How Professors Are Teaching in a Coronavirus World

Faculty members explore new technologies to bring classroom lessons to remote students.

March 18, 2020

Emilio Calvano’s workstation. He uses a graphics tablet connected to a laptop. Credit: Emilio Calvano

Emilio Calvano’s workstation. He uses a graphics tablet connected to a laptop. | Courtesy of Emilio Calvano

When Stanford Graduate School of Business canceled in-person classes for the remainder of the quarter to combat the spread of coronavirus, faculty moved quickly to take their lessons online. Some 125 class sections went virtual in 72 hours. Overall, about 100 Stanford GSB faculty lectured and hosted office hours through online conferencing tools like Zoom and Canvas, and students met in small groups or over the phone for group projects. Some in-class assignments became papers, and final presentations turned into virtual presentations.

Economics professor and avid Twitter user Susan Athey (@Susan_Athey) turned to social media to ask other professors how they successfully flipped their classes: “Starting an open-ended conversation for faculty who are taking their courses online in a hurry,” she announced. “What are tips and tricks? What challenges are you facing?”

Responses came in from around the world and showed a variety of preferred technologies.

At the University of Bologna in Italy, associate professor of economics Emilio Calvano (@EmilioC_) says 90% of the classes went online within three or four days of the national quarantine. The research institution’s 80,000 students are using Microsoft Teams, which offers a virtual whiteboard and screen share, as well as a chat room he uses for student questions and comments. Students tend to keep webcams off, though, he notes. “You lose all feedback coming from facial expression and body language,” he said on Twitter. “I miss that very much. You basically have no feedback.”

At Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, associate professor Paul Raschky (@PaulRaschky) has divided his lectures into small videos, each 10 to 15 minutes long, recorded with a simple webcam and microphone in his office. Class discussions take place over Zoom and through a live stream, and his office hours take place using YouTube Live. “The students liked the group chat function to ask questions (maybe because of the Twitch feeling?),” he wrote. (For those new to Zoom, Dr. Danna Young, associate professor of communication and of political science at the University of Delaware, offers this handy cheat sheet.)

In a recent blog, Andrew Gelman (@StatModeling), a professor of statistics and of political science at Columbia University, said he teaches using Zoom for classroom discussion and Google Docs for questions about homework and readings. “The main difficulty was that it was mostly me talking,” he noted. “Me talking is better than nothing, but I don’t think it’s the best way for the kids in the class to learn.” For future classes, he said he will prepare activities ahead of time and pair students to work together in their own shared documents.

Luke Stein (@lukestein), an assistant professor of finance at Babson College in Massachusetts, offered detailed suggestions on technologies and setup. Audio, he said, is much more important than video, so lecturers need a decent microphone. The built-in webcam on most laptops will suffice, but faculty should elevate it to get a decent angle. And if they want to incorporate student interaction, they should consider involving a teaching assistant who can monitor questions on a separate computer.

If your geeky AV-club dreams didn’t all come true back in high school, let me recommend… teaching online

— ⑆Luke Stein⑈ (@lukestein) February 10, 2020

Paul Musgrave (@profmusgrave), an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, prefers Camtasia, software designed for lecture capture that allows you to edit your recordings. He also recommends breaking up lectures into smaller chunks. Four 15-minute lectures online are preferable to an hour-long one. Small-class discussion is fine through Zoom, he says, but larger classes might need discussion boards. “Online classes or courses aren’t ‘the same but on a screen,’” he wrote. “You will need different strategies and styles to achieve the same result. You CAN do it but your mindset must be open and willing to ask questions. Leave the dumb tech skepticism at the door and LISTEN.”

— Shana Lynch

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