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.