, perhaps we’ll entice learners to stick around longer, form relationships with others, persist in difficult courses, and emerge with more durable learning.