The end of front-row bias

The affordance of the physical classroom dictates that there must be a front row. No matter what type of student you are, on day 1 of class, depending on how early you get there, your place in the spatial hierarchy of class is set.

I googled “front row lecture hall” and got this priceless image – from a “life at UCR” tumblr account no less! There you have it: the faculty at the front, penned in students in the back – and NOONE at all in the front row…

Most classrooms are an oblong cage that pens students to a table and a chair that is bolted to the floor. Pens in which the instructor too is mostly immobilized, forced to pace at the front of the class, between a podium or a desk.  Is this an optimal learning environment? Is this an optimal teaching environment? So much research suggests it isn’t, but at my university, requests for flexible classrooms are often refused because “chairs would be stolen”. And so the physical learning environment is constrained by the fears of a building management budget office.

Online, every student is in the front row. And without a front row, there can be no “front-row bias”.

Every student in an online class will answer questions asked in the video lecture – I do this using Zaption – a tool everyone should become familiar with. Zaption allows me the insert questions or action elements into a video lecture – and the student must respond before the lecture can go on. Other tools used in online classes allow every student ask questions – and get answers in ever shorter feedback loops. Every student is seen and sees everyone else in discussion – there are no backs of heads, there’s no falling asleep, no shirking on the readings.

There’s no doubt that shifting online changes things. The end of front-row bias shifts the dynamics between students in very productive ways. Students see many of their classmates, not just the ones sitting next to them, or the back of the head of those sitting in front. They collaborate across space with students in class, and their access to the instructor does not depend on where they sit in the class – the instructor is a click away. The space of interaction among students and instructor is significantly flatter – which also means significantly less hierarchical. The podium and those bolted chairs are barriers – get rid of those barriers and things are bound to change rather radically.

All of this is usual in small classrooms, but it is impossible in the large lecture courses that are becoming the norm at research universities.  One of the great innovations in online instruction and the many engagement apps is that it allows us to make the large classrooms smaller. Some of my colleagues at Berkeley are doing great work in this direction – Greg Niemeyer at the department of Art Practice is developing a method by which he can measure the engagement of students in an online course; Jennifer DiZio and John Scott, doctoral students in the department of Education are working on Collabosphere – a virtual collaborative space that will not only push the boundaries of how students and faculty engage online, but also explore assessment analytics in that context. Read more about this here.

What these efforts demonstrate is that by virtue of technology we can make the connections and interactions we associate with small classrooms a reality in large lecture classes. Just because a class has 600 students does not mean that 580 of them need to experience the class from a distance. Two things that are so challenging in large lecture classes are the creation of meaningful connection and engagement, and ironically, that is exactly where online instruction bridges the gap.

The affordances of online education are still being explored,  but one thing is certain: an online class does not have a front row. An online class is not constrained by the physical boundaries of a classroom, and this allows us to explore new ways of connecting with students, with all students. In my experience, unshackling faculty and students from those bolted chairs and that podium has very positive results! I wish I could do it in all classrooms, but as long as chairs are bolted to the floor, I will explore this freedom online.

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