Further Ramblings about the Distributed Classroom

My thoughts have begun to turn towards my Winter course again and, as my Examination copies of the potential textbooks have not sped their way across the United States, I’ve been thinking more and more about the form of a course based around distributed conversation (or distributed communities)–about what online “geography” is ideal for such conversations.

A distributed classroom–a classroom that is not centralized in a single LMS, blog, or forum, but spread out across each individual student’s own online space–depends heavily on each individual’s skills of time management, organization, as well as responsibility, dedication, and knowledge base.  Of course, none of these might actually exist, so this leads to two basic formats of distributed classrooms:

  1. Ones like the POT certificate course, which assume the necessary skills and commitment.
  2. Others, which are targeted at building up such skills and commitment from the start.

The first format can focus entirely on the skills and knowledge particular to the class, while the second has to combine the teaching of learning skills and responsibility with the skills and knowledge particular to the topics the class is about.  There is a clear advantage to the first format, but it only works under limited circumstances.  In the college environment that exists today, these kinds of learning skills and self-motivation cannot be immediately assumed.  And while a long course–over a semester or, even better, over a year–can move from the second model to the first as the students learn and develop, shorter classes do not have the same luxury.

Does this mean that shorter classes cannot use the model of the distributed classroom?  Of course not (why, that would be madness! ;)).  But we need to understand exactly what role the centralized aspect of the course plays in a distributed classroom to make most effective use of the instructor-controlled aspect of the course.

The Hub

I grew up in a small down that was originally founded as a Methodist summer campground.  The town was set up like the hub and spokes of a wheel (12 spokes for each of the disciples of  Jesus–not important, but there you are).  Individuals lived all along the spokes and met and worshiped at the hub.  It was the hub that represented the joint purpose of being part of the community and that provided the stability necessary to hold the community together.

Yep, it's a wheel.

In a completely unsurprising move, this image is vaguely important in a metaphorical sense.

Any classroom can be visualized like the spokes and hub of a wheel, with only the size of the hub varying.  The traditional, lecture-based, in-person classroom is almost entirely hub–the students read and do homework and then meet and do the majority of learning in the classroom.  A course like POTcert is mostly spokes (and, actually, many additional reinforcing connections between the spokes) with a minimally intrusive hub.  The hub is still necessary–it makes the wheel work–but it provides little stability on its own.  Students touch base at the hub to understand the purpose of the week and then go off to their own spaces (or shared spaces–no Facebook, Google+, and Twitter really don’t work in this visual) to work and interact across the spokes.  The smaller the hub, the more the stability–coherence, even work, of the course–is transferred to the spokes–the students’ own spaces.

When Ko and Rossen talk about the different areas of a course, they are talking primarily about the hub.  The standard online course replicates the centralized nature of the traditional in-person classroom.  Here is the discussion area where topics will be discussed.  Here is the assignment area where assignments will be assigned.  Here is the schedule . . . where scheduling is done.  The students do their own work and then travel along the spokes to the hub to communicate and do the process of learning.  Anyone who has been teaching for even a reasonable amount of time recognizes that most of the actual learning experience often takes place in class–on their own students most often just absorb information.  In these standard courses, the learning experience is primarily focused on the centralized aspect–hub–of the course.  A distributed classroom needs to be arranged differently.  The learning needs to be pushed along the spokes, away from the hub.

Balance

This is not to say that eliminating the hub completely is the ideal we should aim for in our teaching.  The hub has, at least, the minimal role of organizing the learning of the class.  But in a class where both topic skills and knowledge and learning skills and knowledge are being taught, the role of the hub has to be stronger–the hub has to be larger.  The task is finding the correct balance for the particular course.

Which brings me to my current dilemma.  Can a distributed classroom be built well for a three week, 100-level course?  100-level points to the fact that most of the students will not have any built in learning skills, while three week means that there is no time to slowly decrease the importance of the centralized elements of the course.  Yet, I think that giving students the opportunity to practice and learn both topic related skills and general learning skills at once can be fruitful.  But to do this, I need to find a balance between centralized control and decentralized freedom.

So, what should appear on a “centralized” space in a decentralized classroom?  What is the role of this central hub?

Comments 2

  1. avatar Ross Kendall wrote:

    Hi Brandon
    Pushing it to expect much to develop online in 3 weeks! I think I’d go for a strong ‘hub’ containing all administrative details and assessment requirements, contacts, etc, etc, and simply encourage a cafe-type forum space for students. Maybe 1-2 blog postings?

    cheers
    ross

    Posted 26 Oct 2011 at 10:41 pm
  2. avatar Brandon wrote:

    @Ross: One of the main problems with the three week course is that it is supposed to be equivalent to a 14 week in-person course (credit-wise), so there needs to be a lot of development over that time. The question is how to make it a worthwhile “a lot.”

    In the past, I’ve found that students are fully capable of doing a posting every day and responding to other students, so my hope is that making these activities target multiple aspects of the class and having the students focus more on a tighter circle of peers will translate to better learning outcomes.

    Posted 29 Oct 2011 at 9:59 am

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