Replicating and Improving the Physical Classroom Experience—Online

By Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn on March 12, 2020

Foundry College today announced that we will be offering our learning technology platform, the Forge, and innovative teaching methods to partner educational institutions. Why have we done this, and why now? Over the last few weeks the landscape of education has been convulsed by an external force, which has made it clear that we need new forms of online education to engage both students and faculty. That force, the COVID-19 pandemic, shows no signs of abating in the near future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions across the country to quickly move their students online and in some cases fully close physical campuses. Institutions are moving with remarkable speed, but the solutions currently available to them are not ideal. Many educational institutions do not have a viable alternative to their physical classrooms, one that keeps the students engaged with the faculty, the class material, and each other.

There is an alternative, however, which is now emerging as a powerful force in online education: The use of the internet to teach synchronous courses, which are real-time, face-to-face, live classes. This approach has been used by schools ranging from Ohio State University to Singularity University and is the mainstay of the most recent startups in higher ed, including my own Foundry College. In fact, such teaching can be better than what happens in traditional classrooms.

This is a remarkably bold claim. To be clear, not all synchronous online classes are necessarily better than traditional classes (in fact, they can be much worse). The key is that real-time, face-to-face, live online classes can be used extremely well for active learning. Active learning occurs when students use information in some way to achieve a particular learning outcome. For example, active learning may occur in role playing exercises, group problem solving, or debate. Active learning is goal driven, with the aim of having students use information in order to learn specific skills and knowledge.

Foundry College’s proprietary cloud-based software platform—the Forge—was built from the start to facilitate active learning online. The Forge has been designed by educators working closely with engineers and is based on deep insights from the science of learning. The Forge provides a face-to-face learning experience in an online setting—it is the closest thing to “being there” without having to travel and be in the same physical space. The Forge facilitates a sense of community between students and faculty, which asynchronous online learning platforms simply cannot do. Moreover, students have direct access to the instructor and their classmates throughout the lesson; they are part of a conversation, not passive recipients.

How might an institution’s students benefit from taking their classes on the Forge? Critically, students are continually engaged because the Forge is built to use cutting-edge forms of active learning to promote student success; its very structure induces instructors to use these methods, even if they were not previously aware of them. The Forge combines lectures, with up to 200 students, with small person breakout groups of 2-8 students. A scrolling video grid allows all students to be present on video, to see that they are part of a larger whole. Instructors and support staff can have their finger on the pulse of the class even during breakout groups, when they can monitor up to 100 breakout groups simultaneously by using “heat maps” where colors indicate how much of some variable (e.g., talking, cursor engagement in a group document) is occurring in each group. Instructors can use such data to guide them on when to drop in on a group, where they then become part of this intimate setting.

Faculty can direct the Forge to use data that it collects, both in real time (e.g., from a quiz) and from a database (e.g., of prior quiz scores), to put students into breakout groups. The Forge automatically can group students together by comparable knowledge/abilities or by a range of knowledge/abilities—depending on what would be most useful for a particular activity. Students can engage in debates, role-playing and other experiential learning in the breakout groups—all at the touch of a button. And both instructor and student dashboards allow everyone to know how a student is progressing. Instructors and student support staff can use this information to see which students are doing well and which ones need extra help. 

The Forge has undergone multiple rounds of development and is now a mature piece of software. We have used it regularly since January 2019, and students have rated their classroom experience with a Net Promoter Score of 67.4 (which is deemed “Excellent”). Our online learning platform can provide value to other institutions, their faculty, and their students—creating a compelling and engaging student experience much more like a physical classroom than can be achieved by any other platform we have encountered. We are excited to work with institutions that are willing to move quickly to use this new technology and active-learning teaching methods to implement effective online education.