Online@BSE: Beyond Zoom to a new kind of immersive digital learning

Professor Glynda Hull’s vision for online education — percolating long before a global pandemic would pluck students from their classrooms and set them down in Zoom rooms for months on end — is bigger than tinkering at the edges of digital learning. 

“How can we expand our collective humanness by creating tools that allow us to do more than what we can with our minds alone?” asks Hull, her soft and inspirational tone intensifying as she describes the latest and likely most ambitious iteration of her work with tech and education — Online@Berkeley School of Education, or O@BSE. “For me it’s this intersection of humanness and the tools that people create that expand our capabilities.”

O@BSE combines Hull’s decades of experience with digital learning and $1 million in support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to feature new technology, online classes, and research on the pedagogy of digital learning. The project came to fruition through the commitment and vision of the late Christopher Edley Jr., who served as BSE’s interim dean (2021-23), and sought to create greater access to education in equitable ways through online learning.

doctoral student meg everett talks with two people visiting the immersive classroom
a person sitting at a computer engages with the immersive classroom experience from the point of view of a participant

As part of this effort, O@BSE opened in April a state-of-the-art, immersive virtual classroom at Berkeley Way West, which will be among the first of its kind at a school of education. Berkeley Haas has offered this innovative teaching experience since 2020.

O@BSE will use this immersive classroom to offer innovative online courses to students and working professionals who might not have access to a Berkeley education and who work in fields of high need, such as early childhood education, after-school learning, and school psychology, to name a few. The program will also integrate cutting-edge pedagogy and research in the design and study of online education.

O@BSE will amount to a living, dynamic laboratory of online education at the BSE as Hull’s research group gathers data that will help determine what is most effective, engaging, innovative, and equitable for adult learning.

“What we are charged with is trying to reimagine what the higher education experience is writ large, and what we are intentionally and more specifically trying to do is look at how using digital technology can facilitate the kind of equity that is not the default setting in higher ed learning,” said José R. Lizárraga, Hull’s counterpart in the design and vision for the project, who earned his PhD in 2019 from BSE with Hull as his advisor, mentor, and research collaborator.

Lizárraga, who is becoming an increasingly recognized scholar in learning sciences, literacy studies, and information studies, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with — and joyfully collaborate with — Hull on a project that he felt could take their collective work in online pedagogy to the next level. O@BSE is rooted in design principles of equity, dignity, and justice in education, a huge draw for Lizárraga.

During the pandemic, Hull and Lizárraga observed new innovations about online teaching and learning, but noticed that they focused on hyper surveillance, such as monitoring students to ensure that they weren’t using search engines like Google on exams, or tracking time spent on tasks.

Little, if any, attention was paid to making the online experience dynamic, engaging, and equitable. “As equity-oriented scholars we should be in the business of affirming dignity, not replicating practices that control and dehumanize,” Lizárraga explained.

a person has written on the instructor's electronic board and is smiling at the camera
three people standing next to each other all smiling at the camera
dean young sitting at a computer and a researcher is point out some of the functions on the screen
three people standing around talking and one person is excitedly making a motion with their hands