Why some of Virginia Tech’s most popular courses are online
Stefan Duma's Concussion Perspectives class started with 50 students. But it didn't stay that size for long.
The following semester 100 students enrolled. Then 250. Then 500.
Even though Concussion Perspectives doubled in size each time Duma, the Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, and founder of Virginia Tech’s prestigious Helmet Lab, taught it, the clamor for more seats and more slots in the timetable never ceased.
So for iteration No. 5, in fall 2022, Duma took the class to the only space large enough to accommodate demand: the internet. “Students really like when they can fit their electives around their schedule to this online asynchronous format,” he said. “So I talked with some people in the provost's office, and I said, ‘Well, what if in the fall we go online?’” In short order, 1,200 students signed up."
The number of online courses offered at Virginia Tech spiked, not surprisingly, in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced most faculty members to pivot to emergency online teaching. But by fall 2022, 8 percent of undergrad classes at Virginia Tech were still being offered online — up significantly from 3 percent pre-pandemic.
Partly that's because the pandemic allowed undergraduates to taste, then embrace, the freedom of online learning. “Online courses contribute to student success by allowing them the flexibility to plan their schedules around other learning opportunities,” said Dale Pike, associate vice provost for Technology-enhanced Learning and Online Strategies (TLOS), which offers instructional design support to faculty responding to the increased demand for flexible/online learning options.
Duma's own children, a junior in neuroscience and a first-year student in engineering at Virginia Tech, have told him that most students prefer their schedules to be a mix of in-person and online classes now. For popular courses like Concussion Perspectives, it increases their chances of landing a seat.
When online courses are done well, they do things that in-person classes can’t. “I'm 100 percent convinced that my two Pathways courses are now better with 3,000 to 4,000 students asynchronously online than they ever were live,” said Greg Tew, an associate professor in the College of Architecture, Arts, and Design.
"This is no way to teach"
Even the Burruss Hall auditorium, the largest instructional space on campus, can’t hold the nearly 3,500 students currently taking Tew's online course Design Appreciation.
When he took over teaching the class in 2010, he turned it into an exploration of design in modern life that regularly filled Hancock Auditorium's capacity of 330. Then a clerical error reassigned the class to Squires Student Center's Colonial Hall in 2016. Almost double the size, that space too was soon bursting at the seams, despite an 8 a.m. time slot.
Yet Tew noticed that attendance thinned as the semester wore on. More students kept their faces buried in their laptops until he showed a YouTube video clip. Then “all of their heads would pop up like a bunch of prairie dogs, and they would watch for a few minutes to see if it was interesting, and then their heads would duck back down," Tew said. "That was when I realized, this is no way to teach and no way to learn. That's what led me to going online.”
For the digital versions of Design Appreciation and his similarly large Life in the Built Environment course, Tew eschewed recorded lectures, instead writing conversational textbooks that he peppered with questions and links. It would be harder for students to multitask while reading, he figured.
Once they've finished their assigned chapters, students head to the course Canvas site to join a massive Reddit-like discussion. Prompts about the textbook readings spark lively threads with hundreds of comments.
“I've had literally thousands of students say, ‘I don't usually like online discussions, but the questions in this class were really interesting,’” said Tew. “With 3,000 or 4,000 posts each week, you can get pretty caught up in exploring what your classmates have to say.” The discussions, which Tew actively moderates, create an engaging learning environment that couldn't be replicated in person.
“Where their eyes are"
Tew credits his own virtual success to Virginia Tech's original icon of large online (and in-person) courses: John Boyer, an instructor of geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, who sometimes goes by the moniker The Plaid Avenger.
Like Design Appreciation and Concussion Perspectives, Boyer’s in-person World Regions course grew organically until nearly 3,000 students were showing up each week to Burruss auditorum for a four-hour class that had more in common with "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" than your typical dry lecture.
From the start, Boyer took advantage of technology to extend the walls of his classroom. Actor Martin Sheen, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia, and Nobel Prize winner and Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi all agreed to a Skype conversation with the class after being petitioned by videos Boyer posted on YouTube of his 3,000 students cheering and waving signs.
One day, Boyer caught students recording the live class on their phones. “They said, ‘Oh, I'm here to record your lecture for my suitemates, so we can go watch it on our own time,’” he recalled.
After shaking off his frustration that students weren't showing up in person, he thought, “We're in this game to teach people. If that's the way they're doing this, then let's get out in front of it and make it easier for them.”
Boyer built a makeshift recording studio in a closet at home and started recording all his classroom lectures with the help of Katie Pritchard, his partner and tech adviser, who edited the videos so important names, images, and maps popped up on screen. By 2012, World Regions and Boyer’s other popular class, Geography of Wine, were entirely online.
Now, with his lectures on video, Boyer regularly makes improvements. “We can look and say, ‘Hey, everybody missed this question, and that was covered in minute 35 to 37 of this Russian lecture.’ It's great for self-reflection, for honing your message.”
He’s also been encouraged by how students use online materials. “When you watch a live lecture, it's great. Then it's gone. It's smoke. And hopefully you remember some stuff, but if you don't, it's gone. Recording things is awesome because we have students that are like, ‘Oh, I watched it four times, and I stopped it when you said something important so I could write it down.’ That's what sold me on online. This is a powerful teaching tool.”
These days, Boyer livestreams news updates and office hours on Twitch from a studio in a back room of the Blacksburg Wine Lab, which he and Pritchard co-own. Sometimes he misses the energy of his large in-person classes; he’s considering taking a hybrid approach in the future.
But he’ll never leave online learning. “This is the way people are consuming their education and their entertainment,” he said. “This is where their eyes are, and I want to put myself and the lesson where their eyes are.”
“I'm not trying to trick them”
Living in Abingdon, 110 miles from Blacksburg, has taught Amy Smith, a collegiate assistant professor in population health sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the advantages of online learning firsthand.
She earned her master’s degree in educational/health and physical education and her Ph.D. in educational/curriculum and instruction/health promotions from Virginia Tech with a mix of online and in-person classes. “I would say I prefer an online class,” said Smith. “I like working at my own pace.”
Now, Smith has joined the ranks of those teaching large online classes at Virginia Tech as the instructor behind the online asynchronous courses Personal Health and Drug Education, each of which enrolls about 500 students.
Like Tew, she's deep-sixed recorded online lectures, which she says her students didn’t watch anyway, in favor of a designed-for-digital textbook from McGraw-Hill that integrates online quizzes and assignments. The course is entirely self-paced, so students can fit the work into their schedules however they choose.
That’s fine with her. “I'm not trying to trick them,” Smith said. “What's important to me is that students get information that is going to help them throughout a lifetime of health.”
“A big part of the future"
Not every class is a great fit for online learning. But at a time when college costs are under fire, large asynchronous online classes “can be part of that formula to make education more accessible and more affordable, when it is appropriate,” said Tew. “I do think it is a big part of the future.”
It was to Tew that Duma went to for advice before spending the summer recording 30-minute lectures about the medical, technological, ethical, and legal ramifications of concussions (sneaking in plenty of Star Wars jokes along the way). Now he's got a treasure trove of content that he can make more widely available. He hopes to offer students at historically Black colleges and universities access to the online Concussion Perspectives course.
Duma isn’t ready to give up face-to-face teaching entirely. This spring, he can be found teaching Concussion Perspectives in Squires's 400-person Colonial Hall auditorium. He's squeezed in as many students as he can, but he's nowhere near 1,200.
4 tricks for teaching a large online class
- Perfect the syllabus. With so many students, a thorough syllabus cuts down on texts and emails. Smith’s is an eight-page document that preemptively answers questions like, "What are the deadlines?" and "What are the expectations?" and "What if I miss an assignment?"
- Rethink grading. Smith and Boyer both switched to a point accumulation system, so students know exactly how many assignments they must complete from a menu of options to earn an A. “There are more assignments than you need to do to get an A,” said Boyer, “so that provides additional flexibility for students.”
- Use TLOS. Tew worked with Will Fox, a senior learning data analyst in TLOS, to design custom Canvas widgets that made his large online discussions more efficient to monitor, grade, and engage with.
- Add experiential learning. Smith partners with Hokie Wellness to create in-person experience options for her online students. In Boyer’s Geography of Wine class, students earn points for doing wine tastings on their own — double points if they do it with family members. “I can’t do a wine tasting in the classroom,” he said, “so the wine class has actually been liberated for the students by taking it online.”