The Fluid Classrooms of the Future: The Challenges of Remote Teaching and the Need to Build and LeverageNext Generation Digital Learning Environments (NGDLEs)

By Richard Edwards, Director, University of California

Richard Edwards, Director, University of California

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education in the US entered abruptly into a remote teaching phase in March 2020. The scale of the situation was unprecedented, and regardless of where any particular institution stood in terms of training, personnel, resources, and infrastructure, almost all faculty members had to convert their previously designed face-to-face courses into distance learning offerings in record time--sometimes in a mere matter of days--in a seismic shift that has become conventionally known as  “emergency teaching” or “remote teaching.” Even with serious and sincere efforts of very dedicated staff and instructors, the resulting courses often had a piecemeal feel for faculty and students alike, a sense of being cobbled together with whatever materials and resources were available, especially in terms of existing campus investments in educational technology. Some colleges and universities undoubtedly were better prepared for this abrupt transition than others. However, after the early shocks of this transition are starting to wear off, it is clear that remote teaching is becoming a kind of “new normal” for many instructors, likely stretching institutional needs for this kind of technology-enabled modality into 2021 and beyond.

Emergency remote teaching, in most cases, cannot be compared favorably to properly designed online courses, especially due to stark differences in the depth of faculty training and the time and resource investments that are typically made in creating online instruction that can meet high standards of quality assurance. Remote teaching courses, when evaluated from an Academic Affairs perspective or from the vantage point of a Director of a Center for Teaching and Learning, have their own set of problems that need to be addressed going forward, especially the longer the COVID-19 crisis disrupts standard campus operations. The compromises and risks behind the rapid shift to remote teaching were accepted by campus leaders across the country precisely because they could be seen as brief and temporary measures to get through a once-in-a-hundred-year crisis. Yetit is becoming clearer that the COVID-19 crisis will be of an indeterminate length. Currently it is uncertain when most instructors can return to their previous face-to-face practices, and we may be resuming remote teaching on a moment’s notice in the future during peaks of COVID-19 cases. Therefore, most campuses have been finding short-term solutions that help them navigate through the current crisis. However, I will argue this crisis is also a long-term opportunity for many institutions to instill a new mindset for 21st century pedagogies and to install a more resilient instructional ecosystem that will pay dividends in the future.

In this vein, we should promote models of teaching and learning that are predicated on being more fluid in their designs and delivery than being simply flipped versions of the traditional classroom experience. A fluid classroom, in this sense, is a robust reimagining of the 21st century classroom that privileges neither the physical classroom nor its online counterpart—it is a highly flexible and inoperable modality that is synergistic to its core, enabling a seamless transition from a face-to-face format to an e-learning environment with little to no gaps in the instructional delivery and with minimal or no impacts on student learning success. To the contrary, the long-term goal of the fluid classroom would be to increase the effectiveness of instructional delivery and to provide improvements in student learning outcomes. Instructors in fluid classrooms need to be trained and supported in adopting high impact teaching practices that can flourish in such settings. The fluid classroom approach leverages strategic campus-wide investments by identifying synergies beyond the LMS and within the entire IT ecosystem. In this sense, a fluid classroom becomes the main instructional outcome of next generation digital learning environments, or NGDLEs.

In my view, fluid classrooms and NGDLEs are not a schismatic break with the past but a coalescence of educational experiments and innovative investments that have been gaining traction in higher education over the last 10years. Ideas such as the unbundling of higher education, the use of mobile technologies, the rise of learning analytics, the growth of cloud-based IT, the adoption of personalized and personable learning, the desire for collaboration, and the growth of universal design all come together in this concept. Interoperability is a key buzzword for fluid classrooms and NGDLEs. Rather than instructors relying on any single environment such as a learning management system (LMS), a NGDLE is a resilient ecosystem of many distinct parts and platforms that will better allow for developing new approaches to active learning, collaboration, micro credentialing and badging, and workforce development. A NGDLE is a new confederation of IT-supported devices, platforms, and tools. Moreover, this new ecosystem no longer needs to be exclusively tethered to the LMS. In supporting fluid classrooms, we will start to see the limitations of existing “walled garden” or “one size fits all” approaches on our campuses. This emergency remote teaching moment provides us with an opportunity to think outside the literal and figurative “boxes” in which our instructional efforts are currently confined in order to reimagine and build new interoperable ecosystems and fluid pedagogical approaches that will empower and enrich the next generation of learners.

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