Virtual and Physical Spaces in Synchronous Courses

I am a PhD student in the English department here at ODU. We have a large distance component. Something that differentiates our program is that nearly all the courses offered at a distance are synchronous and facilitated from the main Norfolk campus via a teleconferencing platform like Jabber or WebEx. In other words, students – whether categorically “onsite” or “distance” students – are essentially face to face in a digitally mediated environment that uses a specified platform to create this synchronous experience. Instructors typically hold class meetings in a classroom on campus, and it has always seemed to me that this classroom space functions as the “recognized” physical space for the course, as this is the space where the instructor is typically located; also, the web-based meeting technologies are usually affiliated with a department or university account or chosen technology.

As someone who is technically an onsite student who occasionally opts to login from home, I mostly consider myself part of a hybrid learning environment. I’m interested in this notion of space and knowledge creation as it concerns defining who is “onsite” and in the “physical” space of campus when everyone in class inhabits her or his own physical space when participating in the synchronous class experience. As pertains to knowledge creation, I am interested in these broad and rough-hewn questions:

1) If all students whether on campus or at a distance are experiencing course instruction and discussion in a digitally mediated environment, how are those experiences differentiated? How are they similar?

2) In terms of how these spaces impact knowledge creation, what are the advantages and disadvantages of being a distance student? An onsite student?

3) When taking a synchronous course of this nature, how are the physical and virtual spaces blurred and how might this impede or promote the collaborative generation of knowledge amongst students?

4) How are students and instructors collapsing the boundaries between the virtual and physical, the digital and material in productive ways that encourage collaborative knowledge making and sharing? What do we need to do to improve?

Project Updates

Recently, an ODU student inquired, “Why is this event so important to ODU?” Dr. Dylan Wittkower, one of the project coordinators and participants responded:

Our educational environment today is excessively assessment-driven—most notably, in the testing culture exemplified by No Child Left Behind. We have reduced the scope of what counts as “learning” to what is empirically verifiable through standardized assessment, and the meaning and value of education has been greatly impoverished thereby. This is an important project for our University, and for our educational culture as a nation, because it represents a conscious and conscientious break with this pattern and the version of “learning” that it implies. We intend to come together as a community and write and edit as a community, and, in so doing, to recapture the idea that writing and scholarship are about an interchange of ideas and a concretization of experience into knowledge—not about memorization, hierarchical authority, cramming and recall, or performing rigid tasks to pre-set standards. This is an important project because it aims to create a pop-up community of knowledge creators that keeps faith with the fundamental goals of education as discovery–discovery of ourselves, of each other, and of the world–conducted among parters in knowing.

The Project


“ODU Writes a Book” will be a pop-up community of ODU students, faculty, and staff working as collaborative flash-mob authors of a multimodal, digital text that explores how virtual and physical places relate to the creation of knowledge. The working title of the book is “You are (w)here: How knowledge is related to virtual and physical place.” The method intentionally mirrors the topic: the text will be created collaboratively both in the physical space of the ODU Learning Commons and through online virtual spaces.

By holding this event in a communal University space and inviting participants from every part of the University community—not just students and instructors—we seek to break down the illusion that knowledge is created by isolated experts and simply transferred to students, and to showcase and explore how knowledge emerges from creative dialogue and networks of common interests. This will provide a unique opportunity to produce innovative work—a pastiche of research-based, creative, and speculative work—on the topic of the relation of physical and virtual places to knowledge creation and acquisition. To support these aims, process and content must remain underdetermined, but we will float some sample topics, will provide an online space for participants to propose additional topics and form groups of common interest during the lead-up to the event, and will have designated volunteer facilitators “on call” to help with conceptual, technical, and organizational issues.

The event will transform the communal University space of the Learning Commons into a fishbowl of collaborative, creative activity allowing librarians and other scholars to contribute to and investigate the conceptual and practical processes of horizontal collaboration across University community members in a digital humanities context. We hope that you see ways that this project could play a role in your teaching or research goals.