Virtual Teaching Doesn’t Mean Giving Up on the Live Lecture

Kayvon Fatahalian, Stanford University
Jan 13, 2021

teaser image of classroom main page

Last quarter was, surprisingly, one of my most enjoyable quarters teaching. Lecture attendance was up, student-staff interaction was up, and my co-instructor Kunle Olukotun and I felt we had a better handle than ever before on whether students were following the lecture. By the end of the quarter, a higher percentage of the class was attending live lectures than previous quarters.

The main difference between this last quarter and my previous nine years of teaching? This 100+ student course took place in a new virtual classroom that I designed. I first taught on Zoom in Spring 2020 and got a sense of what worked and didn't work virtually. When it came time to teach Parallel Computing Fall 2020, I decided to pitch my co-instructor Kunle on a new, experimental format.

After using my virtual classroom, I don't want to go back to vanilla in-person teaching. The virtual classroom has made it easy for me to experiment with different enhanced teaching mechanisms I'd been hearing about for years. Not only has it been easier to communicate with my students than ever before, I've also been interacting with a wider, more diverse set of students.

To help other instructors during the pandemic and beyond, I've put together this blog post explaining how I translated the main elements of an in-person classroom to video—and what enhancements I added. Note that all screen shots and gifs in this post are less fun than actual lecture was because I had to use bots and not students, for student privacy reasons.

About my "virtual classroom experience:" Almost everything I’m going to discuss could be cobbled together with clever use of video conferencing platforms like Zoom and third-party websites like Poll Everywhere. I chose to use a new video platform called Ohyay that made it easy for me to build exactly what I wanted, with the look-and-feel I wanted, all in a single browser tab. Ohyay is a browser-based video platform that you can think of as Powerpoint (or, for designers out there, Adobe Director) meets video conferencing. (Full disclosure: I was so impressed with the Ohyay platform that I’ve been consulting part-time with the team.)

To make it easy for anyone to adopt these virtual classroom practices, I have released my virtual classroom via the Ohyay public gallery for others to clone and modify for their own use. (You will need to sign up for Ohyay to see the public gallery.)

Four principles of a good lecture

My goal in building a virtual classroom was to capture the elements of a live lecture that I value:

  1. A lecture should feel like an event. Coming together as a group at a set time provides a motivating sense of community and shared journey as students take on hard concepts. When classes were in person, I loved playing music as students walked in and put jokes on the title slide to give everyone something to talk about. The first quarter I taught on Zoom, I noticed it was much harder to build up the same level of energy. Because I believe in the importance of lecture as an event, I did not want to give up on giving live, synchronous lectures. This was my motivation for the whole endeavor of creating a virtual classroom.
  2. A lecturer needs to be able to constantly read the room. Any good performer is constantly reading the room to get a sense of what's landing and what’s not. In an in-person setting, that might mean initiating eye contact with students and poking students with quick questions to see if they are understanding. This was much harder for me to do on Zoom, where most students prefer to turn off their video. I’ll talk about the (surprising) mechanisms that ended up working for me in Ohyay.
  3. Students should feel comfortable asking and answering questions. Speaking up in class can already be intimidating, but remote teaching provides added complications: not only is there friction in a student turning on video to respond, but many students are self-conscious about showing off their home environments during lecture. Playing with different non-video interaction modalities encouraged a more diverse set of students to participate and to participate more often.
  4. Small group problem solving increases participation. Students might be intimidated turning on video in front of the teaching staff and entire class, but they’re a lot more comfortable in smaller student-student interactions. To get students interacting—and also to provide a break from listening to me- we needed a frictionless experience for organizing students into short, small group discussions where the discussion prompt was always visible to participants.
A more exciting classroom experience

Since Ohyay lets you easily lay out video feeds, message boxes, and more, I was able to easily prototype different classroom experiences. After a few iterations, we finally got a virtual classroom that satisfied all of these principles.

auditorium overview
A lecture should feel like an event
lecture hall banter

Ambience comes for free in a student-filled in-person classroom: there's a classroom to walk into and people are going to be talking and moving around once you do. In the virtual classroom, I had to work to establish this ambience. When students enter the virtual lecture hall, they see a grand auditorium and hear background audio of excited pre-talk chatter. Students commented that they felt like they were entering a classroom and, specifically, that the ambient audio gave the space an energetic feel as they waited for class to begin.

The setup of the room also helped me establish a friendly rapport with the students from the minute they show up. We developed a tradition where the students would ask personal questions to me or Kunle before class, for instance "What is your favorite food? Favorite sport?", and we would address these questions in the pre-class banter.

A lecturer needs to be able to constantly read the room

While the chat and question board were helpful, the single biggest surprise to me was just how valuable emoji reactions would be for giving everybody a sense of the room.

For the lecturer, emoji reactions serve as a virtual alternative to audience facial expressions and eye contact. I see what students are thinking, immediately, as I speak. Students have great emoji game, and over the course of the quarter the students developed a shared vocabulary of emojis to ensure a constant stream of feedback during lecture. For example, I might check in with the class to see how they are doing: "Is everyone following this"... triggering a cascade of thumbs up or thumbs downs 👍,👎 from the students. A frustrated student can anonymously express confusion 🤯,😭, or students can let me know exactly when I say something that really lands 💡,💯. We also enhanced some reactions with audio effects, so students can generate a roar of audible applause to support student volunteers, or applaud their instructor. ;-)

Here's an example right after I asked the class if a slide was making sense.

student reactions
Students should feel comfortable asking (and answering) questions

Adding non-video channels of communication dramatically improved student participation. Text-based mechanisms (chat or question board), not video, were by far the preferred ways for students to ask questions in class. I would monitor the chat and question board and pause periodically during lecture to address questions in front of the whole class. These side-band conversations give students that are either too shy or simply hesitant to disrupt me during lecture an opportunity to ask their questions.

Students ended up using chat quite a bit, for example, to answer questions I asked in the flow of lecture (using it as the virtual equivalent of calling out an answer), or to engage in follow up side discussions about a topic with TAs. Having a TA or other students answer questions in parallel with the lecture is a powerful side channel that I had not used in a traditional classroom.

The one place where students did frequently opt in to enabling video was at the end of class for extended post lecture discussions. (Similar to how in a real classroom students surround an instructor with questions after class.) One of the unanticipated benefits of teaching online is that there is no rush to get out of the lecture hall to make room for an incoming class. I scheduled my office hours directly after lecture so discussions with momentum could continue past the end of class without interruption.

Small group problem solving increases participation

From my previous virtual teaching quarter, I found Zoom-style breakout rooms, where you partition the audience into separate chats, to be a powerful way to get students talking on video. One of the drawbacks of Zoom breakouts is that the screenshare from the presenter does not appear in the breakout rooms, so students lose context about what they are tasked to talk about. To address this problem, we designed our breakout rooms to include the discussion prompts and relevant other information, so students had everything they needed for the discussion without needing to look things up on the course website. I've found that students are much more likely to speak up after coming back from these discussions—and having an easy way to spin off discussions made me more likely to do it.

breakout room
More than just a classroom: a 24-7 virtual class space

To emulate the way academic buildings become collaboration and social centers, our virtual class space is accessible to students 24-7 and includes multiple rooms that students can visit at their leisure. In addition to the main lecture hall, our space includes "virtual offices" for myself and staff to hold office hours, social rooms for students to hang out in, as well as private study rooms for use by the students. I'll briefly describe office hours and private study rooms here.

Virtual office hours

Each member of the teaching staff has their own virtual office that students can visit during office hours. Here’s my office styled like my home dining room (where I happen to give lecture).

Kayvon's office hours

Here’s how office hours work. Students show up to office hours and take a spot in line. I used Ohyay's support for texting users to design a wait queue that texts students when they near the top of the line, so students need not be glued to their computer waiting. If students are willing, I answer questions in front of the whole group. (Not only does this help other students who might have the same question, but it also allows students to contribute to answering the questions of others.) Students may also ask for private help, in which case I take them to a breakout room. Students also often helped each other with questions while I was away in a private room!

My co-instructor Kunle chose to make his office a more outdoor setting. Here is me crashing.

Kunle's office
Group study rooms and student hangout spaces

Ohyay allowed me to easily build spaces for the students to get together outside of class, without the teaching staff. For example, students can create watch party rooms, complete with draggable refreshments, to watch prior lecture videos while video chatting with peers. Here are four students watching a pre-recorded lecture together.

private study room

Of course, a virtual course is not complete without a "good luck" room. Here's what ours looked like, with BTS as the soundtrack. ;-)

good luck room
What's next?

I’ve spoken with many colleagues who have moved to pre-recorded lectures during the pandemic, and I hope I’ve convinced some of you that it's still possible to have exciting live lectures online. This quarter, I'm teaching Computer Graphics, again in Ohyay, and I'll be continuing to experiment with live, virtual classroom interactions. In addition to richer in-lecture experiences, I'm interested in creating mechanisms that encourage students to hang out in the 24-7 virtual class space after hours as they work on projects and homework, much like how certain areas on Stanford's campus attract students for evening group study work. I would love to hear how other instructors have been facilitating participation and student interaction virtually.

I have shared a version of my Ohyay classroom via the Ohyay public gallery for anyone to clone or modify for their own use. This space contains my lecture hall, as well as examples of breakout rooms, both public and private study rooms, and student video watch parties. I hope you find it useful, and good luck with your virtual teaching!

Special thanks to my co-instructor Kunle Olukotun, my TAs, and the Ohyay team for working with me on the class, as well as my ghostwriter Jean Yang with the help on this post. 👻