Notre Dame Global Classroom - Opening the door to innovative distance education

Author: Brian Burchett

Global Classroom

Notre Dame encourages students to broaden their experiences by participating in overseas study experiences. Seventy-five percent of our students participate in study abroad programs, which ranks #2 in the nation for percentage of undergraduates who study abroad. What happens, though, if a student needs to complete a particular course to stay on track for his/her degree and that course is only offered on-campus? What about students who are home for the summer and want to take classes at Notre Dame, rather than taking those classes from another school and then transferring the credits? How does a residential university known for its outstanding teaching bring those strengths to the world of online education and distance learning?

Distance learning has evolved tremendously since the days of correspondence schools. Most of us are somewhat familiar with online courses that you might find on sites like Coursera or Khan Academy. Many public universities have invested significant resources to offer individual courses and even entire degree programs exclusively online. Some institutions, like Harvard, have invested in teaching facilities that provide engaging distance learning experiences, but at significant cost, both in terms of initial capital costs as well as ongoing support costs.

The Chief Academic Digital Officer, Elliott Visconsi, approached the Office of Information Technologies (OIT) with an intriguing challenge: would it be possible to design an environment that provides an engaging teaching experience for distance education, but do so at a much lower cost than other universities have been able to achieve? How close could we get to a face-to-face experience between teacher and student, and between the students themselves, while at the same time using existing technology solutions that Notre Dame has already invested in?

Hence the genesis of the Notre Dame Global Classroom pilot project for Summer 2019. At the request of the Provost Office a prototype distance learning space was built which removes as many barriers as possible to teaching online while retaining the personal connection between the instructor and students, that face-to-face instruction is known for. The Global Classroom was located in the Teaching Studio in the Rex and Alice A. Martin Media Center to take advantage of the multimedia resources that Notre Dame created as part of the Campus Crossroads Project.

The main design goals were to:

  • Create a space that feels familiar to instructors who teach face-to-face on a regular basis.
  • Remove technical barriers for the instructors so they can focus on teaching.
  • Control costs by reducing support requirements and standardizing on a core set of peripheral devices in the studio.
  • Further reduce costs and complexity by using the Zoom conferencing platform that Notre Dame has already invested in.

Three online courses were offered as part of the pilot: Programming Challenges with Dr. Peter Bui from Computer Science and Engineering; Data Management with Dr. Mike Chapple, Academic Director, Master of Science in Business Analytics; and Corporate Financial Management with Dr. Katherine Spiess, Associate Professor of Finance. The classes, which began the first week of June and ended the last week of July, took place Monday through Thursday evenings between 5:30pm and 9:00pm EDT.

“The Martin Media Center was envisioned and designed to be a multimedia production center for all of campus. The Teaching Studio, in particular, was named as such to reflect the importance of supporting academic use cases within the media center. It is gratifying to see the Global Classroom using this studio to further Notre Dame's educational mission.” Dan Skendzel, Executive Director of Notre Dame Studios.

The physical space was designed with flexibility and presence in mind. Two large monitors are the main focus of the space: one for Zoom’s Gallery View monitor and the other for active content, such as the chat window, the active speaker, or other important content. A confidence monitor sits below and features content to aid the instructor. An auto-tracking camera follows the instructor as s/he moves to create a more interesting and engaging class. All of the production tasks have been simplified so a single teaching assistant in the role of a “technical TA” can run the entire live experience.

All students can be seen at all times by the instructor via the Gallery View in Zoom. It’s easy to signal the instructor and ask to be called on. Instructors can organize students in virtual breakout rooms and assign discussion topics or in-class problems to work on.

“Using the Global Classroom allows me to interact with students around the world in a much more impactful way. I've used the classroom this summer to teach an online course to Notre Dame undergraduates spread around the world participating in internships and study abroad programs. In a recent class, I had students join live from Denmark, Brussels, Hong Kong, South Africa, and right here in South Bend. The global classroom allows me to see each of them individually and engage with them directly, similar to the on-campus experience.” Dr. Mike Chapple, Academic Director, Master of Science in Business Analytics.

"This is my third summer teaching an introductory online Finance course so I can compare teaching in the Global Classroom with what I did previously. Teaching in the Global Classroom is a much better experience for me as the instructor than teaching my online class from my office. In the Global Classroom, I can walk around and interact with my students in a much more natural teaching environment than when I manage the Zoom classroom from my office computer.” Dr. Katherine Spiess, Associate Professor of Finance.

"Being able to see my students and interact with them was a huge change from what I had previously with my previous online course... This is much more interactive, much healthier, and a better learning experience for my students.” Peter Bui, Associate Professor of Computer Science.

The pilot of the Global Classroom ran for eight weeks during the Summer of 2019 as a partnership between the OIT, the Kaneb Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Office of Digital Learning. The feedback gathered will inform improvements to the design, and help inform a sustainable business model to place the Global Classroom on sure footing and enable it to become a resource that enhances Notre Dame’s mission as an institution of unsurpassed education, pursuing rich collaboration around the world.