The pandemic inspired some professors to get creative in their teaching as they tried to move in-person courses online in engaging ways.
At Stanford University, a popular large-lecture course used a giant video wall to let professors see as many of the course’s 250 students at once as possible and try to read the virtual room the way they can in a large auditorium.
“There’s no ‘mood’ on Zoom,” said one of the professors, Rob Reich, noting how sterile it can be to look at a screen full of small video boxes. At best, he says, “you get some sense of whether it’s going well or poorly.”
The course on Ethics, Public Policy and Technological Change, which has been running for a couple of years in-person, is intended to get students thinking about tough issues in the ethics of technology. It’s co-taught by a computer science professor, Mehran Sahami, and two political-science professors, Reich and Jeremy Weinstein.
Of course, not all institutions happen to have a video wall that’s 32-feet wide and 8-feet tall. But Stanford already did, in its Wallenberg Hall. So the three professors reached out to the university’s director of classroom innovation, Bob Smith, to see what they could rig up.
No matter how big your screen, Zoom can only display up to 49 people in each session. So the class was divided into three different Zoom sessions of up to 100 students each. Then a teaching assistant helped feed all three of those sessions into a fourth room, making it possible to control which speaker is featured on everyone’s feed but that can draw on users in any of the Zoom sessions.
“One way to think of it is as a four-party video conference, where three of the parties are themselves videoconferences,” Smith wrote the professors in an email.
Because of COVID protocols, only one professor lectured in the room with the video wall at a time, without a mask so he could project naturally. The other two professors, masked, would wait on a bench in the hallway for their turn to step up to the mic and face the video wall of remote students.
Even with all that technology, Reich said getting the sense of the room remained difficult. “There was still very limited capacity to see the body language and facial expressions of the entire group to see how a particular moment in the class was playing for everyone,” he told EdSurge.
A key benefit of merging several different Zoom sessions is that it allowed everyone in the large class to be placed into breakout rooms for small group discussions, Reich added.
Stanford Magazine published an image of the class in action, with Weinstein speaking to the wall of video.
Stephen Downes, a national expert in online learning technology who runs the long-running OLDaily newsletter, wrote that he expects to see the image included in plenty of edtech conference presentations hyping the wonders of digital teaching. As he put it: “This is one of those images that is destined to become apocryphal over time, much like that ‘learning machine’ photo or the ‘giant chalkboard’ photo.”
Meanwhile the professors have packaged the material from the course into a forthcoming book, “System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot.”