Professor Asad Aziz is holding a classroom discussion in a graduate-level class on international business.
There are maybe two dozen or so students in his classroom on Colorado State University’s campus in Fort Collins. Thirty 30 or 40 more are participating online when he decides to break the class into small-groups for discussion.
He counts off groups of four in the classroom and matches them up, then looks up at the giant video display at the front of the room showing his remote students in a Zoom- or Microsoft Teams-type display, from which he creates eight to 10 more small groups, setting up meeting rooms for each. Aziz can drop in on any of the conversations at any point to check on their progress and answer questions.
CSU has been offering remote instruction in its masters degrees programs in business administration since the 1990s, Aziz said. Classes have been filmed and streamed online in real time, he said, for the past 10 to 15 years.
But the Classroom Mosaic technology that the school invested in three years ago has been a game-changer, allowing students in the classroom and those joining online from around the world to learn together in real time.
As schools consider how to safely return students to their classrooms while absorbing significant budget cuts related to the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to slow its spread, hybrid models like Mosaic could provide a solution.
Aziz said one professor can teach a class of “anywhere from 50 to 500 people,” that can be broken into smaller sections overseen by assistant instructors who already have or are working toward their PhDs in the subject area. The instructors, he said, take care of a lot of the logistics for the class, allowing the professor to focus on delivery of content.
“For me, what happens is if a class goes from 150 students to 300, there’s not really much of a change in terms of the way I teach the class,” Aziz said. “What does happen is there’s a larger set of organizational resources that are now applied to those 300 students. You have more instructors; you have more sections. So, it’s really a very smooth scaling.
“One of the things I’ve heard from my graduate students is because I’m freed up from a lot of the logistics stuff, I can actually engage with them on substantive topics.”
How does the Mosaic platform work?
The online presentation is run through a control room, utilizing five classroom cameras and multiple microphones, he said. One to three professionals who work for CSU in audio-visual technology are in the control room during the class, choosing which cameras and microphones are active and what screens to share.
The Mosaic video display — made up of multiple high-definition screens integrated into a display that is 25 feet across and 10 feet high — highlights individual students when they push a button to “raise their hand” or activate their microphones to ask a question. There’s also an active chat window for students who prefer to participate that way.
Student experiences with remote learning
Remote participation isn’t quite the same experience a student in the classroom would have, but it’s far better than the traditional online learning experience, students said.
“In person is still my optimal learning environment,” said Kayleigh Helberg, who just completed CSU’s evening MBA program. “… I liked the live interaction with the professor. It still felt really relevant, talking about things in the news that day.”
Helberg, 32, lives in Fort Collins and was taking classes on campus through spring break. Her program was transitioned to the Classroom Mosaic platform when CSU moved to remote learning March 24 to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The transition “was a little awkward and took some getting used to,” Helberg said, but worked well “once people got comfortable” with the technology.
“One thing that I wasn’t anticipating that I really liked was the convenience,” said Helberg, who works in human resources. “I was at home anyway, because of the situation. I had to commit to a time, but not necessarily a place, and by not having to drive to campus to be in the classroom, I was able to maximize my time.”
Mittar Khalsa said he chose to take two classes during CSU’s second fall term last year using the Classroom Mosaic platform.
“I decided I was going to do everything on Mosaic and be there all the time for class with everybody else,” said Khalsa, who lives in Denver. “I used it as an accountability tool, to be there live rather than watching a recording later.”
Khalsa, 44, who is in CSU’s online MBA program, said he preferred the platform over what he had used in other online courses. A box around his screen would light up when he pushed a button signaling that he had a question or comment, and his classmates in the room were good about making sure the professor knew he had something to say.
“Because you’re in the class with them, you’re in the mix, you’re in the conversation,” said Khalsa, who is starting a new job this month as a financial analyst with CenturyLink.
Learning whether remote or in person
Aziz spent more than 20 years working in technology, first in semiconductor engineering for Hewlett-Packard and then in management positions with HP and other large organizations before he went into teaching. His goal is to provide students with opportunities to learn and develop their decision-making processes, whether they are taking courses in person or remotely.
Advancements in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, he said, will likely provide the next big, breakthrough in remote learning.
Interaction and discussion among classmates is a valuable part of the learning experience in any MBA program, Aziz said, with students bringing their own backgrounds and knowledge of the subject matter into group discussions. Most are working professionals, and some are military personnel posted overseas.
“What we try to do is create an environment where it doesn’t matter if you’re in the classroom in Fort Collins or sitting in New Jersey or Glenwood Springs or Afghanistan; you feel like you can ask your entire cohort or share your question or concern and ask for feedback,” he said.
What to expect
The look and feel of higher education in the fall is one of the major unknowns of the nation’s coronavirus response. But here are some trends to watch for:
- Everything, from classes to residence halls to gyms, will likely be subject to some level of social distancing restriction.
- On-campus populations may look more homogeneous as out-of-state and international students either alter their plans or are unable to travel to campus.
- Meal service may focus more on grab-and-go offerings than the growing trend of expanded choice among campus dining options.
Coloradoan reporterKelly Lyell can be reached by email at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. Help support Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today.
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