A funny thing happens as online learning scales. At first, learning scales by breaking the requirement for collocated meetings, allowing students to attend live lectures via telepresence from anywhere in the world. Then, learning scales by breaking the requirement for synchronous meetings altogether: with prepared lecture material and textbooks, asynchronous class forums, and modern learning management systems -- there is little need to get together at the same time in the same place… or at least, little strong need for the fundamental requirements of a classroom.

As learning scales in this way, though, it becomes more distributed, which can lead to students feeling a greater sense of isolation. Even if a traditional class is delivered in a pure lecture-style format, there is still camaraderie and social connectedness built by seeing the same faces in the same lecture hall, chatting before and after class, and receiving these peripheral indicators that others are going through the same class experience as you. If students instead pivot to watching lectures and doing homework at their own home on their own time, they can lose these connections and these signals of community. They still can exist in some ways as students interact in forums or review others’ work in peer feedback activities, but the more empathetic and immediate social presence of being in a room with peers is lost.

I would argue (though some might disagree) that this is a fair trade. After all, for most of our online students, the question isn’t online vs. on-campus, but rather online vs. nothing. Coming to campus for a program is incredibly expensive in many senses of the word -- from tuition to the opportunity cost of time off of work, from moving costs to the interpersonal cost of uprooting a family for two years. The cost can be too great.

That’s why online education reaches such a broad audience: it reaches people who want to learn but cannot make the sacrifices usually necessary. In the process, it can become huge: MOOC numbers are gaudy, but numbers in for-credit programs like our online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) are even more impressive when considering the dramatically higher retention and completion rates. I have 2,400 students across my online courses this semester and I expect around 2,000 of them to complete their courses.

This growth, however, brings that original trend full-circle. Originally, we got rid of synchronous collocated meetings for the sake of scale, as we couldn’t expect people to meet in the same place at the same time. With thousands of students, we don’t have to require synchronous or collocated meetings… meetings can happen organically. No matter when a student is working on course material, it is likely that there are others in the same online class working on the same material at the same time. If educators or programs can help make connections between students already working at the same time, we can preserve the benefits of scale while also reintroducing the camaraderie of the on-campus experience.

My working term for this is camaraderie at scale, and we already see it happening with things like student-driven Slack organizations. This reintroduces synchronicity, yes – but is collocation a factor? Collocation presents greater difficulties because even if a student is already close to a classmate in the grand scheme of things (for example, living in the same city), this factor still requires a physical place to meet up, along with travel time to get there. In addition, while all humans share the same 168 hours of time per week, the physical world is far larger. How can we reintroduce collocation? Teleconferencing is one potential mechanism, although sharing a camera feed from home is more invasive than meeting in a public area.

This is the use case Georgia Tech is exploring through our recent work with virtual reality in online education. We have a number of online students working on similar subjects or lessons, so synchronicity can already be reintroduced. Yet, what we need to do is provide the “physical” areas in which students can meet. With a grant from the Mozilla Foundation, we have begun exploring several different possible ways of using virtual reality (VR) to recreate synchronous collocated activities that have in the past been traditionally reserved for campus.

Our research team has begun designing a recreation of a traditional lecture experience through virtual reality lecture halls, as shown below. In these scenarios, a host (such as the professor or teaching assistant) “stands” at the front of the room controlling the presentation, pausing for class discussion as well as fielding questions and driving conversation after the lecture is over. This provides both the peripheral indicators of social presence (as students see classmates in the same room, also watching the lecture) as well as the opportunity for the kinds of synchronous conversations that one might have in person. The nature of the VR room even lets conversations fragment as students can physically move to different areas for small group discussions.

A screen shot of the OMSCS test virtual reality classroom environment

We have also begun looking at using virtual reality to recreate the types of informal gathering spaces that are often sees on university campuses, such as social student lounges and professors’ office hour areas. I have noticed when I offer video office hours, attendance levels are often high simply because students just want to “hang out” and eavesdrop on conversations – a scenario that can become awkward in teleconference situations. Yet, in a virtual reality setting, it is possible to create a room with adornments like the posters on the wall, my papers accessible on shelves, videos of my recent talks, and so on so that students can attend and interact with the room rather than just directly with me. This more closely resembles the way we use office hours on-campus: they are times for students to show up and participate peripherally with the professor’s work, not merely engage in highly directed 1:1 conversations.

Finally, we are planning to test out virtual reality poster sessions later this term. In person poster sessions are great opportunities for students to interact socially and share work without the heavy burden of a timed presentation. In these scenarios, students often meander to see what catches their eye rather than sitting through pre-taped videos. Like the lecture hall, this also captures peripheral indicators of social presence: students can see the other students wandering around looking at posters, see which students are present and interested in discussing research ideas, and even see indicators of prior interest via artifacts left in the room.

Through all of these environments, we believe that Georgia Tech and other universities with online learning programs can reintroduce the benefits of synchronous, collocated interaction to the online environment without compromising the facets that make online programs so appealing to non-traditional audiences. Students still do not have to interrupt their lives to continue their education; yet, they will have an expanded opportunity to connect with those classmates who are also working hard to fit continued learning into their lives.

About the Author

David Joyner headshotDavid Joyner is a Senior Research Associate and Associate Director of Student Experience in Georgia Tech's College of Computing. His research focuses on online education and learning at scale, especially as they intersect with for-credit offerings at the graduate and undergraduate levels. His emphasis is on designing learning experiences that leverage the opportunities of online learning to compensate for the loss of synchronous collocated class time. This includes leveraging artificial intelligence for student support and assignment evaluation, facilitating student communities in large online classes, and investigating strategies for maintainable and interactive presentation of online instructional material. As part of his work, Joyner teaches online versions of CS6460: Educational Technology, CS6750: Human-Computer Interaction, and CS1301: Introduction to Computing. Joyner has received several awards for his work in teaching online, including the 2016 College of Computing Lockheed Excellence in Teaching Award and the 2018 Center for Teaching & Learning Curriculum Innovation Award.