From physical to digital: inventing the future classroom

Justin Pinnells shares his insights, thoughts and experiences from his journey into online education working on Catalyst’s founding team.

Justin Pinnells

Welcome to our Educator Series, in which we share the insights, thoughts and experiences gathered from our world-class community of experts, industry thought leaders and Catalyst educators. In this piece Justin Pinnells, Catalyst’s Academic Director introduces us to his journey from the classroom to the world of online education and shares a glimpse into the future of education within a digital classroom.

Cometh the hour, cometh the breakout room!

This past spring, after fourteen hectic but exciting months of planning, preparation, and design, we finally launched Catalyst, our 2-week online enrichment programme. From my own teaching experience, that’s not the usual planning-to-delivery ratio, despite some colleagues’ cynical claim to be able to come up with a lesson plan as they open the classroom door. Admittedly there’s an art to improv teaching but this project was quite the opposite.

During the deep and dark hours of the pandemic, I joined a founding team of educators and other specialists as we ventured into the thrilling, yet terrifying, world of online education and started our mission to provide a programme that pushed the boundaries of the digital classroom.

There is no denying that this period radically shaped my educational views, not least because the last two and a half years have impacted the world of online education so profoundly, in both good and bad ways.

As I was somewhat expecting, I encountered a lot of natural aversion to “Zoom-school” and online learning. I’ll admit less expectantly, I have also witnessed huge forward strides in the methods of delivery and a remarkable rate of technological adaptation.

“Cometh the hour cometh the breakout room!”

Getting into the thick of the digital education industry

Above, I only say the ‘terrifying’ world of online education because, from the perspective of a traditional classroom teacher, it can be slightly overwhelming. Getting to grips with the already extensive world of online education is no small task. From MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses such as Coursera) to Marketplaces (where you can buy and sell online courses such as Udemy) to Toolkits (digital learning products such as Teachable) it quickly became clear to me that I had a lot to learn.

The existence of all of these platforms, courses and devices not only bears witness to the incredible scale of the industry but also shows how much the field has changed over the past two decades. My blatant ignorance of best practices in online learning meant that the very first step of my journey had to be a deep dive into the fields of e-learning, online teaching and anything Edtech related. This immediately unearthed a vast array of digital teaching concepts, ideas and practices.

Our journey ahead

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of questions too: What is good instructional design? What are the differences between facilitation and teaching? Is blended learning really the best of both worlds? And what does smart, asynchronous work look like in a flipped-learning environment?

I started digging into this new world, driven by a desire to understand and implement. Gradually, I started weaving insights into my everyday teaching (back when I was still teaching alongside my work with Catalyst) and developing a better sense of how to position “traditional” pedagogy within the beguiling world of online education.

There is no doubt the field and its experts are well established, with strong foundations in educational science and research. But given the undeniably technological setting of future classrooms, there is a continued need for pioneering work to be done, ensuring the scene is kept on its toes. There are countless emerging practices, platforms, and tools which undergo a rapid cycle of reflection, improvement and also disposal. Being in the thick of it is hugely exciting.

The virtual environment matters

One area of excitement revolves around online learning environments both in terms of the platform (i.e. the medium of education delivery) and also the type (i.e. kind vs wicked environments, as conceptualised in Hogarth et al.’s framework. I’d like to save the discussion around types for a later post and focus on the medium for the time being.

Our founding team had a strong desire to gain as much distance from “Zoom-School” as possible, for many reasons.

Online education was an emerging field, long before the pandemic, and while there were positive technological advancements expedited by the pandemic, it also did a lot of damage.

The ubiquitous, and frequently poor, implementation of remote learning in schools has resulted in screen fatigue, heavy reliance on teacher-led sessions and a lack of meaningful educator and peer interaction, all of which were enormously disruptive for young learners.

The classroom with all its convenient, human and kinaesthetic features, seemed virtually irreplaceable. Social-presence building, peer-2-peer interactions as well as cohort-based learning are salient and natural features of good physical-presence teaching. I was therefore intent on developing methods which allow for the same high levels of interaction, collaborative experiences and social interaction without limitation despite the digital setting. Despite our best efforts, we kept getting close but nothing quite ticked all the boxes.

Yes, the big “innovation” of breakout rooms during the later stages of the pandemic sought to address the lack of group learning and interactivity. Disappointingly, though, the fiddly and impractical steps involved in setting up breakout rooms meant that educators would often shy away from any sort of group work.

A digital classroom students love

Well, I am here, writing this reflection for you because we did eventually get there. So how did our team solve this challenge? Our first big milestone and tech epiphany came via a small, inconspicuous virtual environment: a 2D, Zelda-like platform which had two simple but crucial features: movement via an avatar and proximity chat.

At first, I was a bit snooty about the platform. It felt overly ludic and gimmicky, and I was waiting to be disappointed yet again. But I quickly realised how powerful it truly was. I was thrilled to hear that the low-spec hardware requirements and web-based functionality meant that it was enormously accessible and inclusive. We were by no means trying to create an exclusive, alternate reality via financially demanding technology like Oculus VR.

The essential features of our digital platform

So what else did the platform enable us to do that your usual video conferencing tools don’t allow for? Below are some of the ways we believe the Catalyst platform is creating the future digital classroom.

Virtual movement

  • An effective replication of the kinesthetic experience so crucial to holding student and teacher engagement


  • A no-brainer, really (see here)

Proximity chat

  • As I like to call it, the king of naturalness. A further extension of realism already broadly adopted in gaming, but otherwise missing from education

Custom-made spaces

  • From racetracks to lecture halls to intimate classrooms, we have control over the settings for each of our collaborative activities

Social activities

  • Fostering connections that go beyond the classroom to encourage social-presence building

Intrinsic gamification

  • Think beyond points, badges and leader boards. Fun - the antidote to screen fatigue.

Having happily settled on our medium of delivery, we next turned our attention to the types of delivery we needed. Stay tuned for remunerations on this step of our journey in my next post.

For best viewing experience, switch to portrait mode.