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Photo: Bridging Knowledge by Paul Bica

Teaching Online— Now and in the Future

I teach online classes for Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. I started doing this out of convenience after I moved to a semi-rural location far from the great universities of my previous home in the Bay Area. Teaching online from an extra bedroom seemed worth trying, but I doubted I would enjoy it as much as on-campus teaching.

Three years later, I’m happy to admit I was wrong. Online teaching opened a world I could never have reached on-campus, delivering a healthy mix of challenge, insights and joy.

The challenge of online teaching comes from figuring out how to achieve meaningful contact with students who I never meet in person. We gather once a week in a live Zoom conference session that’s technically advanced, but I can’t sense students’ degree of interest from the flat screen. For those calling on audio links, I can’t even see them. My lifeline has become written communication and a trusty spreadsheet I build quarterly to keep track of what each student brings to the class and what they need from me. This requires more prep time than on-campus teaching did, but in return, I know each student better. I’m better able to customize my time with them and encourage them more appropriately.

The insights from online teaching are directly tied to the diversity of students I can now teach. Each quarter I welcome at least 10–15 students (out of a total of 40+) from countries as far-flung as Peru, Qatar, Singapore and Norway. I’ve worked with students as young as 19 and as old as 85. I teach stay-at-home moms along side CEOs, engineers and artists, dropouts and Phd’s. They contribute weekly through on-line forums as well as our Zoom session, and I’m continually intrigued and impressed with their comments and concerns.

Thanks to recent student posts on data gathering ethics, I now know more about the global security of personal data (it’s not good). After working with a series of Brazilian students, I’m quite bullish about that country’s future. Conversely, after working with dozens of students employed by Silicon Valley giants, I’m concerned about rising levels of boredom and their discomfort with future trends.

The joy of teaching online comes from being back where I’m most at home — in an emerging technology space with massive potential and nascent development. I’m grateful to Stanford for being a true partner in this adventure.

They provide a platform, Canvas, that is outdated by most tech standards, but for education it’s the best I’ve used. They also share learnings across all instructors and provide fast and kind tech support when needed. I never hesitate to propose a new experiment because even if the answer is “not yet,” I still feel they listen and are open to moving forward. That type of partnership with an academic institution is rare in my experience.

As I prep for my next course starting in January, I’m grateful for the experiences I note above. I’m also hopeful for an online teaching future that I can glimpse, but not yet see clearly . While the specifics remain foggy, here’s the general path I seek:

VR classrooms — I’ve been a fan of VR since the first time I tried it over 20 years ago in Jaron Lanier’s lab. Designed correctly, it would allow me to move around as I do in my on-campus classes. To walk up to a student and look at them directly. To point to a slide. To use my hands to help explain a concept. A quick search rounded up several startups targeting the classroom for VR, but most envision it as a means for a virtual field trip. I need a virtual classroom.

Improved Platform — I’m sure Canvas is developing as fast as its budget and user base allows, but this improvement is such low-hanging fruit. Teaching is spatial. Everything about it involves space and objects, yet the online platforms out there seem to all be designed as wikis — nested information hierarchies with little relationship to a real classroom. Pure speculation here, but I bet digital games could provide a better model. If my online teaching platform looked more like a control panel on Civilization, I’m guessing I’d be a happier, more efficient and more effective instructor.

Better Connectivity — Right now, to connect with all my students I must navigate a hodgepodge of email, text, messenger and WhatsApp. My students often want to stay connected with each other and me after our course ends, but this is only possible if someone sets up a LinkedIn group or if they all exchange contact info. It’s a hot mess and worsening each year.

I need a single system for all communications and connections. Perhaps that will be Slack. I’ve used it as a classroom communication tool and it worked beautifully, but there might be other options as well. Whatever it is needs to be available globally and drop dead simple to use.

Real World Integration — I do my best to include the outside world in my classes. I do video interviews with leaders relevant to the topics I teach. I host online panels. I link to and endorse current podcasts, posts, books and video talks. But there’s still a wall around the classroom and there doesn’t need to be.

Sponsored courses and workshops are done on-campus all the time. There’s no reason this couldn’t work online to the betterment of my students and the sponsoring company. What’s in it for a corporation? For starters, talent identification. Each quarter I have at least 3–4 students who I would hire in a heartbeat because of their intelligence, curiosity, tenacity and resourcefulness. Students taking classes online are actively trying to better themselves. That’s a very good HR filter.

I don’t know how far off these improvements are. For now, I’m content to make small advancements each quarter as new features are added and new possibilities open up. But I hope, for all our sakes, that online learning will advance quickly.

I hope all children will eventually have education as a birthright, an activity they engage with as toddlers and pursue throughout their life, no matter where they live or how much money their family has. I imagine those students logging into their VR classrooms, joining communities of similar learners, and connecting with instructors like me who can “see” them. It’s not the answer to world peace and it won’t remedy climate change, but supporting people who want to learn is a positive, rewarding goal for all involved. If you’re an engineer, UI designer or ambitious entrepreneur this just might be your very own “don’t be evil” opportunity.

Written by

Entrepreneur, collaborator, mentor, and generally happy person.

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