Stanford University computer science professor John Mitchell and his collaborating graduate student Maxwell Bigman have spent the last few months trying to answer a simple question: How can teachers improve online learning?
Their findings, which will be presented in an upcoming online learning conference called LWMOOCS Sept. 30, provide insight for both college and high school teachers.
Bigman, who is a doctoral student in the Stanford Graduate School of Education as well as a former high school computer science teacher, noted that with the pandemic pushing most schooling online, the time is ripe for helping teachers create better online learning curriculum.
“In the spring quarter we were just tracking what was going on, trying to understand it,” he said of their research. “But now we’re starting to make actual recommendations.”
Most local schools, including Menlo College and Menlo-Atherton and Woodside high schools, closed campuses in March, and have conducted classes fully online ever since. At the high schools, many students and teachers have lamented about the quality of their online learning programs.
Mitchell and Bigman’s ideas landed them in the pages of Stanford Engineering Magazine last month, where they discussed their advice for teachers. Former engineering professor James Gibbons also made an appearance, discussing a unique research program he ran in the 1970’s using an early version of video conferencing.
Below is a list of key pieces of advice from their work that applies most closely to high school teachers.
Many teachers and students know the feeling: That vacant stare after too many hours in long Zoom meetings. While the familiar video conference tool has become the basis for online learning and meetings throughout the world, Mitchell suggested that it shouldn’t be the only focus.
He said that teachers should try to avoid this “Zoom fatigue” feeling by providing more instruction that is self-directed, and which can be accessed outside of live video. Some alternatives could be recording YouTube videos or breaking students into smaller study groups that communicate through group messaging platforms.
“Try to break down your class into some parts that students can do anytime they want, and a lesser number of times that they have to be there at the time the course meets,” he said in an interview with Stanford Engineering Magazine. “That seems to work well. You use the interaction time wisely, but it also gives students some flexibility.”
Bigman, who was formerly a high school computer science teacher, said that awareness of students’ well-being is essential for adolescent development. “I think keeping track of them is always a good idea, but especially now (during the pandemic),” he said.
The high school teaching environment is intimate, Bigman said, and students are used to teachers being able to check in on them and see where they need help.
“A really simple piece of advice would be to give a questionnaire every week, the same day of the week, the same time," he told Stanford Engineering Magazine. ‘How are you? How are you doing? Is the course going OK? What things do you not understand? What help do you need?’ And just read the responses. See where people are. That I think would really be a help."
In the 1970’s, Gibbons developed a special method of instruction — one which works both in-person and online. He explained the method in his interview with Stanford Engineering.
Students break into groups of 8 – 10, with a TA taking the lead. While watching a pre-recorded video lecture (such as on YouTube), students can interrupt the video to ask about something they don’t understand. At that moment the TA pauses the video and directs the students to discuss and figure out the answer as a group.
“I always understood that students learn best when they have the opportunity to ask lots of questions in a psychologically supportive environment,” he told Stanford. “Their questions should be answered when they arise, while fresh. Not doing that often leads to increasing confusion. As a corollary, I believed that answers are most meaningful when the students work them out themselves.”
Gibbons said he conducted research studies on this method with computer science students, and found an average grade scale increase of 3.3 to 3.7.
Bigman said that teachers should think of online learning as a totally different experience, not a simulation of the classroom. He called this idea “beyond being there” — a term borrowed from the human-computer interaction world. “Rather than trying to replicate in-person experiences with technology, it’s using the technology to allow for opportunities that aren’t possible in — and in many ways are preferable to — the traditional in-person classroom setup,” Bigman told Stanford.
For example, Bigman recommends that teachers use the latest education apps and other online software. Polling software, such as Poll Everywhere, allows teachers to send out an instant survey of students during a class in order to gauge how well they understand the material. Bigman said there are also reading apps which allow students to annotate and share their thoughts directly to the text.
“These tools realize possibilities that can’t be done in person,” he said.
This mindset shift from classroom simulation to online tools is the biggest challenge, Bigman said, but once teachers make the shift, “it opens new doors.”