A seamless, community-centered active learning classroom in ohyay!

ohyay is a customizable platform for designing virtual spaces “from music festivals and interactive museums to family reunions and themed escape rooms.” Why not classrooms, too? Amy’s written about her experience using ohyay and the pedagogical power of emojis—ohyay reduces the barriers to student participation and engagement from raising a hand (in person) to composing a chat message (Zoom) to reacting with emoji (ohyay). But ohyay is more than just an improved Zoom: it’s a different way to imagine a space as a permanent structure rather than a temporary virtual meeting. Meetings aren’t just scheduled in ohyay. They take place in an ohyay workspace that has a real sense of purpose, one that’s designed with intention rather than served on a literally blank slate.

So how far can we take the concept of an ohyay classroom for large courses with active learning? One of the challenges of running a large course over Zoom is that it overexposes students. By assuming that all participants need to see and hear each other at the same time, everyone shares the same video and audio channel. But that’s often not how things work in real classrooms where people are seated in different parts of the room, where they can whisper to their neighbors, and where some or even most students can’t see each others’ faces. These physical limitations create a proximity effect: students know their seat-neighbors the best. Many kinds of active learning spaces are designed around the assumption that students cluster into groups and work toward the same goals. A community of practice centers meaningful participation, contribution, and interaction between these people in a group, so community-building will require rethinking how virtual spaces afford or disafford certain ways of interacting and sharing with each other.

I designed the CSE 373 ohyay workspace to enhance a sense of community and belonging around consistent teams of 8 students. Instead of placing every student in a co-located video and audio channel, students in my ohyay workspace can only see and hear their teammates (in addition to the instructor). Unlike Zoom, students can whisper to their team without interrupting the flow of class. While students’ can only see and hear their teammates, they can engage via chat or emoji reaction with the rest of the class. When a student wants to speak up in front of the entire class, they can raise their hand and the instructor can call them up to speak in front of everyone unlike Zoom, where this process is usually unmoderated. Instead of always having their video and audio on in front of everyone, students can make that decision based on the much smaller group of students in their team.

Being seen and heard in any community or space is an issue of equity as well as an exercise in power and domination. Marginalized students in our classrooms are simultaneously invisible and yet overexposed. Ruha Benjamin describes coded exposure as:

[Naming] the tension between ongoing surveillance of racialized populations and calls for digital recognition and inclusion, the desire to literally be seen by technology—but inclusion into harmful systems is no clear good. Rather, the act of viewing something or someone can put the object of our vision at risk, a form of scopic vulnerability central to the feeling of being racialized. It’s not only the process of being out of sight but also in the danger of being too centered that racialized groups are made vulnerable.

Last quarter, I implemented a simpler version of this infrastructure using parallel Zoom sessions hosted by TAs for active learning and a central livestream broadcast from the instructor to all the students for bursts of direct instruction. But the setup struggled with the overhead of moving between tools and the lack of a real-time communication channel from students back to the instructor. What makes a large classroom feel more personal than a prerecorded video is the synchronous communication between students, instructors, and each other—but, unlike Zoom affordances, this communication is rarely broadcasted to all participants at all times.

What ohyay brings to the table is a unified platform for seamless switching between different communication channels—to opt-into the ways that students want to engage in at any time. I hope that the ohyay classroom makes space for students to build meaningful relationships over time with the students in their team but also participate in the larger classroom-level communication happening over chat and emoji. Give the CSE 373 ohyay workspace a try—ohyay is free through at least the rest of the year.